Silver Surfer

Avid collector Watters O. Martin gets a history lesson from an unlikely source.

Watters o. martin grew up in a household full of museum-quality poi pounders, calabashes and quilts, but he viewed the pieces pragmatically, rather than with a collector’s eye.

“My mother’s Hawaiian so we had Hawaiian things, family things that were used.”

He watched his mom go through a period of acquiring koa furniture through estate sales during the 1940s and ’50s, but still, the collecting bug didn’t bite until, at age 21, he began to discover a Hawai’i he didn’t know through books.

“In the late ’60s, public schools didn’t teach Hawaiian history and I said enough was enough. I wanted to learn more, so I started to collect rare, out-of-print Hawaiian books, and slowly built a collection.”

And that was that. By the late 1970s, he had moved on to paintings and by his own admission, knew he had gone a little overboard when he discovered a Hawaiian feather cape in England and had to have it.

“I collected a lot of things and suddenly wasn’t sure whether I owned these things or they owned me. There’s a responsibility to collecting and taking care of the things you own. We can’t all be like Mrs. [Anna Rice] Cooke and build an art museum. You also realize your collection has to go in a direction.”

It was time to pare and choose an area of focus, so out went the feather cape and in came a concentration on volcano paintings, and eventually, Hawaiian souvenir spoons.

“I discovered my grandparents from Lahaina, had, during the 1930s, traveled through the United States, from California to New York, and my grandmother came back with a bunch of spoons.”

He was intrigued by her collection, with their miniature depictions of Niagara Falls and Wild West Indian depictions, and learned that a rosy glimpse of Hawai’i’s past was also served up in silver.

He discovered souvenir spoons dating just after the dawning of Hawai’i tourism in the late 19th century—at about the time King Kamehameha V built the first Royal Hawaiian Hotel in downtown Honolulu, where the Hawai’i State Art Museum now stands. Its purpose was to house the foreign dignitaries and businessmen who came calling on the royals and needed a place to stay, long before the first commercial hotel, the Moana Surfrider, opened in Waikiki in 1901.

Many of the spoons were offered by Gump’s or created by Henry F. Wichman—a Honolulu jeweler who crafted sterling silver spoons depicting various aspects of Hawaiian life.

Spoons in Martin’s 400-piece collection include many with sculptured tips bearing surfers, grass shacks, ‘ukulele, and likenesses of Hawaiian monarchs, or bowls in the shape of ‘ape leaves, clam shells or painted with postcard imagery.

Other spoons made elsewhere simply had a Hawaiian coin placed at the tip “so it became something they could sell in the Hawaiian Islands,” Martin says. “A spoon with a pineapple design could also be sold in California and Florida.”

In 1928, a sterling silver spoon sold for about $75, out of reach of the average working person who was making about .50 cents an hour, or $4 a day, according to Martin.

“The spoons appealed to a certain class of people who had sterling silver in their homes. Tea spoons, salt spoons and demitasse spoons were originally created for utilitarian purposes, but it became fashionable to collect them everywhere. People didn’t have cameras in those days so if they wanted to remember a place, they could buy a spoon.”

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