When the price of silver plummeted following the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859, silver became a popular medium for the whimsical specialty items adored by members of America’s Gilded Age elite. Also, the economic boom following the Civil War saw the creation of the modern industrial economy, and with it, an increased income for many in America. This new class of wealthy Americans wanted to display their prosperity in the most conspicuous manner possible, and manufacturers of luxury goods like Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, were more than happy to meet the increased demand for high-end items. Among the many ways to showcase affluence during the Gilded Age was with functional novelty items, such as our Museum Feature this month, Gorham’s Bird’s Nest salt spoon.
The Gorham Manufacturing Company created a number of extremely creative flatware designs in the late 1860s, including Medallion, Stag, Bust, Square Medallion, and Lion in 1867 alone. In 1869, the year Bird’s Nest was produced, Gorham released six additional patterns: Hound, Egyptian Ivy, Ball, Egyptian, Olive Branch, and Lotus. Many of Gorham’s specialty flatware produced during this period can be attributed to George Wilkinson, their chief designer, but the actual designer of the Bird’s Nest pattern remains unknown. Many of the opulent tableware patterns produced during the Gilded Age comprise hundreds of flatware and serving pieces. However, there are only thirty-two known Bird’s Nest flatware piece types, plus two hollowware items – an individual salt dish and an eggcup. The relatively few number of different piece types of Bird’s Nest, coupled with its rarity, suggests the pattern was made in limited quantity, and might have been commercially unsuccessful. This could be due to a variety of factors, possibly the price of these items. In 1869, the Bird’s Nest nut spoon had an estimated price of $14.28 – at least half a month’s wages for the average worker at the time.
Birds were a relatively common decorative theme on American flatware from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The use of birds as a design motif surged in popularity again in the 1870s with the introduction of bird-themed Japanese patterns produced by both Gorham and Tiffany & Co. The Bird’s Nest salt spoon in this month’s museum feature is 3 3/4-inches long, and has a cast stem sculpted in the shape of a tree twig, but with joints that more closely resemble those of bamboo. Each end of the stem is adorned with ivy leaves connected by ivy vines that run across the bottom of the stem. At the tip of the stem is a three-dimensional bird’s nest containing three eggs, supported underneath by three diverging twigs (on most Bird’s Nest pieces, a figural bird is found on or next to the nest, but the bird wasn’t included in the design of the salt spoon and other smaller piece types).
A salt spoon is a small utensil used by each person at the table to distribute salt from a master saltcellar. The practice of including a portion of salt at the table dates back to at least the Roman Empire, when patricians used ornate saltcellars at their feasts. In “Salt: A World History,” Mark Kurlansky writes, “Because salt symbolized the binding of an agreement, the absence of a saltcellar on a [Roman] banquet table would have been interpreted as an unfriendly act and reason for suspicion.” The royal tables of the medieval and Renaissance French courts were set with large, ornate salt vessels called “nefs” (ships). Kurlansky writes, “A nef was both a saltcellar and a symbol of the ‘ship of state.’ Salt symbolized both health and preservation. Its message was that the ruler’s health was the stability of the nation.” Elaborate saltcellars in various forms, not just ships, were popular during the Renaissance. Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine sculptor and goldsmith, made a saltcellar for King Francis I of France in which salt was symbolically held between its two sources: the sea (represented by Neptune) and the earth (represented by Tellus, the earth goddess). The largest, most ornate saltcellar at the table, referred to as the ‘Great Salt,’ remained with the host or most honored guest throughout the meal, but smaller saltcellars would be changed throughout the meal to correspond with each course. During this period, it was considered rude (or at least unlucky) to touch salt with the fingers, and it was common for each diner to use the tip of his knife to put a small pile of salt on his plate. Some medieval and Renaissance plates were even designed with a depression designated for small portions of salt.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, the master of the house eschewed the great banquet halls of the medieval and Renaissance periods, choosing instead a more intimate dining experience with family and friends. Given this smaller setting, the ‘Great Salt’ was no longer necessary, and salt was dispensed from a modest bowl-shaped salt cellar with a small salt spoon. Initially, salt spoons resembled miniature tablespoons, but subsequently, salt spoons were fashioned as tiny shells, small hearts, miniature shovels, and various other forms. Salt spoons were also made from wide range of media, including sterling silver, glass, ivory, bone, and more. To inhibit the corrosive effect of salt, the interior bowls of silver salt spoons were gilded (as is the Bird’s Nest salt spoon). Because of their diminutive size and interesting shapes, salt spoons have become highly collectible items.
The Gorham Bird’s Nest salt spoon in our museum is not for sale, but we do have a stunning ice spoon in the Bird’s Nest pattern available for purchase in our inventory. Replacements, Ltd. also carries a wide selection of salt spoons and Gorham items in other patterns that are available for purchase; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our showroom and museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The showroom and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!