Q. I found this piece while going through old stuff in a deceased relative's house. It caught my eye because it looked to be silver. I have no idea what it might be. My best guess is a snuff spoon. Other than the spoon, it also has a retractable blade. On the back is engraved, "Gifford's Pat. Nov. 5, 1867." It is 2-1/4 inches long closed and 2-3/4 inches long when opened. I am stumped. What was it used for, and does it have any value?
A. Your guess of a snuff spoon is a very good one. Snuff spoons are usually this small, but these tiny spoons (as a general rule) have long stems that allow the spoon to reach deep into a snuff bottle. That said, what else could this very interesting device be?
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The answer may be a bit surprising for some who would not dream of using a metal device to perform a function now done with a piece of soft cotton on the end of a stick.
But before we go any further, it should be emphasized no medical professional would recommend that either the soft piece of cotton or the hard piece of metal be used in this fashion because both can cause very serious damage.
Some of you have guessed this spoon-shaped instrument was designed to be used to remove earwax and is often called an "ear pick," "ear scoop" or -- our favorite, because it is descriptive of its actual purpose -- "ear spoon." Yes, Mr. A.W. Gifford of Worcester, Mass., designed this to be an earwax remover, but Gifford also intended for his apparatus to be multipurpose.
We think we understand (rightly or wrongly) there are variations in Gifford's invention. Some could be used as a scissor guide, a nail file, a pen knife and a seam ripper (presumably the function of the pen knife that can be retracted).
Ear spoons were often multifunctional, and collectors commonly find them paired with such things as tweezers and toothpicks as part of the package. (We do not care to imagine picking your teeth and then cleaning your ears with the same instrument. Gross!)
Ear spoons were made from jade, gold, sterling silver, ivory, bone and tortoise shell. However, we believe that the one in today's question is probably made from steel.
Of course, it could be silver, and in that case should tarnish. A steel one should rust if left exposed to even a small amount of moisture. The latter is not an experiment we suggest trying, but we think we see dark areas in the grooves of the engraving, and these could be either tarnish or rust.
A jeweler could easily test it to determine whether it is sterling. We found an 1836 English sterling example that sold for $100 at auction. But we also found a beautifully carved Chinese jade ear spoon that sold for only $40.
That this one is an American example is much in its favor, and the patent information also helps both historically and monetarily. But we believe the value of a steel example at retail is probably $150 or less, while a silver-metal content might add another $50 to $75, at most.
• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.