There are a lot of great things at our museum, but we are sadly (from this curator’s point of view) lacking in the area of diverse flatware. Our silver collection includes teaspoons aplenty, but no oyster ladles, sugar shells, pickle forks, fish slices, or other useful forms. An exception is the delicate little salt spoon owned by Julia Prout Vinson Anderson (1864-1950) of Rockville. This 3.25” sterling silver spoon combines two of my favorite artifact qualities: highly specific function, and clearly marked identification.

gs0049 Gorham salt spoon

For many centuries table salt was served from small dishes, known as salt cellars (or simply “salts”), often using spoons such as this one. In the late 19th century some additives were developed that kept salt from clumping and sticking, thus making possible the salt shaker, but refined housekeepers included salts and salt spoons on their tables into the 20th century. At informal or family meals, one or two “master salts” might be sufficient; at a formal dinner, however, individual salt cellars could be employed. The Social Mirror: A Complete Treatise on the Laws, Rules and Usages that govern our most Refined Homes and Social Circles (1888) included this rule for “ceremonious dinners”: “A salt-cellar of some pretty or fanciful design should be placed at each plate.” No matter how many salt cellars are in use, each should have its own spoon – for, as the same source noted, you should “never use your own knife, fork or spoon to put into a dish from which others must be helped,” or from which the contents might be returned to the main container after the meal. Hence, the addition of both salt cellars and their accompanying spoons to the vast array of ‘necessary’ tableware available to the discerning 19th century host or hostess.

The 1896 Marshall Field & Co. catalog featured a page of silver plate salt accessories, with both shakers and cellars available. This boxed set conveniently contained both options.

The 1896 Marshall Field & Co. catalog featured a page of silver plate salt accessories, with both shakers and cellars available. This boxed set conveniently contained both options.

 

As for our spoon itself, it is marked with both the maker and the owner. The back is stamped with the marks used in the late 19th century by the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Rhode Island: a right-facing lion passant, an anchor, and a Gothic G (these marks subtly copy British silver hallmarks, but they’re not quite the same), plus the “STERLING” required on American-made sterling silver flatware.

Gs0049 hallmarks

The bowl of the spoon is gilded, and the handle features an attractive (if you’ll forgive a personal bias) pattern with clean lines and just a hint of frou-frou. I’ve not yet been able to identify the pattern name, as Gorham has produced a LOT of patterns over the years; if anyone can name our little fan/sunburst handle, please let me know! Without a pattern name and the year it was introduced, it’s difficult to date the spoon more specifically than “late 19th century.”

Like a lot of silver flatware, this piece was also engraved with the owner’s initial. That’s not always as helpful as it might seem; we have many pieces in our collection that are unidentified, since a set of initials, by itself, can only take you so far research-wise. Happily, in this case we know that the spoon came from the Vinson family of Rockville, and specifically (according to the donor, Mrs. Anderson’s grandson) from Julia Prout Vinson, who married George Minor Anderson in 1901. We don’t know if this was part of a wedding gift or not (remember, as Julia’s teapot shows, presents given before the marriage were marked with the bride’s maiden initials); Julia married rather later in life than was typical at the time, and perhaps she provided herself with some fine tableware for single-girl entertaining in the 1890s. Either way, it shows that she and her family were concerned with setting a good table – and could afford to do so.

Gs0049 handle detail

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