A Place for Her Spoons

She traveled the world amassing a unique collection. Now her spoons have a home in Paterson.

One of the many spoons Bertha found in Egypt.

Photo by James Worrell

During last year’s holiday boutique at the Lambert Castle Museum in Paterson, home to local historic objects and documents, I happened upon a hallway filled with souvenir spoons. Lining the walls were glass cases of Scandinavian spoons, nautical spoons, African spoons, spoons made of animal bones, religious spoons and more. By most, the display might go unnoticed—but not by me, an avid spoon collector.

My affection for spoons began at age nine on a family trip to Iowa. I was looking at a T-shirt in a souvenir shop when the elderly shopkeeper approached. “You don’t want that, sweetie,” she said, then led me to a table of souvenir spoons. I picked out my first one, a small silver spoon with an image of Iowa native Mamie Doud Eisenhower.

Souvenir spoons grew popular with the birth of leisure tourism in Europe in the late 1800s. They were collected by the well traveled to remind them of the cities and famous landmarks they had seen. The onset of World War I put an end to that. Few people collect spoons now; these days, most travelers commemorate the places they’ve been with Instagram or Facebook posts.

The 250 spoons on display at the Lambert Castle Museum are a fraction of a collection of more than 5,400 pieces—the world’s largest spoon collection. They once belonged to Bertha Schaefer Koempel, who lived in Paterson as a girl and spent her adult life traveling with her husband. After she died in 1966, the entire collection was donated to the Passaic County Historical Society, based at Lambert Castle.

Months after I first stumbled upon the spoons, the museum’s curator, Heather Garside, gave me a peek at Bertha’s complete collection. I was excited to discover spoons from destinations in my own collection: Prince Edward Island; Verona, Italy; Mainz, Germany. Bertha collected spoons from as far away as Persia, Turkey and Japan. Egypt is represented on a metal spoon with a hand-painted camel in its bowl and a Sphinx on its stem.

Bertha’s spoons provide a glimpse into the ways people used to travel domestically. She owned spoons from resort destinations in upstate New York, like the Catskills and Lake Placid, and dozens from California. I was surprised to find many New Jersey towns represented, including Asbury Park, Lakewood, Atlantic City, Newark, Summit, Red Bank and Morristown.

Bertha also had spoons adorned with portraits of historic figures like Joan of Arc and Napoleon. She had enamel spoons, astrological-sign spoons, even carved wooden spoons that she likely never cooked with.

To date, my collection consists of only 52 spoons. Jersey is represented with one from Ocean City. My favorites are from overseas destinations like Vienna, Alsace and Valladolid. I especially value the spoon I found in Brussels with the city’s Manneken Pis—the iconic statue of a naked boy peeing into a fountain—on its handle.

My collection continues to grow as I travel. Now I have to wonder: Will my spoons ever have a home like Bertha’s?

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