Silver fork and spoon

Chang and Eng Bunker’s fork and spoon, acquired by Wilson Library in 2012.

Silver Fork and Spoon

Rachel Best, Andrea Chaves, Janice Lee, and Ellen Lesser

The silver fork and spoon, while seemingly mundane historical artifacts and objects of ordinary use, offer intriguing insight into the domestic life of Chang and Eng Bunker and the use of dining utensils during the nineteenth century. The utensils have the initials “C” and “E” stamped on the handles and show obvious signs of use. Although they have the same pattern on the edges, they appear to be from manufacturers established in different countries.  These items provide a glimpse into the lives of these extraordinary men and serve as a subtle reminder that, although a portion of their lives was spent traveling and performing, they eventually settled down to have wives, children, and farms, where they took part in tasks of everyday life.

According to Judge Graves, a close friend of the Bunker twins’ whom they often entertained, their manner of life was similar to that of the upper class farmers around them. The Bunkers’ home was large with elegant interior design and contained multiple sets of silver spoons and forks, which is unsurprising given the considerable size of their families. Despite their wealth, however, Graves noted that owning silver kitchenware at the time was fairly common, indicating that silverware in the nineteenth century was not particularly expensive.1 In the twins’ account book, it was recorded that C. Harris purchased gifts from New York in June 1840 for the twins. Chang and Eng received six silver table forks and six silver tablespoons which cost $29 and $26.25, respectively.2 It is possible that this fork and spoon were included in that purchase, but it is not known for certain.

Because of the large number of silverware they possessed, the Bunker twins were able to have many visitors in their home. Christine Quigley claims that the twins were said to “enjoy company and to show great hospitality to visitors who were genuine and not just curious.”3 Most likely, the twins showed hospitality towards their guests in an American style as opposed to displaying traditions typical of the Siamese culture from which they descended. According to James W. Hale, studies that were conducted on the twins stated that Chang and Eng were well accustomed to everyday living in Western countries. They usually drank beverages of tea, coffee, or water, but they did not much prefer wine and spirits. From these accounts, it can be concluded that the twins dined on Western food instead of customary Siamese dishes.4

The American method of dining with utensils involves cutting food with the knife in the dominant hand and then switching to hold the fork in the dominant hand, a method learned from the French.5 As Chang and Eng Bunker spent some time traveling around Europe, and specifically England, they may have picked up the English style of eating, which is to leave the knife in the dominant hand at all times. Due to their physical conjoining, it might also have simply been easier for them to employ this technique when eating.

In addition to the initials “C” and “E,” which presumably stand for Chang and Eng, the spoon bears the engraving of the silversmith company Walker & Hall. George Walker established the initial enterprise in approximately 1845 in Sheffield, England, and a few years later he formed the partnership with Henry Hall.6 The company specialized in a production process called electroplating, which had been only recently discovered at the time for use with silver and involved the coating of an object with the metal using electrical currents. This method often creates a more whitish tint to the silver and conceals the seams created in the original formation of the dish or utensil.7 The famous trademark of Walker & Hall, which was stamped onto all of their pieces and wares, incorporates the letters “W” and “H” within a flag symbol. Variations on this emblem do exist, including that of the initials placed inside of a rectangle with ribbed curvatures on the two vertical borders.8 This particular spoon of Chang and Eng’s displays a more simplified version of the initials enclosed by a rectangle with entirely straight sides.  Also interesting to note is the lack of additional maker’s markings on the spoon, or hallmarks which were required to be placed silver products made in England throughout the nineteenth century in order to ensure quality and construction were up to standards and that the proper taxes had been paid.9

Production of silver goods as a whole increased during the 1800s because of the discovery of new sites for mining silver in addition to revived interest in and transport of the metal from previously established ores in places all over the world. Furthermore, there was an expansion of the middle class in Europe and America that led to a growth in the output of silver as demand increased. Silversmiths began to manufacture basic objects in a more industrialized fashion along with the special orders they produced for the elite classes. The mass production of smaller goods, including spoons and flatware, made the products readily available to the growing middle class and provided them with utensils formerly reserved as luxury goods for the upper classes.10 Thus it appears that it would not have been uncommon for Chang and Eng to own a silver spoon in a time when such materials were being so widely produced. The scratches and markings on the bottom of the curved part of the instrument indicate that the spoon was used for the consumption of food and not just for display in their home.

