The Mote Skimmer:   A Specialty Tea Accessory

Mote skimmers, also called mote spoons, were considered an essential part of any upscale English tea service for well over a century before the Regency began. Yet today, very few people are even aware of the existence of mote skimmers, let alone what they looked like or how they were intended to be used when tea was being served. Though there were some who considered a mote skimmer old fashioned by the time the Regency began, these handy little implements were still a part of a great many family tea services.

The origin, history and use of the mote skimmer …

Whether their teapots were made of silver or porcelain, most upper-class households had a set of silver implements which were considered part of their tea service and were brought out when tea was served. At the turn of the nineteenth century, these sets of silver implements typically included a dozen or more silver teaspoons, so that each guest would receive a silver spoon in the saucer when their tea was served to them. However, there were other implements in these silver sets which were meant for use only by the hostess as she brewed and served the tea to her guests. These silver hostess utensils typically included a tea scoop, a set of sugar tongs and a mote skimmer.

Mote is an English word of possibly Dutch or German origin, which dates from the Middle Ages. It has several meanings, one of which is a minute solid particle of foreign matter found in food or drink. By the end of the seventeenth century, tea was being enjoyed in many aristocratic homes in England. The majority of that tea had some kind of foreign matter mixed in with the tea leaves. When tea leaves were harvested, in addition to the leaves themselves, tiny twigs, insect parts and other small bits often made it into the large bags of tea which were shipped to England. Tea merchants bought and sold their tea by weight, so they were not overly eager to reduce the weight of the tea they had purchased by meticulously removing any foreign matter. Unscrupulous merchants might even add more foreign matter to expand the weight of their tea offerings.

Society hostesses who served tea were aware that there might be a few motes floating on the surface of the tea which they prepared for their guests. They needed a reliable, and of course, an elegant, accessory with which to remove those motes from the brew before they offered tea to their guests. Another annoyance which a hostess might encounter while pouring tea for her guests was saturated tea leaves which clogged the spout of the teapot so that the tea could not be poured out. It must be remembered that well into the nineteenth century, tea leaves where not finely cut as they usually are today. A few large, sodden tea leaves could easily block the filter at the base of the spout of the teapot as the tea was poured out. Something was needed to clear that blockage so the remaining tea could be served.

In the last years of the seventeenth century, "smallworkers," the London goldsmiths who made small silver objects, directed their attention to these inconveniences of tea making. They developed an elegant tool which could be used both to remove motes floating on the surface of tea and to clear a blocked teapot spout. This handy device was made of silver, so as not to impart any unpleasant metal taste to the tea, as well as making it an appropriate addition to most tea sets. The design was based on the table spoons of the time, which had a large oval bowl. The bowl intended for a mote spoon was flattened somewhat and was then drilled with a number of holes. A length of silver wire was attached to the back of the bowl to serve as a handle. The handle was made longer than a regular spoon handle, and it was given a rather sharp point at the end. This new tea implement was first advertized in The London Gazette of 1697, as "long or strainer tea-spoons with narrow pointed handles."

This silver tea implement was developed in London, and throughout the many decades of its use, its production remained centered in the metropolis. It was almost exclusively an English tea implement. Only a very few mote skimmers were made in Scotland, with fewer still made in Ireland or Wales throughout the eighteenth century. Mote skimmers were seldom, if ever, used on the Continent, usually only carried there by British travelers. However, a fair number of mote spoons and skimmers were made in America during the second half of the eighteenth century, though they had fallen out of favor by the time the century came to an end.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the mote skimmer was constantly improved and redesigned, though its basic form remained the same. The bowl of the spoon was an elongated oval, pierced with a pattern of increasingly decorative slots rather than the original plain round holes. This was accomplished by drilling small holes in the bowl, through which a fine saw blade was threaded in order to make the necessary cuts to create the ornate, curvilinear openings. The handle of the mote spoon was usually made of a piece with the bowl, rather than being soldered on. Yet the handle remained long, nearly round and tapered to a point at the end. But on many of these later mote spoons the handle terminated in a squared, pointed finial. A few very high-style mote skimmers were made of gold, though most continued to be made of silver. Some of the most elegant mote skimmers were made with the bowl in the shape of a shell, pierced in a filigreed pattern while the handle was often twisted to resemble lengths of entwined vines. Ironically, though mote spoons and skimmers took at least four times longer to make than a regular teaspoon, they had to be sold for less than a solid teaspoon because they contained less silver.

