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    Auction Finds

    Reader seeks pedigree of Frederick Douglass souvenir spoon

    Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources to help them determine the value – and sometimes the origin – of their items. Today’s question is about the pedigree of one of two Frederick Douglass souvenir spoons.


    I have two of the Frederick Douglass spoons from 1895. But they’re not alike – one has the timeline on the front and the other has the timeline on the back of the spoon stem. I can’t find anything on the second spoon. Can you tell me anything about the second spoon?

    Frederick Douglass souvenir spoons.

    The faces of Frederick Douglass in the bowls of two souvenir spoons.


    I first came across a spoon with the carved (or relief) face of Frederick Douglass during a black memorabilia show a year ago. The spoon was one of three for sale by a vendor; the other two had painted stereotypical images of a child with a watermelon.

    Souvenir spoons, especially those of locales, come up at auction pretty often, and sometimes they are hung on little hooks in wooden racks for decoration. I’ve never seen any of the Douglass spoons at auction, though.

    I searched mightily to find the reader’s second spoon, but could find none. I can only assume that the origins of the two spoons are the same, since everything else about them is identical. The one with the timeline on the front, though, was more common.

    Frederick Douglass souvenir spoon

    A close-up of the backs of the reader’s two Frederick Douglass souvenir spoons.

    What I also found was some fascinating history behind the design of the spoon. First, there were at least two spoons created in the mid-1890s, presumably by two different parties of African American inventors/designers.

    An article from the Feb. 9, 1896, edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune told of a Chicago man named Samuel W. Thompson, an African American whom the paper credited with designing a spoon with the timeline on the front. The spoon was made in three sizes.

    “It is a tribute from a colored man to a great negro statesman,” the newspaper stated. It went on to say that for many years, Thompson was the only “colored” traveling salesman for a jewelry house in the country.

    Frederick Douglass souvenir spoons

    A close-up of the fronts of the reader’s two Frederick Douglass souvenir spoons.

    Here’s how the article described his design, for which I could not find a patent on the web:

    “It is intended by the designer to commemorate by means of the spoon some of the most prominent acts in the life of Douglass. In the bowl is an excellent likeness of Douglass’ face, with the date of his birth, 1817, and the name of his native state, Maryland.

    “The handle is composed of a series of chain links and shackles. Within the first link is inscribed “1838,” the date of his escape from slavery, and as a further symbol of his freedom the shackle connecting the two links is broken. The next link represents the date of the maiden speech made by Douglass against slavery, delivered at Nantucket in 1841. The third link is dated “1863,” when he aided and recruited soldiers for the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Colored Regiments from the state of New York. The fourth, fifth and sixth links, which are dated 1872, 1877 and 1889, symbolize his electorship-at-large from the Empire State, the date of his position as United Marshal at Washington, D.C., and his Ministership to Hayti. The last link is broken, representing his death, which occurred last year. On the reverse side of the handle is a chain intertwined with flowers and a wreath which surrounds his name.”

    I could find no other information about Thompson.

    Frederick Douglass souvenir spoon

    A similar design of the 1895 spoon patented by William H. Purdy and Leonard C. Peters in the Yale University Library collection.

    I did find the same spoon attributed to two other African Americans: William H. Purdy and Leonard C. Peters, both of Providence, RI. According to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Yale University Library, the circa 1895 silver-plated spoon in its collection was likely made for the two men to be sold at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. Souvenir spoons were very popular and some were sold at the event.

    The exposition consisted of exhibits from six states, along with buildings showing the contributions of women and African Americans. There was a Negro Building tucked away from expo and a “Negro Day at the Expo” on December 26. It was here that Booker T. Washington delivered his “Atlanta Compromise Speech,” advocating black achievement through work and labor, rather than integration and social equality.

    I found an April 23, 1895, patent for a spoon by Purdy and Peters, but the design was not the one attributed to them in the library’s collection. The bowl of their spoon contained a log cabin and a boy carrying a bundle over his shoulder, a ladder up the arm of the spoon and Douglass’ face at the top, crowned with “laurel branches.”

    Frederick Douglass souvenir spoon

    The Frederick Douglass souvenir spoon from William H. Purdy and Leonard C. Peters’ 1895 patent.

    The University of Rochester River Campus Libraries has both spoon designs, and seemingly attributed the familiar Douglass-spoon-with-chains to Purdy and Peters, and the other as unknown. The other spoon has the words “Fred’K Douglass” – not branches – crowning his head. That apparently is closer to the patented Purdy-Peters spoon.

    The Douglass spoon was not the only one made of activists and abolitionists. I found spoons with the likenesses of John Brown, Harriett Beecher Stowe and Booker T. Washington.

    Since I was not able to find the reader’s second spoon, I did locate the name of someone who may be able to help. Robert M. Wilhelm, of the American Spoon Collectors, wrote an article about the Douglass spoon in the November/December 2007 issue of Silver magazine. I would suggest that the reader contact Wilhelm through the organization’s website. The organization is a hub for souvenir spoon collectors both nationally and internationally.


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