Presentation silver can be in any shape or form. Over the centuries silver objects

were created in various imaginative and beautiful designs to honor many people and

events. In the 1800's massive trophies were created for many special events such as

honoring Admiral Dewey, the hero of the Spanish American War. Trophies, cups, vases,

flatware etc. were made to honor the winners of yacht races or horse races or to honor a

local hero, or an important businessman or politician.


During the "gilded age" the presentation items of silver grew larger and larger and

much more extravagant than ever before in history. Soon the cost of creating these

fantastic trophies became prohibitive for all except the most wealthy organizations. The

tradition of giving a piece of valuable silver for special events was well established and

was considered "de rigeur" for many of life's transitions. The dedication of a monument, a

new building, a new bridge, for example, were important events in the life of a small

community. American society was undergoing radical and intensive changes, and it was

important to try to maintain continuity. Tradition demanded that the event(s) be celebrated

in an appropriate way and remembrances made out of precious silver were a necessary

part of the celebration. The choice of a more moderately priced sterling silver spoon was

not accidental. Since the 1500's, babies were gifted with spoons at their baptism. These

spoons typically bore a cast figure of an apostle. In European tradition one did not

celebrate one's own birthday. One celebrated the passing of a year by celebrating on one's

apostle day. The start of a new life was an important event to the family and to the

community. The spoon was associated with food and of course food is essential to life. A

silver spoon was a precious possession and was often kept for life and it was only used by

its designated owner. The phrase "to be born with a silver spoon" stems from this


Next we must consider who would want to buy such an object. As in all artwork,

the customer must be willing to pay not only for the raw materials but for the time,

overhead and the all important profit to the seller. Some of these costs are known and

some are unknown and we can only make an educated guess based upon what we know of

the economy. A more detailed cost breakdown is included in the appendix. We can guess

that most of these silver spoons sold, at retail, for between $2.00 and $6.00 during the

1890 - 1920 time period. Based upon a skilled workers salary of 25 cents per hour

(laborers were paid less than 10 cents an hour) that means an average skilled worker

would have to work between 10 and 24 hours to obtain enough money to buy one of these

spoons. If we could put those dollar figures into 1990's terms, an average skilled worker

today makes about $12 hour thus in terms of work that spoon would be worth $96 to

$240. That is hardly "pin" money.

Why would an ordinary citizen spend that much money on a "souvenir". Most

likely they wouldn't unless it was of great importance. Thus we must come to the

conclusion that the events and places commemorated by these spoons were of great

importance not only to the individual and, by inference, the community and the nation.


Eventually the spoon came to symbolize more than food serving. It came to

symbolize the beginning of life and from there the beginning of anything new. In some

cultures a spoon became part of the marriage ceremony which obviously was the

beginning of a new life for the participants.


A few spoons were even made for funerals,which we believe were used to symbolize the start of a new life in heaven. For more information on funeral spoons click here.

Thus it is just a short step to make a spoon symbolize a new building, a new post

office, a new library, or an important piece of the culture.


A photographic picture or a drawing would not be sufficient. A gift of precious metal was required. Gold was usually

too expensive; therefore silver was the logical choice. Traditionally trophies and

presentation pieces were engraved and skilled engravers and chasers were highly paid. The

big expense of the metallic silver, the engraving, gilding and enameling would be borne

cheerfully because the ornamentation and engraved initials and dates made the silver much

more valuable and, by inference, made the events depicted much more important.

Cities, towns and communities were much smaller around the turn of the century

than we imagine today. Only three cities exceeded 1,000,000 population. In today's terms,

that is a small city, but at the turn of the century New York only had about 1,200,000

people. This is important because with a smaller city, obviously there were fewer buildings

and other structures. The establishment of a post office, for example, was a source of

great local pride. It meant that the town had "arrived". Recognition of your status by the

large Federal Government was an important milestone. Today the establishment of a new

post office would barely rate a story on the front page of the local paper, but at that time it

was a major event. A local holiday was declared by the mayor. Everyone would get

dressed in their Sunday clothes and go to the new building which would be gaily

decorated. Sometimes the state governor or other important officials would attend the

ceremony and there would be speeches and opening ceremonies. The local band would

march through town playing their instruments. There would be public and private parties.

