sam-the-eagle-spoonWho collects spoons?

Good friends in Los Angeles pleasantly surprised me recently with a couple of gifts, including a souvenir spoon from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The mascot, Sam the Eagle, adorned in a loud red-white and blue had, proudly holds the Olympic torch aloft at the tip of the spoon’s handle.

After marveling at the thoughtfulness of my friends, and this artifact from my university years, my mind lept to that simple question.

Who collects spoons?

Spoon collecting, as I now know, has a long tradition. In the mid-1800’s in Europe, merchants would sell spoons, and likely other utensils, with images of famous people or local landmarks on the handles or in the bowls of the spoon. Wealthy Americans who travelled in Europe would make it a habit to collect souvenir spoons wherever they went.

In the late 19th century, souvenir spoons became a big business in the United States, triggered by two particularly popular souvenir spoon lines, One was the George and Martha Washington series, manufactured by a company called Galt & Bros initially in honor of the 100th anniversary of America’s first president.

The second hit series was the Salem Witch Spoon series, featuring, well, a witch. An American jeweler went to Germany and saw a wide variety of ornate and unusually designed spoons, and decided that America was ready for a souvenir spoon recalling the 17th century witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts. According to this PBS article, by the mid 1890’s, there was an unprecedented boom in spoon collecting. With the advancement of mass manufacturing of the industrial age, and a collapse in the silver market, spoon collection was affordable to the growing middle class while still maintaining that hint of posh.


Here’s how the magazine Antiques and Art described the boom:

At the end of the year 1890, there were only about five souvenir spoons patented or in production in America; by May 1891, there were hundreds on the market. More patent designs were issued for souvenir spoons during this decade than for the entire period from 1790 to 1873 or after 1900. The 1890s witnessed cutting-edge innovation in the making of souvenir spoons: this decade saw the production of cast spoons (i.e. souvenir spoons made according to the lost wax process); the perfection of engraving and bright cut decoration; the introduction of embossed designs in spoon bowls and on handles; and, the production of exquisite enameled spoons which today are considered miniature works of art.

Apparently, spoon collecting is still obsession for many people today.

For a detailed display of one person’s own spoon collection, watch this unusually framed video.

XXIII Olympic Summer Games

In the 1970s, after the tragic Munich Olympics in 1972, and the financially disastrous Montreal Olympics in 1976, there were not many cities that had an appetite for the 1984 Olympics. In fact, Los Angeles may have been the only real bid, and thus were able to extract significant financial concessions from the IOC. LA Olympic Committee head, Peter Ueberroth then kept costs low by getting corporate sponsors to contribute massively. In fact Corporate America played a huge role in bringing financial accountability and world-class production values to the Olympics.

In the case of the Olympic mascot, Ueberroth was able to rely on a trusted member of corporate America, Disney. While Disney was a bidder for the mascot design project, it was true that one of the member of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee’s executive committee was Card Walker, then chairman of the board of the Disney Corporation. Thus it was no surprise that Disney won the bid.

The design of the Olympic mascot was handed to legendary artist and publicity art director, Bob Moore, whose work has been seen in such films as Fantasia, Bambi and Dumbo. In the early stages of the design process, Moore and his team worked on ideas that would emphasize the sunny Pacific Coast environment and weather, or symbols of the state, California. As a matter of fact, they thought they could use the Golden Bear, which is California’s state animal…until they realized that following on the popular Moscow Games mascot, Misha the Bear, would be more than a small cold war embarrassment.

Bob Moore

According to this detailed explanation of the development of the 1984 Olympic mascot from Mouse Planet, Moore’s team of 30 artists drew up animated versions of orange and palm trees, cactuses, bisons, snakes and turtles. Apparently, a beefed-up bison standing on two legs looked awkward and was abandoned. I suppose that was true for the humanoid cactus….

In the end, the bald eagle became the symbol of choice, with its associations to freedom, independence and fighting spirit. In fact, Sam the Eagle, as the mascot was eventually called, represented the very motto of the Olympic Games “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which is Latin for faster, higher, stronger. How a “short, stubby, cuddly little eagle” as Mouse Planet describes Sam represents faster, higher, stronger is debatable, the idea that the stuffed toy would sell millions was not. As Mouse Planet explains, 43 companies ended up licensing to sell Olympic branded products. Sam the Eagle was featured on t-shirts, cups, pins, keychains, watches, picture frames, even Frisbees and spoons.

Sam the Eagle soared, as did the American Olympic Team, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Although Misha the Bear may have had a word or two for Sam the Eagle….