While all of our collection objects are wonderful pieces of Rhode Island’s history, some are asked about more than others. On this page we will highlight those that are of special interest to many of our patrons.
The Rochambeau Presentation Spoon
There are many reproductions of the Rochambeau Presentation Spoon. In fact, it is one of the most asked about items in our collection. We hope the information below will answer any questions you might have about its origins.
Count de Rochambeau was one of the French officers who aided the colonists during the War for Independence. He often joined the Jabez Bowens of Providence when in Rhode Island. On one occasion, he gave Mrs. Bowen a very large spoon from his personal camp silver. Bowen descendants treasured the spoon for many years, and ultimately presented it to the Newport Historical Society as a gift to its permanent collection.
Reproductions of this spoon were made by Gorham & Company between 1930 and 1960. Indeed, a set of salad serving pieces was made in the same pattern, although only one piece (the turkey dressing spoon) has the same inscription that Rochambeau had engraved on the original: “Rochambeau to Lt. Gov. Jabez Bowen, R. I. 1780.” Many of these spoons are still in use, and some turn up at auctions or on eBay.
The reproduction spoons’ maker, Gorham Manufacturing Company, originated as “Gorham and Webster,” a firm whose chief product was spoons. It began in 1831 with the partnership of Jabez Gorham, a master craftsman, and Henry L. Webster. The firm also made thimbles, combs, jewelry, and other small items. In 1847 Jabez retired and his son, John Gorham, took control of the company. John Gorham enlarged the premises in downtown Providence, improved the designs, and utilized factory mechanization. Gorham believed so strongly in modern manufacturing methods that he was one of the first to introduce factory methods to augment hand craftsmanship in the production of silverware.
In May, 1852 John Gorham left for Europe, where he visited silver workshops and manufacturers in London. He also talked to individual specialists, including craftsmen and toolmakers. Gorham was primarily interested in cutting-edge technology but also spent extended time with master craftsmen, suggesting the firm’s devotion to quality workmanship within a manufacturing context. John Gorham also sought out highly skilled foreign workmen to train his American workers. George Wilkinson, a premier designer and workshop manager, represents such a worker.
Gorham Manufacturing Co. changed hands several times over the following decades, but operated by the name of “Gorham Manufacturing Company” under an 1865 charter granted by the Rhode Island legislature. The firm continued to grow, and in 1890 relocated to an up-to-date factory on Adelaide Avenue in Providence.