This ominous announcement was published in The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on 31st December 1745:
Philadelphia, December 24. 1745.
TAKEN away from the Post-Office, the 11th Instant, a Silver Spoon, marked T C, Philip Syng Maker: The Person supposed to have taken it, is desired to return the same, before exposed.
The phrase to be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth means to be born in affluence or under lucky auspices.
It alludes to the gift of a spoon to a child at its christening. The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned this custom in The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight (1613), written in collaboration with the English playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625). Ann Boleyn has given birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth; Henry VIII addresses Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury:
(Folio 1, 1623)
– King. My Lord of Canterbury
I haue a Suite which you must not deny mee.
That is, a faire young Maid that yet wants Baptisme,
You must be Godfather, and answere for her.
– Cranmer. The greatest Monarch now aliue may glory
In such an honour: how may I deserue it,
That am a poore and humble Subiect to you?
– King. Come, come my Lord, you’d spare your spoones.
The following explanations are from the Canterbury Journal and Farmers’ Gazette (Canterbury, Kent) of Saturday 28th October 1893:
Spoons have been in use for many centuries. In early times it was the fashion for ladies and gentlemen to have their own spoons and spoon cases, which they carried with them wherever they went. Two hundred years ago we find frequent mention in the newspapers of a “lost case containing a knife, fork, and silver spoon.” The spoon was usually described as bearing the crest of the owner upon its handle; or a picture of the Blessed Virgin. The “apostle spoons” were a dozen of these silver implements, each containing an image of one of the apostles in relief upon its handle; sometimes with and sometimes without his name. If the name was omitted, there was usually some emblem of the worthy supposed to be represented on the spoon. In case emblems were used instead of names, St. James would be attired as a pilgrim; St. Jude was usually pictured with a club, the emblem of his martyrdom, or with a boat to shew his occupation; St. Simon, with a saw, because he was sawn asunder, and generally with an added oar, to shew his earlier tastes. The use of these spoons as gifts from god-parents to god-children dates back nearly 500 years. When the giver was too poor to present the whole 12, he gave one spoon with the image of the patron saint after whom the child was named, or to whom he was dedicated, or who was the patron saint of the donor, not always in such case an apostle. The images of the four Evangelists were often thus used, the spoons being called “apostle spoons,” although all were not apostles in the usual meaning of the word.
The earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is in the form one man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and another with a wooden ladle, in The citizen of the world: or letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the east (London, 1762), by the Irish novelist, playwright and poet Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74); in one of the letters, the fictional Chinese philosopher writes that he accidentally met
some days ago a poor fellow begging at one of the outlets of this town, with a wooden leg. I was curious to learn what had reduced him to his present situation; and after giving him what I thought proper, desired to know the history of his life and misfortunes, and the manner in which he was reduced to his present distress. The disabled soldier, for such he was, with an intrepidity truly British, leaning on his crutch, put himself into an attitude to comply with my request, and gave me his history as follows:
‘Had I the good fortune to have lost my leg and use of my hand on board a king’s ship, and not a privateer, I should have been entitled to cloathing [sic] and maintenance during the rest of my life, but that was not my chance; one man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and another with a wooden ladle.’
The second-earliest instance is from the proceedings of the debate that took place on the Judiciary Bill at the House of Representatives, in Washington, D.C., on Friday 9th January 1801; James A. Bayard Sr. (1767-1815), from Delaware, declared:
Patriotism, though a fine sounding word, will not sustain a family. It was a common proverb that few lawyers were born with silver spoons in their mouths. On the contrary, they were generally born in the humble spheres of life; and were incapaciated [sic], however enthusiastic their feelings, from serving their country through pure motives of patriotism.
In Substitute (1966), the English singer-songwriter and musician Pete Townshend (born 1945), playing on the phrase, wrote: “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth”.