Souvenir spoons reveal many stories of Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2005

June Hall bought her first souvenir spoon in Richard Wood's Heritage Book Shop in downtown Juneau 20 years ago. It was an old Mayer Brothers silver spoon with "Juneau" engraved on the bowl.

"I was intrigued," said Hall, 59. "Why do people put historical information on a spoon? Why pick spoons to do this on?"

Since that first spoon, Hall has been looking for answers to these questions. Her two decades of research are now accumulated in her first book, "Alaska Souvenir Spoons & the Early Curio Trade." Gastineau Channel Historical Society recently published the book, illustrated by photographer Ron Klein, with pictures of more than 100 spoons.

Hall said the fashion of collecting silver souvenir spoons started in Europe in the late 19th century.

"Mechanization of almost every aspect of manufacturing, farming, transportation and communication made life more bearable for those at the bottom and even more leisurely for those at the top," Hall said. "In the middle were people who could acquire more things than ever before."

Hall said Victorians collected silverware, and silver companies produced more than 100 types of utensils to meet the demand. The utensils include fish sets, asparagus eaters, forks for pickles and spoons for berries, oysters, ice tea and grapefruit.

Although there is debate over which was the first souvenir spoon ever produced, the first patented souvenir spoon was designed in 1881 to commemorate Niagara Falls, according to "American Spoons: Souvenir and Historical."

The fashion spread to the United States after a Massachusetts silver novelty purveyor came back from Europe and made a Salem Witch spoon in 1890 in memory of the bicentennial of the colonial witch trials.

Alaska's curio trade started long before Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867.

Where to find it

"Alaska Souvenir Spoons & the Early Curio Trade" is available at juneau-douglas city museum and other local bookstores. all proceeds will go to the publisher, gastineau channel historical society.

Hall said fur trading mariners from Europe collected curios, including spoons, from Northwest Coast Native people. These first souvenir spoons of Alaska were made of horn or wood.

From 1890 to 1915, collecting spoons mushroomed into a national craze.

"No thoughtful traveler would return from a trip without one, two or a dozen spoons," Hall said.

Alaska's spoons showed great craftsmanship and told stories of Alaska's human and natural history.

The spoons were made of copper, silver or gold. Some spoons were engraved with pictures of steamships with Muir Glacier and Glacier Bay in the background in the bowls. Some spoons had pictures of gold miners and words such as "Struck it Rich" on the top. The handle could be in the shape of a salmon, a totem pole, a sled dog or an Indian chief. Some bowls were shaped as a gold pan.

The demand for Alaska souvenir spoons was so big that not only Native Americans but also silver companies from Europe, America and Japan rushed to meet the need.

"Alaska was a romanticized place," Hall said. "People thought it was exotic, remote and full of possible dangers. And people were fascinated by the strange cultures."

The interest in collecting silver first waned after World War I.

"Wars tend to dampen people's spirit. People couldn't travel as freely," Hall said.

The fashion further declined after World War II. Other factors also attributed to the demise of silver and silver spoons.

"Stainless steel and plastics are more convenient than silver," Hall said. "People don't have the time and desire to polish silverware. And a lot of craftsmen, who were immigrants from Europe, were not replaced."

Over the years, Hall has collected 300 spoons.

"The current enthusiasm for collecting Alaska souvenir spoons and curios is broad, but also deep," Hall said. "Souvenir spoons give a glimpse into how collectors have influenced cultures and how objects can carry meaning for those who collect and cherish them."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.



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