My mother recently gave me an old pewter spoon, one with a story that tallies with my interest in American culinary history. She’d been cleaning out her kitchen cupboards and a couple of closets, and found the spoon, which she’d forgotten she’d had.
The touchmark at the end of the handle reads “Joseph Copeland, 1675, Chuckatuck.” A tiny pamphlet inserted into the now-grungy plastic slip case elaborated just enough to send me to the computer to learn more about Mr. Copeland and pewter spoons.
Chuckatuck, Virginia lies 30 miles south of Jamestown, on old Route 10, a road dating from colonial days and before, most likely a road or trail frequented by the early Native Americans – the Nansemonds – of the area. Joseph Copeland, a pewtersmith born and trained in England, settled in Isle of Wight county by 1675. As was the case with many early settlers, Copeland owned land. Not much is known about him, although he is assumed to have been a Quaker, because when his first wife, Mary (maiden name unknown) died, the Chuckatuck Quaker Meeting recorded the death.
The Copeland spoon, thought to be the oldest dated pewter item in North America, turned up in an archaeological excavation at the Talbott/Marable house near Historic Jamestown. Archaeologists found only the handle of the spoon, but since the fig-shaped bowl of spoons gave way to a more oval shape by approximately 1660, the rounded bowl of reproductions of the spoon made by the Kirk-Stieff Company in Baltimore, Maryland is probably close to the original. And these reproductions appeared in 1957, the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
Owning pewter flatware became a sign of gentility in the early colonies and many inventories of estates mentioned spoons. Unlike forks, relatively new additions to the material culture of the kitchen and dining room, spoons fed humans for centuries, but people with few means turned to wood, shells, and bone to form utensils like spoons for eating and cooking.
When Joseph Copeland’s son and namesake died in 1726, his estate inventory listed “old Spoon Molds” and 38.5 pounds of pewter, possibly some items leftover from his father’s trade. Pewtersmiths often melted down old pieces and reused the metal, which was generally mostly tin, combined with other metals to harden the material: copper, antimony, and sometimes lead, etc.
The importance of pewter is difficult for we moderns to understand, but it enjoyed an important place in English and early American history. Martha Washington’s cookbook mentions pewter in several recipes, instructing the cook to put finished dishes into “a pewter dish,” as in the case of, for example, “To Make a Paste of Genoa” or “To Make Paste of Orringes & Leamons.”
There’s still a formal group (or guild), the Worshipful Company of Pewterers in England, which dates to approximately 1348.
Holding this Copeland spoon, feeling its heft – so different from any of the serving and cooking spoons in my kitchen – makes me feel a bit closer to those cooks from eons ago.
© 2016 C. Bertelsen