The spoon collection currently on display at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center was curated by members of the Charles Richter family, whose home was Richter Cottage, a museum here in Madison.
The collection was given to Morgan County Landmarks Society in 2020 by Mary McCullough, a direct descendant of Anna Mariah Richter (1836 to 1926), daughter of Charles Richter.
Charles Richter came to Madison in 1835 as a young man. He was a watchmaker, jeweler and merchant. His business was on South Main Street. The building still stands today.
Anna would have been a middle-aged woman when she first started this collection. Perhaps her father sold souvenir spoons in his store. Two of the earliest spoons, both belonging to Anna are shown individually on the display shelf. Both were made in 1895. One is from the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta. This was a huge international expo that centered on Georgia’s main source of income, cotton. Richter family members as well as many in the community attended. The other spoon features the Madison Graded School, completed in 1895. Of course, that school is the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center today.
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 spoon produced in the United States was made 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 I. In 1890 jeweler Seth F. Low designed the Salem Witch Spoon for his father’s company and it was trademarked on Jan. 13, 1891. Low described the design as featuring “the raised figure of a witch, and the word Salem.” Thousands 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. By 1891 several books on collecting souvenir spoons were published and by the time of the Chicago World Fair in 1893, thousands of spoons were made and people were seriously beginning to collect.
Also in 1893, a grand world fair named the Columbian Exposition was held. It commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. It lifted souvenir spoon collecting to a whole new level. 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.
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, while retaining its image of being for the privileged and wealthy. Every expo, fair and event was an opportunity to create a souvenir spoon. From 1890 until the first World War, that was truly the Golden Age of souvenir spoons.
By the advent of World War I, 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.
It is a joy to not only learn about silver collector spoons, but to actually see them in person. We are indebted to the generosity of the Morgan County Landmarks Society for loaning this interesting exhibit.
The Richter Family Collection of Silver Souvenir Spoons can be viewed at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center for the month of September. The Center is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.