The History of the Garden Spade Demonstrates How Simple Tools Are So Efficient That It Has Changed Little Over Millenia. This Article Is About The Bladed Lever That’s Been Used For More Than 3000 Years To Turn The Soil.

Spades are so obvious they are almost unnoticed. So I thought it time for me to take a semi-serious look at the garden spade and its place in history.

The spade is such a basic tool. It’s basically a blade with a handle that is used to cut into thew soil. The handle is then used as a lever to separate the spit of soil from from the earth. the agricultural version of the spade is a plush. Instead of a flat blade the plough uses a curved blade to invert the soil. But in its simplest form it is the same tool using the same very basic scientific principles.

The spade is so basic that it not only goes back in time as a gardening tool, it has entered our lives in other ways. It is mentioned in poetry; it features in religion, starting with the creation story where “Adam delved and Eve span … delve means to dig into something, to look under the surface. In religion it is such a powerful symbol that it appears in stain glass windows going back to the 11th century and perhaps before. But the spade goes back even further and in this article I will explain how the spade has become more than an essential gardening tool. Though its use in the garden is, of course, of most importance to us gardeners.

Adam Delving at Canterbury Cathedral , 
Mattana, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Spade In Ancient History

The Mythical Origins: Forged by Hephaestus

The journey of the garden spade could arguably begin with a touch of mythology, as legends suggest that the first spade was crafted by Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths. While this tale adds a mythical allure to the tool, the reality of its inception is more likely rooted in the pragmatic needs of early agricultural societies.

Moving from myth to history, from the spade’s early roots in ancient China to the innovative designs of today, the garden spade has weathered centuries, witnessing remarkable changes in materials and, to a lesser extent, in usage. Humble though the spade is it has an illustrious history.

The origins of the garden spade can be traced back thousands of years, with evidence of metal-shod wooden spades in China around 1,600 BC. The Romans introduced metal spades to Europe, and Pliny recorded the pala, a broad-bladed spade, as the ideal tool for opening up rushy ground. Even in these ancient times, the designs and purposes of spades were already diverse and regionally influenced.

As we trace the historical roots of the garden spade, we find its humble beginnings in ancient civilizations. Early agricultural communities used rudimentary digging sticks, gradually evolving into more refined tools. Archaeological evidence supports the presence of spade-like implements in the agricultural practices of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The Symbolic Hardship of Gardening: The symbolism associated with the garden spade is rooted in the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve. Upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the toil of cultivating the land was decreed. The spade became a symbol of the arduous nature of gardening, a tool required for the sweat-inducing labour needed to cultivate the soil.

Adam digging with a spade in Lincoln Cathedral,
Mattana, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Depictions and Improvements: The first visual representations of the spade appear in medieval artworks. Stained glass panels in Canterbury Cathedral depict Adam using an iron-tipped spade, emphasizing the tool’s early presence. Lincoln also has Adam with a spade. Angels were often portrayed instructing Adam and Eve on gardening practices, with images displayed in medieval manuscripts and cathedral windows. Early man of course didn’t have iron to tip their wooden spade blades but the fact they stained glass shows it indicates that spades were made that way when the window was commissioned.

Medieval Monasteries: Cultivating the Divine

Though the medieval period saw the spade in stained glass it was also a time when monasteries became hubs of horticultural activity, with monks cultivating gardens as a form of spiritual devotion. The spade, once a utilitarian implement, now carried religious connotations, symbolising the act of tending to God’s creation. But more important on earth, it helped feed them.

Before Mediaeval Spades ..

Visit Grimes Graves in Norfolk and it is evident that early man used deer antlers as picks to remove the flints from this neolithic flint mine. Claims that deer should blade “spades” were also used are made on some websites, though I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this. And a shoulder blade might act as a scoop but not, I believe, as a digging implement. If it did the spade would go back some 4500 years!

Wooden Spades and Innovations: Early spades were primarily made of wood, later with iron edges to enhance cutting capabilities. As technology advanced, the entire blade evolved to plate iron, attached to wooden handles. This design, however, posed challenges as the iron blade could cut into the gardener’s foot. Solutions included turning the sharp upper edge into a tread or attaching iron plates to the gardener’s boots.

Material Advancements: Iron tools, despite being heavy and prone to rust, persisted until the end of the 19th century when lighter steel blades with welded treads were introduced. The refinement of the steel making and spade manufacturing processes made a huge difference to the spade and certainly improved the durability and efficiency of spades.

Regional Variations and Specialized Spades: The history of the garden spade in the UK is marked by regional variations and specialised designs. Different counties often had their own distinct spade shapes, reflecting the diverse needs and preferences of local gardeners. Examples include the Devon spade, West Country shovel, lazy-back shovel, and various other spades tailored to specific tasks. And I’ll not go into the controversy that comes from defining the difference between. spade and a shovel .. I’ve done that elsewhere!

