What's it for? I think I know, but I'm not absolutely sure. It cost me 2€ (call it £1.75, $2.25) at a vide-grenier at Brie on the fourth of September 2016. It was on offer as a cutting board for sausages. I'm pretty sure that's not what it was made for, but it's clearly usable for that purpose. Equally clearly, it's good woodworm food, so it might be useful as a holding pen for woodworm breeders such as unscrupulous dealers in recently manufactured "antiques". Initially I thought it was a butter pat, for slapping butter into shape and then knocking it into the mould after hacking it off a big lump. Its weight (230g, just over half a pound) would make it quicker and easier to use than a lighter bat or paddle. It's as near as makes no odds 300mm (one foot) long, and the length of the handle would provide useful swing and leverage too.
When I suggested this, the man who was selling it said that he thought it was probably made as a paddle for beating clothes when you are washing them in the river. When I went back to some snapshots I'd taken at the last re-enactment in our village, which is famous for its lavoirs (washing places by the river), I found that two such bats were indeed being used: one rectangular, in another picture, and one very like this one: look at the fourth person from the left, a child, in the picture below.
Lightly slapping it against his buttocks, the vendor also jokingly indicated that it could be used for spanking. I have to admit that I had never thought about the American expression to "paddle" a child, so I Googled it and was disgusted to learn that "paddling" actually does refer to beating a child with a tool specially made for the purpose. Even today spanking paddles are apparently well known items of commerce, though the marketing seems at least to be aimed at those with specialized adult sexual tastes rather than those who want to beat children. The spanking paddles illustrated on the internet are thinner and flatter than this one, and made from a single piece of wood. This may simply reflect a decline in standards, aspirations and craftsmanship, but yes, you could use this one for spanking. It certainly stings if you slap your hand with it. Henceforth I shall look at what I had hitherto regarded as large wooden spatulas with a new eye, and be hesitant about allowing them into my kitchen.
I bought it precisely because as the vendor was explaining all this to me, I realized that it doesn't have to have just one function, and I wanted to know more about it. Yes, you could use it for hitting butter or clothes or children. Maybe, in the last 100 years or more, it has been used for all three. For the last, well, yes, it's pretty frightening and would definitely hurt, but it would be unlikely to do much lasting physical damage. If you are into that sort of thing, this is I suppose a selling point. In my house, though, its future is probably just as a board for cutting sausages. Or maybe I'll give it to the re-enactors.
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Words and picture copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016