By James Deetz
Spoons are among the more common artifacts found in Old Colony archaeological sites of the seventeenth century. The archaeological collections at Plimoth Plantation, recovered from seven sites in Plymouth, Kingston and Marshfield, contain a good sample of spoons which illustrate the development of the spoon during the seventeenth century. The earlier spoons usually were made from latten, an alloy which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “mixed metal of yellow color, either identical with, or closely resembling, brass”. From about the middle of the century onward, latten spoons were tin plated, which gave them a silvery appearance when new, although when excavated this plating usually has disappeared. Earlier spoons of this type had bowls which were widest toward the front, a form often called fig-shaped. As the century progressed, this shape slowly changed, approaching the shape of modern spoon bowl more closely, with the maximum width further back toward the handle end. The handles of seventeenth century latten spoons also changed as the century passed, from an earlier slender form, with a cross-section of flattened hexagonal shape, to a flatter wider form by the century’s end. The ends of spoon handles were frequently ornamental, with “seal-top”, apostle figure, or “trifid” decorations. There was a trend toward the splaying out of the handle end toward the end of the century, accompanying the general flattening of the entire handle.
By the end of the seventeenth century, mold-made pewter spoons seem to have made their first appearance in the Plymouth area; these are similar in their shape to the later seventeenth century latten spoons, with flat handles and with flaring ends. An extension of the handle under the bowl produced the “rat-tail” effect which gives this type of spoon one of its common names. To date, only one spoon of this type has been recovered from an archaeological site in the Plymouth area, although since it became more common as the eighteenth century progressed, the pewter mold-made spoon might be expected to occur more frequently in sites from later in that century. This spoon was excavated at the Joseph Howland site in Rocky Nook, Kingston, in 1959. It came from one of the two cellar holes on this site, and can be rather closely dated to the period between 1680 and 1710, a date based on pipe stem analysis and other closely dated artifacts, such as pottery, coins and bottles. The spoon now is stored at the Plantation with the total collection from the Joseph Howland site.
Early in 1968, Lothrop Withington visited the research department at Plimoth Plantation to compare the late seventeenth century latten spoon with one excavated at the Bradford site in Kingston. This spoon is part of a collection of spoons and spoon molds which he and his son, Ellis Brewster Withington, have been assembling over the years. He also brought a number of other spoons for the staff to inspect, including a striking mold for a pewter spoon and some new casts made from it. This mold produced a rather ornate spoon, with elaborate scroll work o the back of the bowl, and a portrait of an individual who is probably King William on the end of the handle. But the most interesting thing about the cast was its apparent similarity to the spoon excavated at the Joseph Howland site. The excavated spoon was produced from the collections, and upon comparing it with the one case from Mr. Withington’s mold it became obvious that indeed they might not be merely similar, but possibly identical. Further comparison of the two spoons was simple. A series of measurements was made on the distances between various points in the decorative scrolls on the bowl, and it was found that the two were identical in that respect. The numbers of dots, beads and lines in the design were compared, and also found to be identical. Furthermore, alignments between different portions of the design were the same. The extremely unlikely possibility that the only pewter rat-tail spoon ever recovered archaeologically actually was made from the mold in Mr. Withington’s collection seemed in fact to be true. Further support to this incredible match came through comparing these two spoons with three others of the same general type in Withington’s collection. While the same general decorative ideas are evident on all four spoons, they vary quite considerably in detail., and none of the others even remotely matches the Howland spoon in the degree of specific resemblance shown by the spoon cast from the mold. In all the years the Howland spoon had been at the Plantation, no one had ever closely examined the handle for any design. With the fresh cast from the mold in hand, it was re-examined, and found to still bear the extremely faint traces of the same portrait as was on the cast. The mold has a minute flaw in the handle, which produces a bump on the face of the portrait. Under low microscopic examination and with proper lighting a possible remnant of this bump can be seen on the Howland spoon handle though it is not possible to be absolutely certain about this particular detail.
The mold owned by Mr. Withington was obtained in Connecticut, but it has been in a New Bedford antique shop before that. Thus it was still in the Old Colony area up until quite recently. What its history prior to that time is we do not know. However, the simple fact that after two centuries, a mold and one of the spoons which it had produced could be brought together again is truly amazing and doubly so in view of the fact that the Howland spoon is the only one of its type ever excavated in all of the years of archaeological research in the Old Colony area.
This article was originally printed in the January-April 1969 edition of The Howland Quarterly.