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:
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Steppes Hill Farm Antiques
- Silver Collection Dictionary
- Morton Antiques
- Google Image Search: Mote Skimmer
- Google Image Search: Mote Spoon
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?