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A Little Light History on Spills and Spill Vases

Spill vases, also known as spill holders or spillikins, were decorative objects used in the past for practical purposes. Their popularity was mainly during the 18th and 19th centuries. The main function of a spill vase was to hold and dispense spills.

What is a Spill or Taper?

A British dictionary published in 1855 defined a spill as “A strip of paper rolled up to light a lamp or cigar.” The word loosely derives from “spile,” a small wooden peg. Although “spills” had been around for a long time, the term was not in use until the 19th century, when it first appeared in British dictionaries.

Before matches, a spill was used to transfer a flame from the fire in the hearth to a candle, lamp, cigar or pipe. A true spill was not a piece of paper, a stick, or a sliver of wood, it was a specialized wood shaving, given its name from the way it “spills” from the wood plane that produces it. Typically made from pine or cedar.

Definition of a Taper:-

A long waxed wick especially for lighting candles, lamps, pipes, or fires.

Used in the same way as a wooden or paper spill.

Now you have your Spills or Tapers you need a container to hold them.

There is such a wide variety it would be hard to cover all aspects so here are a few examples of the different types that are out there to find and collect.

A variety of Spill Vases from the early to late 1800s

Early examples were the  Staffordshire Figures with the holders to take the Spills as shown in these 3 examples.

Even after matches became widely available Spills were often preferred because they burned slowly and evenly, making them more reliable for transferring a flame.

It appears that fashion went from the Staffordshire figures to small decorative Vases often cylindrical designed to hold a bundle of spills in an upright position, making them easily accessible when needed. These tend to be the vases we think of when looking for Spill Vases

Some were plain utilitarian forms, especially in the poorer households but most found today are very decorative in colours and shapes.

Spill vases were placed on the fireplace mantle to provide easy access to the fire from which they were lit.

The 3 examples shown here are Gaudy Welsh with Flow Blue, Doulton Blue Children Series and another Gaudy Welsh without the blue flowing. Note the size of the vase means the spills are higher than the rim of the vases.

It is not clear if the vases were actually made for the Spills or if they just came into use as a convenient holder.

They were typically made of ceramic, glass, or metal, and came in various shapes and sizes but always keeping in mind the items they were to hold.  Some vases were highly decorative and ornate, featuring intricate designs, colourful patterns, and often adorned with gilding.

The vases not only served a functional purpose but also added an aesthetic touch to the interior decor.

An abundance of early writings and paintings clearly depict a holder on the mantle with spills sticking out.

This pretty example is made by Ridgways in the Orleans pattern and belongs to Betty Reed – note the coloured spills that Betty uses.

With the advent of safety matches in the mid-19th century, the use of spills declined, and subsequently, the popularity of spill vases decreased as well. Matches offered a more convenient and readily available method of starting fires. As a result, spill vases became more of a decorative relic rather than a practical household item.

Today, Flow Blue, Mulberry, Polychrome and Gaudy Welsh examples of spill vases can all be found when searching for antiques and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and patterns. Early examples tended to be cylindrically shaped but as fashion changed so did the designs and patterns as you can see from the examples I have found. They provide a glimpse into the history of domestic life and the evolution of fire-starting methods. Their pretty designs and patterns make them desirable as decorative pieces or conversation starters.

Another pretty example of a Gaudy Welsh pattern –belonging to Dan & Haya Sapira

A very pretty cylindrical Copeland Spill Vase

This bright pattern example is made by Minton example

Sloe Blossom example belonging to Debbie Hagara

Another very colourful piece belonging to Dan & Haya Sapira

As you can see from the examples, I have shown there is a wide variety of “Spill Vases” that you can look out for on your travels – they make a nice accompaniment to your candlesticks, oil lamps and mantles with such a variety of colours and shapes to suit all tastes.