What’s It Worth?: Women-centric spoon from 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

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What’s It Worth?: Women-centric spoon from 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

What’s It Worth?: Women-centric spoon from 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Q: I found this Chicago World’s Fair spoon while cleaning out a relative’s house. I love the woman on the handle. Is the spoon valuable?

A: This depends on how you define value. From a monetary point of view, your sterling silver spoon generally sells in the $10-$15 range. From the vantage of architectural interest, women’s history or sociological attitudes, your spoon is a lot of fun.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world; secondarily, it celebrated the rebirth of Chicago after the great fire of 1871, which left more than one-third of the city’s 300,000 residents homeless.

More than 200 largely temporary buildings were built on 600 acres of gardens, waterways and promenades. The Woman’s Building was one of the most popular. Socialite and philanthropist Bertha Palmer, head of the Board of Lady Managers, led the logistics and financing of this endeavor, according to authors Madeline Weimann and Wanda Corn, both experts on the fair..

Palmer conceived a competition and invited only female architects to compete. The winner was 21-year-old Sophia Hayden, the first female graduate of MIT’s four-year architecture program.  Hayden designed a building with a gloriously light-filled interior behind a relatively austere neoclassical exterior.

Hayden and Palmer had strong disagreements about the building design: Hayden wanted purity in her design; Palmer thought the exterior should incorporate ornate architectural features donated by her wealthy friends. After her design changes were not met, Palmer fired Hayden. At 21, Hayden retired from architecture, married and spent the rest of her life a painter.

None of the women artists working on the building was acknowledged with souvenir spoons.   Sculptor Enid Yarnell made caryatids on each pillar; Ellen May Rope designed plaster relief panels of Faith, Hope, Love and Charity. Mary Cassatt painted an interior 12-by-58-foot mural “Modern Women” and May Fairchild MacMonnies painted the corresponding “Primitive Women.” A 19-year-old Californian, Alice Rideout, designed the pediment and sculpted the four allegorical statues rising from the corners of the building. Interestingly, Rideout, like architect Hayden, retired after the fair and never worked again as a sculptor.

The building was torn down at the completion of the fair and none of the statuary, murals or plasterwork survived.

The bowl of your spoon depicts architect Hayden’s Woman’s Building. Looking up the handle, your spoon features Rideout’s rooftop statuary robe-draped woman with upraised arms cradling a globe; a pair of putti; and a profile portrait of a Bertha Matilda Honore Palmer wearing a multi-strand pearl choker, pearl earrings and a garland of flowers.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition showcased the fascinating friction coming to life as the world modernized and women demanded equality.  For more information about the 1893 Expo look for “The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893” by Jeanne Madeline Weimann or “Women Building History: Public Art at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition” by Wanda Corn.

For an overall view of the times and the trials of hosting a world event I can’t recommend Erik Larson’s 2004 book, “The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America” highly enough.

Lastly, while the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair may be famous for the anecdotal introduction of the ice cream cone, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair truly did introduce the chocolate brownie. Bertha Palmer instructed the kitchen of her hotel to make a portable chocolate dessert for the ladies’ boxed lunches.

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Published at Wed, 28 Jun 2017 21:00:41 +0000