Collectors Corner: Souvenir Spoons
By Michele Alice
There had been collectible spoons before - historical evidence supports the appearance of apostle spoons no later than the 15th century - but souvenir spoons really came into their own during the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the 1800's, almost everything was manufactured by hand in such quantities that only the well-to-do could afford more than the necessities of life.
Apostle spoons, usually made of silver, had often been given as gifts at christenings. The rich could afford complete sets of thirteen - the twelve apostles and the Master (Jesus) - while the poor were often hard pressed to obtain just one.
But throughout the 19th century, increasing productivity supported not only the wealthy and an exploding middle class, but afforded even the relative poor access to more and more lower-cost goods and even leisure time. By the later part of the 1800's almost everyone could take a vacation. The upwardly mobile took advantage of technological advancements in transportation to tour Europe or other foreign locals, while the middle-class stayed at seaside resorts or traveled to see natural wonders like Niagara Falls. Even the poor could afford a day at the beach or at an amusement park like Coney Island.
And everyone wanted a memento - a souvenir - of their trip.
Though there is some evidence that Americans had been collecting spoons since at least 1800, the fad for souvenir spoons seems to have arisen in Europe following the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. Spoons bearing local and national landmarks, among other designs, began appearing all over the Continent, and tourists were returning to America with these avidly acquired mementos of their travels.
Influenced by the popularity of the European souvenirs, silversmith M. W. Galt of Washington, D.C., in 1889 issued a spoon commemorating the 100th anniversary of George Washington's presidency. A year later, Seth F. Low of Salem, MA, created what is arguably the most famous of souvenir spoons, the Witch Spoon, featuring the word Salem and the figure of a witch. The two spoons are credited with triggering what was called by the press at the time the "souvenir spoon craze".
By 1893 and the Chicago World's Fair, thousands of souvenir spoons were being designed and sold around the country. Popular and historical figures, animals, flowers, cities, resorts, fairs, natural wonders, holidays, countries, events - there was almost nothing that could not be found engraved, etched, cast, enameled, or otherwise depicted on the bowl, handle, or finial of a spoon. There even were spoons commemorating prisons! (During the period, tourists were encouraged to visit the new penitentiaries that were being built to incorporate the latest ideas in penal reform.)
The national mania for spoons lasted until the advent of World War I, but new spoons never ceased being issued, and collecting continues to this day. Vintage and antique specimens exhibiting particularly fine hand-engraving or enameling regularly attract the attention of collectors who are willing to pay several hundred dollars for some pieces.
Black Americana is especially popular at this time, and a Gorham silver spoon embossed with the image of a young African American boy recently sold online for $430, while an enameled sterling spoon featuring an African American woman garnered $711.
Of course, the price of silver plays a major role in the market for souvenir spoons since most were made of either sterling or a European silver standard. (If the piece is not marked, it is probably pewter, silver plate, or stainless steel.) But still finding desirable specimens at yard, estate, and rummage sales is not unheard of, if you know what to look for.
Would you like to find out more about this interesting collectible? Check out the following resources, and
Alaska Souvenir Spoons & the Early Curio Trade by June E. Hall
American Spoons: Souvenir and Historical by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Donna H. Felger
Collectible Souvenir Spoons: The Grand Tour (Book 2) by Wayne Bednersh
A Collector's Guide to Spoons Around the World by Dorothy T. Rainwater
The Craze for Collecting Souvenir Spoons - Illustrated article covers the genesis of the late-19th century enthusiasm for spoons.
History of Souvenir Spoons - Nicely succinct history by PBS's History Detectives
Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers' Marks - Invaluable resource not only includes marks from around the world, but also a glossary, forum, articles, and much more.
Spoon Planet - Souvenir Spoons Museum- Major site - over 500 virtual exhibits - maintained by The Spoon Collectors of Southern California (SCSC) club. Pictures and information on thousands of spoons.
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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