Collecting souvenir spoons has been a popular hobby for many Americans since the late 1800s when this European fad swept the nation.
Souvenir spoons grew out of the birth of leisure tourism in Europe around the mid 1800s. Wealthy Americans on a Grand Tour of Europe brought home these souvenirs marked with the names of cities and some of the famous landmarks they had seen.
The first souvenir spoons produced in the United States were products of well-traveled silversmiths. The inaugural souvenir spoon was produced in 1889 by Galt & Bros of Washington D.C. It featured a profile of George Washington and was created to mark the 100th anniversary of his presidency. It was shortly followed by the Martha Washington spoon.
A year or so later the most famous collector’s spoon was designed, sparking a national obsession that lasted until World War One. In 1890 jeweler Seth F. Low visited Germany and purchased several unusual spoons. Upon his return he designed the Salem Witch Spoon for his father’s company and it was trademarked on January 13, 1891. Low described the design as featuring "the raised figure of a witch, the word Salem, and the three witch pins of the same size and shape as those preserved in the Court House at Salem”. Several thousand were sold.
The interest in souvenir spoons suddenly exploded. At the end of 1890, there were only a handful patented or in production in America. Around half a year later, hundreds of souvenir spoon patterns were being produced to commemorate American cities and towns, famous people, historical events and significant events of the time.
In 1891 several books on collecting souvenir spoons were published and by the time of the Chicago World Fair in 1893, what is now considered the Golden Age of souvenir spoons had well and truly begun.
This grand world fair was also known as the Columbian Exposition, as it commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World. It lifted souvenir spoon collecting to a whole new level. At the time this was a niche hobby. Along with 27 million visitors, the fair brought spoon collecting national exposure. Some reports say more commemorative spoons were produced for the Columbian Exposition than for any other event in history.
But the 1893 Expo was not the only factor in creating this spoon collecting phenomenon. The 19th century was a time of immense growth in the United States' economy. It was the age of industrialization with the rapid acceleration of technology and the invention of mass production techniques. The production of souvenir spoons became more efficient and the volume of goods increased.
Further, the collapse of the silver market also in 1893 meant silver became affordable to many ordinary Americans for the first time, whilst retaining its image of being for the privileged and wealthy.
Over the next 30 years every expo, fair and event was an opportunity to create a souvenir spoon. But the mania was short-lived, by the advent of World War One the appetite for souvenir spoons had waned and by the end of the war it had almost disappeared.
Today it is once again a niche hobby. Embellished spoons at tourist attractions are a familiar sight and hundreds of spoons change hands at auctions around the world.