It was truly a memorable occasion. For more information on commemorative courthouse spoons or library spoons.

It is altogether fitting and proper based upon established tradition to commemorate

life's important events and travels in sterling silver. For many of the events or local

attractions, the local jewelers had arranged for a few sterling silver spoons to be made to

honor the local community. Only the wealthier members of the public could afford to buy

these more expensive commemorative momento's. Most of the community could only

afford the penny postcards that pictured their new edifice or on occasion other smaller less

expensive souvenirs.

It is proper at this point to consider the rarity of these spoons. Not too many

spoons were made for any one event. The local jeweler would commission just enough to

meet expected demand and he did not want to over order first, because of the initial

expense and second, he would not want any "dead stock". Over the intervening years,

many of these pieces, and the history behind them, were lost, misplaced, melted, or

damaged. During the twentieth century we have had two major wars which required vast

resources and citizens were urged to gather any unneeded metal and give it to the

government so that it could be remelted and reused. There was also a devastating

depression. Many fortunes were lost and many pieces of silver were sold to scrap metal

dealers for cash and thus consigned to the melting pots. In addition during the 1970's the

price of silver was artificially elevated by a silver futures trading cartel and at that point in

time silver of all types was not a popular collectible, thus tens of millions of ounces of

silver objects were consigned to the melting pot.

A number of these beautiful commemorative and souvenir spoons did escape all

the perils, however, and have survived. There are very few pieces from any given event,

but the total number of events which were commemorated in silver was large, thus a

number of fine pieces are available to today's collectors.

Around 1891, travelers returning from Europe discussed a phenomenon of unusual

spoons being produced and sold there. These spoons were typically from the Netherlands

and Germany and were highly decorated with cast figurals and detailed workmanship. A

jeweler, Daniel Low of Salem, Massachusetts, designed a spoon featuring a witch (to

symbolize) the Salem witch trials. For some unknown reason, this spoon became very

sought after and tens of thousands were sold. Within six months an unprecedented

demand for highly decorated and unusual spoons swept across the nation. The souvenir

spoon frenzy lasted through a major financial panic and reached its zenith in 1896, but

continued on a lesser scale for the next 20+ years. During that time, tens of thousands of

very interesting designs were made into sterling silver spoons.

We have both commemorative and souvenir spoons from the same time period.

Obviously the purpose of a souvenir and a commemorative piece is much the same, and

that is to trigger a memory. But the difference is that a souvenir is designed for a person

from another area who is usually on vacation and represents a very important facet of the

local scene, whereas a commemorative piece is designed for a local resident who has a

vested interest in the specific event. Sometimes it is not possible to determine whether a

piece was meant to be a souvenir or a commemorative piece and elements of both are

contained in the same piece. In that case, we will leave it to your discretion. It is highly

unlikely, for example, for a visitor to be significantly concerned (and spend a lot of money)

with a small library in a small town. But to the local resident that library represents a

universe of knowledge and a means of educating the next generation. A Romanesque

courthouse in a small county is of great importance to the local populace, but would be of

little importance to a traveler. The visitor, however, would want to remember the

important things which he had seen, and those spoons would celebrate the local events of

broader national interest. The combination of the two types of spoons presents a vivid

account of the American way of life in fine sterling silver.

There is no reason to suppose that a mere spoon was not accorded a significant

place in the family home. Even though silver was not as valuable as it used to be, the

possession of a finely designed silver spoon was still worthy of a place of honor and it was

proudly displayed.

Remember that these highly polished silver spoons are merely a reflection of

society itself and we must understand the culture to understand the meaning behind the

spoon. Examine the intricate designs, read the text to understand the times that produced

these fine objects and hopefully develop a similar collection to preserve this aspect of our

American heritage.

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