HACKENSACK, N.J. - For more than 40 years, the Lambert Castle Museum in Paterson, N.J., has had what is believed to be one of the largest antique spoon collections in the world. But it's never had the funding to properly mount the display, and the collection has stayed largely out of sight.
But not out of mind.
The collection, numbering more than 5,400 spoons, is a remnant of the Victorian era when people would travel the world and collect silver spoons from faraway places as souvenirs. One of those wealthy travelers was Bertha Schaefer-Koempel, a former Paterson resident who wanted the world to see her spoon collection, so she donated it to the museum after her death in 1966.
"Our museum visitors should have the pleasure of viewing this magnificent collection in its own room with museum-grade lighting," said Edward A. Smyk, the Passaic County, N.J., historian.
To showcase the collection, the museum's board of trustees has decided to create a "spoon room" on the second floor of the building. They planned to use the proceeds of an antique show and sale that ended Sunday to raise up to $10,000.
Koempel's father, Louis Schaefer, was a pioneer in the field of chemistry and emigrated from Germany to Paterson in 1895. Schaefer founded the Maywood Chemical Works in Maywood, and the family became wealthy.
Bertha Schaefer-Koempel was 13 when she arrived in Paterson and got caught up in the American fad of collecting silver spoons. It was a fad she never tired of. She collected spoons from as far away as North Africa and Egypt. When she died in 1966, her apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City had more than 5,000 silver spoons in the closet.
In her will, Koempel required that Lambert Castle "keep the collection intact as a whole and to have such collection marked 'Bertha Koempel Spoon Collection' and exhibited in one of the public halls of said institution."
Smyk said the collection was displayed for a time in the museum store, but was taken down in the mid-1990s during a renovation and stashed in a closet, except for a handful of spoons currently mounted in a glass case in the museum foyer. The collection has never been fully appraised, so its value is unknown.
Before making her donation, Koempel meticulously catalogued each of the 5,400 spoons - where they came from, when they were bought, plus a description of each - in two binders. In the process, she created what some experts believe is one of the largest spoon collections found anywhere.
"The word I would use to describe this collection is 'eclectic,' " said Robert McKay Wilhelm, an archaeologist and editor of Spooners Forum, a collectors' guide. Wilhelm and his wife, Michelle, also an archaeologist, are considered leading experts in spoon collecting.
Both have been working with Lambert Castle to appraise the collection. Wilhelm said it was the biggest collection he had ever seen.
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a spoon collection, but nothing like this," he said.
"There are spoons from all over the world," he said. "And what's really important is that each spoon has already been catalogued. There's a lot that we can learn from that."
Spoon collecting became a fad in the United States around 1890, as steamship travel allowed Americans to visit the rest of the world. Travelers picked up silver spoons as souvenirs of their journeys to foreign places.
A spoon from Holland has the turning blades of a windmill; another spoon from Egypt has a locket attached with a mummy inside. Others depict historic events, like the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana that led to the invasion of Cuba, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, and the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1902.
Wilhelm said the collection includes two of the earliest souvenir spoons manufactured in the United States, one depicting the Salem witch trials, and the other with the portrait of George and Martha Washington in enamel on the bowl.
Lambert Castle director Alison Faubert said the money raised from this past weekend's antique show would go toward purchasing glass cases and mounting the spoons. Once mounted, the spoon exhibit could become a major attraction, she said.
"The freeholders have been emphasizing Passaic County history as a way to bring tourists, and the spoon collection fits perfectly into that strategy," Faubert said.
Faubert said that Lambert Castle receives about 10,000 visitors a year.