Most upper-class tea services included a mote skimmer, which the hostess might use in any number of ways. Some used the mote skimmer as a tea scoop, by which they placed the tea leaves into the teapot when tea was to be made. With its long handle, it was also a convenient utensil by which to stir the tea after the hot water was added. And, of course, it could be used to skim any motes off the surface of the tea, in the pot, or after it had been poured into the cup. The pointed end of the handle was also quite handy for clearing any wet tea leaves from the strainer at the base of the spout, should it become clogged. Most mote skimmers were kept with the silver teaspoons and sugar tongs. Due to its long handle, the mote skimmer could not be stored in a tea cannister, but some were stored in a special clip inside the lid of a large size tea chest. A few very large mote skimmers have been found, and these are believed to have been made for use with the large silver tea urns which became increasingly popular in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Though they are more than twice the size of a regular mote skimmer, they have the same form, a perforated bowl and a long handle terminating in a sharp point.

Mote skimmers continued to be made in silver through the end of the eighteenth century, when they began to be superceded by the fine mesh tea strainer. By the turn of the nineteenth century, tea was becoming more affordable and was enjoyed by the middle classes as well as the upper classes. Though the mesh tea strainer was more effective than a mote skimmer, the mote skimmer had tradition on its side and there were many people who did not consider their tea sets complete without one, regardless of whether they actually made use of it while serving tea. However, by the Regency, mote skimmers were no longer made only in silver. They were also made of Sheffield plate and Britannia, as well as other, less costly metals. It was at about this same time that some mote skimmers were made with a more rounded bowl, and were decorated with piercings in Neo-classical rather than Rococo designs.

The links below will take you to pages where you can see photographs of mote skimmers:

For those of you who would like to see a mote skimmer in use, The Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum here in Boston has posted a series of videos starring their tea master, Bruce Richardson. Episode Six in this series is devoted to the use of Mote Spoons.

During the Regency, many upper-class families in England would have had at least one, if not more, mote skimmers or spoons as part of their traditional family tea sets. A large number of those mote skimmers would have dated from the eighteenth century, and nearly all of them would have been made in silver. Though they were made primarily in London, many were purchased for use with tea sets in country homes. By the Regency, quite a number of middle class families might have added a mote skimmer to their tea sets, though those mote skimmers were just as likely to have been made of Sheffield plate or Britannia than silver. Mote skimmers were usually stored with the tea spoons and the sugar tongs, however, a number of mote skimmers have been found clipped inside the top of large tea chests. These mote spoons were almost certainly used as tea scoops to transfer the dry leaves into the teapot for brewing.

Dear Regency Authors, why should you care about mote skimmers? Because they were a part of most traditional tea sets during the Regency, and having the hostess of a tea party use one, correctly, is a good way to add just that extra bit of authenticity to your scene. And, should it be necessary, a mote skimmer has the potential to serve as a weapon, perhaps wielded by the heroine to protect herself from the villain. Mayhap the villain has broken into her home, and she is seeking a means of escape. She decides to offer him tea, knowing there is a mote skimmer clipped inside the lid of the chest where the tea is kept. The villain might be French, and quite unaware of the existence of mote skimmers, giving the heroine the edge. How might she use the sharp point at the end of the handle to disable the villain so that she can make her escape?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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18 Responses to The Mote Skimmer:   A Specialty Tea Accessory

  1. I have to confess I had been until today one the persons not aware of the existence of a mote skimmer. They were pretty pieces! Thanks for sharing, Kathryn.
    A plot bunny starts to jump up and down: How about a scene set in the drawing room of a noble hostess. The noble hostess, Y., has invited our heroine, X. , a young woman of not at all noble origin, to have tea with her, some dull cousins, a slightly deaf aunt and two stiff friends of Y’s. It is not a kind invitation: X has been the infatuation of her son – our hero – for the past month. He intends to marry her. Y. thinks it most important to show X her proper place and that X will never be good enough for her son. So here is the tea party for the ladies and Y graciously asks X to join her in serving the tea. Just as Y had hoped, X has problems using the mote skimmer properly. The humiliation of X seems to work, but – enter our hero! He immediately sees there’s trouble and steps in, declaring mote skimmers to be old fashioned and himself being completely unable to handle them. As any person of common sense could see, the mesh tea strainer is by far superior and much more modern.

