Native American Technology and Art

Metal Spoon Making

The sheet metal which Native Americans obtained in trade in the 17th century was not only used for ornamental purposes. Some of the more utilitarian uses for sheet metal included the Native manufacture of spoons. These spoons were often embellished and worked with great care.

Early historic documents, as early as 1622, describe Native Americans of New England using spoons to eat with (Heath 1986). And using sheet metal to make these spoons was a natural consequence of working with the metal and applying Native American forms already used in wood carving. This Wampanoag spoon shows stylistic similarities with earlier wooden forms.

Alexander Henry in 1765, said that the Native Americans "were used to manufacture this metal into spoons and bracelets for themselves. In the perfect state in which they found it, it requiring nothing but to beat it into shape" (citing Alexander Henry in Beauchamp 1903).

Native Americans made spoons from the sheet metal of kettles and perhaps out of other European objects which exhibited a thicker guage metal. The spoons are hammered to shape, often to an extreme thinness. The bowls are usually elliptical like this Mohegan Spoon, but can be circular in shape as well. The handles of most 17th century Native spoons from the New England area are wide, flat and made of thin sheet metal. Predominant handle forms include animal-shapes and bifurcate or double-curve shapes (Beaudry 1980).

Bifurcate Handle Wampanoag Spoon
Double-curve-like Handle Mohegan Spoon
Bifurcate Handle Wampanoag Spoon
Bifurcate Handle Narragansett Spoon
Bifurcate Handle Wampanoag Spoon

Sometimes the spoons have cut out figures or perforations at the terminal ends of the handles, and utilize designs of traditional dots, triangles, and zigzags.

Narragansett Spoon with Cut-out
Paugeesuck Spoon with Cut-out

Some decorations on the handles of spoons consist of lines of small circles, which have a small hole drilled within a surrounding engraved ring. A Narragansett sheet metal spoon from Rhode Island has this 'hole within a ring' design. The small circular designs are so consistent with one another that they were probably applied using a specialized drill tip. An identical design also appears on 17th century Seneca shell pendants from New York (Hayes 1989). The tool used to make this design may have been developed by Native Americans and could have been constructed by wrapping a strip of sheet metal around a standard drill bit, allowing the drill bit to protrude slightly from its wrapping. Before the use of metal drills it is possible that a similar tool could have been made of stone, or even carved from wood and rotated with a slurry of wet sand to incise the design.

A Western Niantic brass spoon from Connecticut is made from unusually heavy gauge metal. This spoon has a wide ladle-like bowl and a flat wide handle that has been cut into a series of connected diamond shapes. No European maker's mark appears on this Western Niantic spoon and the decoration applied to the spoon handle has the familiar small 'hole within a ring' design drilled into the metal, both of which indicate the spoon was Native-made. Niantic spoons also have a detailed zigzag design around the perimeter of the spoon's bowl. This design appears to have been stamped or hammered into the metal by rocking a small chisel-shaped tool back and forth.

Over a dozen Wampanoag spoons are known from Rhode Island, all of sheet brass and Native-made from metal traded from Europeans (Beaudry 1980). One of these Wampanoag spoons, which has a wide, thin handle of Native-hammered brass, has been welded to the back of a European spoon bowl that has the 'makers mark' on it. "Even in the repair or re-fashioning of English spoons, then, the Indians drew upon their own traditional conceptions of what a spoon should look like" (Beaudry 1980).

Narragansett made spoons of sheet brass used a variety of decorative techniques including this Narragansett Spoon with raised zigzags and others with dots in the metal handle (Turnbaugh 1984). Another Masachusett spoon, from the Haffenreffer Museum, Brown University, Native-made of traded sheet-metal is decorated with dots (Snow 1980). One Narragansett brass spoon, measures 15.9 cm. in length and has a channeled stele, a form with no apparent European analogue (Simmons 1970).

"No doubt, traditional spoon forms, formerly carved out of bone or wood, provided the models for spoons produced of the newly-available material, brass. Therefore the Indian spoons display stylistic elements, such as pierced handles and forked terminals, which are uncommon or unknown on European examples." [Beaudry 1980]

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