Teaspoons played a very important part in the etiquette of tea drinking. The Prince de Broglie recorded how he was taught the complexities of etiquette while on a visit to England in 1782:
“I partook of most excellent tea and I should be even now still drinking it, I believe, if the Ambassador had not charitably notified me at the twelfth cup that I must put my spoon across it when I wished to finish with this sort of warm water. He said to me: it is almost as ill-bred to refuse a cup of tea when it is offered to you, as it would [be] indiscreet for the mistress of the house to propose a fresh one, when the ceremony of the spoon has notified her that we no longer wish to partake of it.”
This may have meant resting the spoon horizontally across the top of the cup or perhaps slanting it at an angle inside the cup.
Satirists loved to point up the difference in manners and style between the English and French. The cartoon above, published in 1825, refers to the English custom of leaving a spoon either across or inside the teacup to show that the tea drinker did not require a refill. The unfortunate Frenchman, ignorant of this bit of etiquette, has consumed thirteen cups of tea.
“Madame,” he exclaimed as he rose from the table while knocking over his chair and clutching his distended belly. “I can hold no more!”
Read more about tea’s impact upon culture, commerce and politics in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson (2014) Benjamin Press.