I showed an 1840’s flint glass spoon holder to a customer the other day and she asked what I meant by a “spill holder“. After I explained and sold her the piece I decided that others did not know what spills were and so decided to add this to the information on my blog.
In basic terms, a spill holder or “Spill” is a vase or other vessel used before the widespread availability of friction matches to hold items which transferred a flame. Spills predate lamps and "spill" is a derivative of the word "spile" which means a small piece of wood.
We take matches for granted today, but that was not the case in 1850. Matches were first made in England about 1820 by hand dipping individual sticks in phosphorus and sulpher. However, they were hard to find in the U.S. and expensive for common usage. There were match manufacturers in Massachusetts and Philadelphia prior to 1860 but there is no evidence of their wide spread use. To light a stove, candle or pipe most people used splints, spills or tapers to transfer the flame from the fireplace, even if they could get matches.A spill is a twist of paper, sliver of wood, or spiral of wood shaving. A splint, or sliver of wood, was cheap and always on hand, cut from a larger piece using a knife or a spill-plane, although spill planes were not marketed as such until late in the 19th century. An early 19th century writing suggests the paper burned too quickly and ash flew about the house making a most disagreeable mess, but because they could be done with bright colors were more decorative.A taper is a very thin candle-like item with a tiny wick center. The earliest literary references to splints, spills and tapers date back to the 15th century, as do the vases that held them. The glass "spill holder" period is mostly limited to the 1840s and 50s. An abundance of early writings and paintings clearly depict a holder on the mantle with spills sticking out. Some suggest there is no article called a spill holder because no known advertisement, publication, or bill head lists them as such. Even the early inventories from the 17th to the 19th century list the items on or near a mantle (where a spill holder should be found) simply as mantle vases, mantle glasses (other than mirrors), or mantle-piece furniture. So the specific name may be a modern usage. However, It was important at that time to own a holder for spills, if not necessarily one made of glass. From 1700-1870 spill holders were made of wood, iron, earthenware, glass, and even fancy folded wall paper.
It is known that spills/spooners of the flint glass era were made in many of the same patterns that whale oil and kerosene lamps were made in. No less than thirty patterns are known to be represented in spill holder/lamp combinations.A change in mid-Victorian tastes plus the emergence of large EAPG table sets, and the dropping price of the friction match led to the demise of the pattern glass spill holder as such. The 1860s saw the genesis of the table set (usually covered butter, creamer, sugar & spooner). This ultimately lead to a redesignation and change of use of the spill holder to a spoon holder.