The Irish Loy

I previously mentioned how the spade evolved into the plough in agriculture. But in Ireland there was an intermediate step. The Irish Loy aka the breast plough.

Loy ploughing uses a device rather like a spade but it is pushed through the soil to invert the earth. It was used on small farms where horses were not afforded or on steep land where horse couldn’t work.

Modern Innovations: In recent times, established firms like Spear & Jackson have introduced innovative modifications to traditional spade designs. The ‘e-series’ range incorporates a stirrup design for centralized foot tread, tilted handles for ergonomic use, and comfortable grips, enhancing the ease of digging. These ergonomic improvements showcase a modern approach to a classic tool. But it’s still a spade!

Specialised Spades and Handles: Diverse handles, such as D or Y handles in the south and T handles in the north, highlight regional preferences. French and Irish gardeners opt for spades with long shafts (so do I), allowing them to rest the shaft on their knee or thigh while digging. The variety in shapes, sizes, and materials exemplifies the complexity of the world of spades.

The Quest for Perfection: In the pursuit of perfection, inventors have continuously sought to improve upon the spade’s design. Examples include the two-handled version and the auto spade, each attempting to enhance the efficiency and comfort of the gardening experience. But in its basic form the spade is so simple, efficient and elegant it cannot be improved.

Local Spade Stories

I live near Bicton Gardens In Devon and found this interesting comment made by its head gardener in 1843. He was describing the local spade, “their spade is an ugly home-made heart-shaped bit of heavy iron, with a great socket in it; and they form the handle themselves by cutting a great lumbering stick out of a hedge, six or seven feet in length about the size of a hop pole so they can always use it without bending their backs”.

That long handle is exactly what I use today, though my spade is made of stainless steel. So perhaps my long handled spade just follows a noble tradition and the long handle isn’t just the prerogative of those areas previously mentioned.

Rural Tool Collections

Various rural museums have displays of rural tools. My nearest is Finch Foundry where many were manufactured, often to customer’s specification.

A Spadeful of Literature

Several books have featured the spade. Here are two.

Emma Gardner’s Exploration: “Sacred Spaces”

To deepen our understanding of the spade’s role in ecclesiastical art, we turn to the aptly named Emma Gardner and here “Sacred Spaces: Exploring Stained Glass in Religious Art.” Gardner’s work not only unveils the visual allure of these windows but also explores the religious significance attached to spade depictions. Through her meticulous research, readers gain insights into how the spade became a revered symbol in the sacred landscapes portrayed in stained glass.

Then we have Amelia Green and her sustainable book, “Digging Through Centuries”.

For those seeking a scholarly exploration of gardening tools, historian Amelia Green’s “Digging Through Centuries: A Chronicle of Gardening Tools” is a treasure trove. Green delves into the archaeological roots of gardening implements, charting their evolution and societal impact. Her work provides a comprehensive backdrop to understand the historical context in which the garden spade emerged as an indispensable tool.

But the spade goes beyond gardens and stained glass … the Bard also mentioned it.

Shakespeare’s Spade

In Hamlet Act 5, Scene one the Bard wrote …

“Come my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession.”

“Come my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession.”

Not to be outdone Wordsworth chipped in with his spade.

Wordsworth’s Spade

William Wordsworth Wrote a whole poem to the spade! He claimed it was “nobler than a Conqueror’s sword” which makes me think that “turning swords into ploughshares” should have been about turning them into spades!

Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his Lands,
And shaped these pleasant walks by Emont’s side,
Thou art a tool of honour in my hands;
I press thee through the yielding soil with pride.

Rare Master has it been thy lot to know;
Long hast Thou served a Man to reason true;
Whose life combines the best of high and low,
The toiling many and the resting few;

Health, quiet, meekness, ardour, hope secure,
And industry of body and of mind;
And elegant enjoyments, that are pure
As Nature is;—too pure to be refined.

Here often hast Thou heard the Poet sing
In concord with his River murmuring by;
Or in some silent field, while timid Spring
Is yet uncheered by other minstrelsy.

Who shall inherit Thee when Death has laid
Low in the darksome Cell thine own dear Lord?
That Man will have a trophy, humble Spade!
A trophy nobler than a Conqueror’s sword.

If he be One that feels, with skill to part
False praise from true, or greater from the less,
Thee will he welcome to his hand and heart,
Thou monument of peaceful happiness!

With Thee he will not dread a toilsome day,
His powerful Servant, his inspiring Mate.
And, when thou art past service, worn away,
Thee a surviving soul shall consecrate.

His thrift thy uselessness will never scorn;
An Heir-loom in his cottage wilt thou be:—
High will he hang thee up, and will adorn
His rustic chimney with the last of Thee!

Image attibutions:
CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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