  2. helenajust says:

    I, too, had never heard of them before now. Thank you!

  3. Oh is THAT what it is! I have a shell-shaped one somewhere which matches a shell-shaped sugar spoon, so obviously of a much later vintage but I always wondered what it was for… Thank you! Anna’s plot bunny sounds very interesting, presumably the unfortunate X will spend the book avoiding the traps set by her unwilling future mother in law… and ultimately rescuing the wretched Y from a social situation where she has made a faux pas with those outside her own station in life and needs a girl who understands the ways of less genteel types to extricate her…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Apparently, many Victorians called mote skimmers “olive spoons” under the impression they were intended for fishing olives out of brine. Since every mote skimmer or spoon I have ever seen was made to match other silver tea service utensils, like your sugar tongs, and I have never heard of olives being served with tea, I am completely mystified at why they would be called olive spoons.

      I like your expansion of Anna’s plot bunny. I love stories like that, when the tables are turned on a snob. I do hope the slightly deaf aunt gets a chance to shine as well.

      Regards,

      Kat

    • Cheers, Sarah, this is a great way to continue! It lends brilliance to the plot!

  4. Oh cool, I can’t believe I have never heard of these before. You do find the loveliest things to tell us about.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you very much! I studied Art History in college, with an emphasis on the Decorative Arts, so I love all these little specialty items. And, I think they can add texture to a scene and please a reader who might never have heard of them before.

      I have been aware of mote skimmers for years, but the only ones I had seen until recently were made in America in the late eighteenth century. A few weeks ago, I ran across a book and a couple of articles which explained their full history and I realized that not only were they of English origin, but that there were probably quite a lot of them still in use during the Regency.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. This is fun! I don’t drink tea but I love learning about this kind of thing to add detail to my scenes. I do have one question: You said: “The pointed end of the handle was also quite handy for clearing any wet tea leaves from the strainer at the base of the spout, should it become clogged.” Does that mean there is a strainer built into the teapot?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Many teapots of the Regency era, both those of ceramic and those of silver, had a strainer built in, at the base of the spout. In the majority, the strainer was a flat or slightly domed piece, perforated with a number of holes, most often round, which fully covered the spout opening. That strainer could become clogged as the last of the tea was poured out, by the large, wet tea leaves. Tiny pieces of tea leaves would go right through the spout strainer, and so had to be fished out by the mote skimmer.

      I hope that helps to clarify.

      Regards,

      Kat

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  7. melissa says:

    Two questions:
    Around what year would you say the mote spoons have gone out of style and the mesh strainer become fashionable?
    And, do you think someone pouring the tea would pour it carefully over the spoon to catch as many leaves as possible so they wouldn’t have to go fishing for it?
    Thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There is no way to state a specific year in which mote skimmers went out of style. Like many such items, since most were made upon a customer’s request, even when the most fashionable households ceased using them, others might still have one made. And, they could be used by their owners for as long as they liked. There was not rule against using them.My best guess, based on my research, is that mote skimmers were seldom used in most households after the 1830s.

      Because the leaves used to brew tea until the twentieth century were quite large, most would have been trapped by the strainer which was incorporated into the teapot. It would not make sense to pour the tea through the mote skimmer, since only small particles might be left in the stream of tea and the flow of the tea through the holes of the mote skimmer would just wash the tiny bits into the cup. So, it was much more efficient to pour the tea into the cup, then use the mote skimmer to fish out any motes. The holes in the skimmer would allow the fluid to drain out while the mote would be trapped on the surface of the bowl of the skimmer.

      I hope that helps to clarify the use of mote skimmers.

      Regards,

      Kat

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