I’ve been sorting through boxes from three moves ago of almost-forgotten-about life’s treasures. One item clattering around in the bottom of a cardboard box caught my eye. I plucked out a black, heavily tarnished, silver teaspoon and searched for my extra-strength magnifying glass. Aside from a hard to read monogram, the only marking was the name “Foster” stamped on the underside of the handle. There was no silver indication, giving me the first clue that this silver spoon might be very old. The following is what I learned after following a trail of information on the Internet.
Joseph Foster of Boston, lived from 1759 – 1839. He was 80 years old when he died. His occupation was listed as a silversmith and he is known to have apprenticed from 1774 to 1781 with one of the four major silversmiths of that time, Benjamin Burt, among notable silversmith families Revere, Edwards, and Hurd. Foster remained a close friend of Burt, receiving $100 in his will and served as sole executor at the time of Burt’s death in 1805. Foster had a shop in Boston on Anne Street (formerly called Fish Street). Not all silversmiths at that time used a maker’s mark but Foster did. It was a simple rectangle with his last name in block letters.
Foster had a relatively long life for the times. This makes finding examples of his work more likely. One is able to locate a tankard at Yale, a porringer at Essex Institute, and a creamer owned by a private collector. There are also auction records of a set of six tablespoons in like-new condition, and a 1790 American silver coin teaspoon by Foster. There are several pieces of church silver made by Foster sprinkled throughout Boston area silver collections. This according to the Theodore Parker Church, a 300 year old church in West Roxbury, with a stunning silver collection (their collection is stored at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston):
Why silver? Silver was the only reliable currency in colonial times. With multiple currencies in use, and with the continuing depreciation of the Massachusetts paper currency (and the rise in the price of silver), silver was of great value. Silversmiths were the bankers for those fortunate enough to have silver coins. To keep the coins from being stolen, silversmiths melted them down, made household items from them (such as tankards, beakers, and spoons), stamped their own marks on the pieces, and often also stamped of the owner’s monogram or crest. This domestic silver was often given to the church for use in church rituals.
The early American pieces are much simpler than those made in England during the same period. Conditions vary as well, depending on the life they led. The spoon I own by Foster seems surprisingly crude in fashion. One can get a feel for the construction of it by studying the details. On the reverse side, one can easily see where the spoon was attached to the handle. The bowl of the spoon is not perfectly oval. The edge of the spoon shows a flatness towards the front of the bowl, perhaps to make it blunt. The handle appears crimped off on the corners, one can guess with the intention of making a rounded handle but missing the mark slightly.
My spoon is a rustic example of a teaspoon but with a very fancy monogram on the handle. Was the spoon made in the early days of his work (later 1700’s), lending it to be the work of a talent in progress? Or was it a “bread & butter” item, intended as a quick turnover thing to be sold as a simple eating implement to the masses?? It may have been a custom job and reflective of what the purchaser could afford? Remember that Foster apprenticed through the year 1781. My best guess is that this spoon was made in his early career, 1790 or earlier. That would make the spoon more than 225 years old. To put this into perspective, this spoon may have been fashioned during any of the following historical events:
1783 – the American Revolutionary War
1789 – the US Constitution enacted & George Washington becomes President
1791 – the 1st Bank of the United States was chartered
The burning question in my mind – what does one individual do with such an artifact? It seems it would feel silly to use it, although when cleaned, I may feed myself some hasty or molasses pudding with it once just to say I did it. It may be somewhat crude but such as it is, it is an example of a spoon by a known early American silversmith. It belongs in a collection where caretakers can keep it properly tarnish free and available to the viewing public. Suggestions anyone?