The Tenneys, a family of silversmiths based in New York, produced the fork that belonged to Chang and Eng Bunker. William Ingalls Tenney, a silversmith and jeweler, owned his business from February 1806 until his death in April 1848. He partnered with his younger brother, Daniel Ingalls Tenney, from 1828 to 1848, and Daniel continued the business after William’s death.11 Although it would have maintained some value because it was made of silver, Chang and Eng’s fork would not have been one of the Tenneys’ more expensive, elaborate pieces. It was made in the Fiddle style, which was a very common, simple pattern for silverware of that era, highly popular amongst those living comfortably in the 1800s.12 Certain uniformity exists amongst all the pieces manufactured by the Tenneys, including the Fiddle-style handle, as well as the initials of those who purchased the flatware. Unlike many of the Tenney pieces produced around this time which had the initials on the front of the handle, this particular fork of the Bunkers has the calligraphy on the back, an indication of the possibility that the twins made additional customized requests in regards to the pieces. Typically, the silversmith who crafted the object was specified by a stamp located on the back of each item; those articles made by William Tenney consisted of variations of his name spelled out or the letters W.I.T. This particular fork simply reads “Tenney,” and although the Tenneys’ shop was located at 251 Broadway, the address on the fork belonging to Chang and Eng reads 281 Broadway.13 Like the spoon, it is evident from the small marks on the fork that it was probably used regularly as an eating utensil rather than saved for special occasions. The present day value of the fork is a result of its relationship to Chang and Eng rather than the fork’s design and manufacturer.

In the nineteenth century, forks were still considered somewhat of a status symbol even as they came into more widespread use. A full place setting was a common way to display one’s wealth and taste. Forks began to be popular in Europe among the upper classes in the 1400s, but they had been in use around the world since at least the seventh century. As people were able to make do with simply a spoon and a knife, it would take several more centuries for them to catch on with the emerging middle class, but they became fairly prevalent in the United States of America by the late nineteenth century. Poorer families would probably have had at least one fork, but it would have been made out of very cheap material.14

It is unknown exactly when Chang and Eng Bunker acquired these particular dining utensils. The spoon would have come into their possession in the second half of the century since the company Walker & Hall was not established until that time; the fork has a much larger time frame in which it could have been procured. The style of the fork and spoon match, but since the design was relatively common at the time it does not necessarily signify their status as a set, particularly since they come from different makers in different countries.

 

Endnotes

1. Graves, Jesse Franklin. Life of Eng and Chang Bunker, the Original Siamese Twins. Surry County, N.C.: Surry County Historical Society, Surry County Bicentennial Commission, 1970. Print.

2. Bunker, Chang, and Eng. An Account of Monies Expended by Chang-Eng. 1832-1841. Print.

3. Quigley, Christine. Conjoined Twins : an Historical, Biological, and Ethical Issues Encyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2003. Print.

4. Hale, James W.. An historical account of the Siamese twin brothers from actual observations. New-York, 1831. 19pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 26 October 2012 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/Sabin?af=RN&ae=CY111095587&srchtp=a&ste=14>.

5. Coffin, Sarah D., Ellen Lupton, and Darra Goldstein. Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500 to 2005. 5 May 2006. Museum Exhibit. Smithsonian, New York City.

6. “Walker & Hall Biography.” Museums Sheffield. Museums Sheffield, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2012. <http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/collections-old/profile?constituent=205>.

7. Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Silverware : 2,373 Entries, Relating to British and North American Wares, Decorative Techniques and Styles and Leading Designers and Makers, Principally from C.1500 to the Present. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Print.

8. B., Giorgio. “Walker & Hall.” Silvercollection.it. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2012. <http://www.silvercollection.it/ENGLAWALKER&HALL.html>.

9. McNab, Jessie. “Nineteenth-Century English Silver”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. Web. 04 Nov. 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/19es/hd_19es.htm>.

10. McNab, Jessie. “Nineteenth-Century English Silver”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. Web. 04 Nov. 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/19es/hd_19es.htm>.

11. “William I. Tenney – SMP Silver Salon Forums.” William I. Tenney – SMP Silver Salon Forums. SM Publications, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://www.smpub.com/ubb/Forum19/HTML/000361.html>.

12. Jim Stringer. “Tenney silversmith.” Email to Andrea Chaves.  26 Oct. 2012.

13. “William I. Tenney – SMP Silver Salon Forums.” William I. Tenney – SMP Silver Salon Forums. SM Publications, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://www.smpub.com/ubb/Forum19/HTML/000361.html>.

14. Ward, Chad. “The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork.” Editorial. Leite’s Culinaria. N.p., 6 May 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2012. <http://leitesculinaria.com/1157/writings-the-uncommon-origins-of-the-common-fork.html>.