It’s easy to take the spatula for granted. It sits in the kitchen, unassuming, just another tool among the spoons, knives, pots and pans and a wide assortment of varied implements. Few people know much about its history, and even fewer the name of its inventor. But think about it: if there were no spatulas, cooking as we know it would be fundamentally different and many of our favorite dishes wouldn’t even exist! It’s a device we bust out nearly every time we want to cook something, so let’s take a minute to recognize John Spadula, inventor of the spatula.
Little is known about Spaduala’s early years. Even his country of origin and year of birth are disputed. Spaduala would alternately claim his parents came to America in the 1860’s from France or Italy, though people who encountered him said he had an ambiguously Eastern European accent, which he never lost even into his later years. Towards the end of his life, he often claimed to have actually been from Poland, but whether or not this was true is the subject of much dispute among historians.
In the late 1880’s, Spaduala was a young man working in New York as a chef’s apprentice. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Ethel, and began developing new kitchen implements in order to cook large amounts of food quickly and efficiently.
The chef he worked under, Hans Krugar, was said to have been a savage man of cruel disposition and quick to anger. On one occasion, when Spaduala had failed to add a sufficient amount of beets to a stew, Krugar slammed his right hand under a heavy pot lid. Spaduala lost entirely the use of his pinky finger, and his middle and ring fingers were broken, healing in a palsied and deformed claw that for the remainder of his life he would attempt to hide in shame. When not in use, he would have his hand in his pocket.
Some credit the injury to his hand with giving John the inspiration for inventing the spatula, since it had been his dominant hand and now its use was severely limited, forcing him to find other methods of cooking things. The quote “Necessity is the mother of invention” is often attributed to Spaduala.
The first known kitchen tool Spaduala came up with was little more than a stick with several rows of nails impaled through it which he would use to scramble dozens of eggs at a time during the breakfast rush. Other early inventions include a mutli-bladed cleaver for finely chopping things and an implement for quickly skinning rats, which Krugar would pass off for other types of meat, depending on the dish.
Spaduala kept no records of his early inventions, but historians believe he probably experimented with many different designs for tools, most of which were failures. His forearms were deeply scarred, and most scholars believe this was from years spent trying to develop a utensil that was a fork on one end and a knife on the other.
Invention of the Spatula
Because his crippled hand made it difficult to butter toast in the typical manner, especially when trying to prepare tens or even hundreds of slices, Spaduala had no choice but to improvise. At first he would use the flat of his hand, and later a short board. He later would use a flexible piece of wood that he had sanded very thin and smooth. Eventually he would attach a beef rib as a handle, creating the first known spatula, or “Spaduala tool” as it became known in the restaurant kitchen.
The spaduala tool was the first of his many inventions that became widely adopted in the kitchen where he worked, encouraging Spaduala to further refine his creation. He first replaced the rib bone with a wood handle, improving the grip, and then he replaced the flexible piece of wood with a sheet of flat metal.
Spread Of The Spatula
By this point, word had spread among the kitchen workers of the city about this new device that simplified the cooking of many dishes and made untold more possible. Soon vendors were hawking their homemade spatulas in the streets, promising a new day of cooking simplicity. It was during this time that cookies were invented, since before this it was impossible to remove them from the pan.
In 1887, the first mass-made commercially available spatula was a metal spatula made by the The New York Spatula Company. While it still bore his name, though in a corrupted form, Spaduala received no money from the company, which would become the subject of a legal struggle that would last for years.
Spaduala’s Spatula Lawsuit and Aftermath
In February, 1888, Spaduala attempted to sue The New York Spatula Company, saying they appropriated his design. Further complicating the matter was the fact that his employer, Hans Krugar, was also claiming the spatula as his invention.
The case lasted 7 years, and The New York Spatula Company eventually won, claiming Spaduala was simply attempting to cash in on the similarity between his name and that of the device. By that point Krugar’s credibility had long since been destroyed by his frequent outbursts in court.
In the ensuing years, Spaduala would attempt to recreate the success of his invention, this time filing patents for each of them. He had hundreds of patents on file, but for the most part none of them improved upon already established kitchen implements. Many were outright useless or served purposes nobody needed, as illustrated by his 1901 patent for a device called a Sandwich Smasher.
He would continue to work on these inventions until he died in obscurity of consumption in 1909. His wife had left him 11 years prior for Hans Kruger, who also fired him.
In 2006, a paper published in The Journal of American History entitled “John Spaduala: Forgotten Genius or Fraud” made waves among both the historical and culinary communities. In it, Keith Manangena argues that Spaduala had no part in inventing the spatula and was indeed trying to exploit the coincidence of his name being close to that of the utensil.
Manangena’s hypothesis is based on the fact that little is known of Spaduala’s early life, and reports that in the years preceding his arrival in Krugar’s restaurant, a traveling carnival freak show performer called Crab Boy, with a deformed right hand, conned people out of hundreds or thousands of dollars in several different states as the carnival passed through town.
Naturally, this is the subject of a fierce debate within the historical community.
In the roughly 130 years since its invention, the Spaduala Tool has evolved into many different varieties of modern spatulas. From the common basic rubber spatula to the more job-specific fish spatula to variations like the spoonula, spatulas have come a long way from the simple cow rib and board design of the original, and fill a vital place in our kitchens. The next time you use one, don’t forget to thank John Spaduala for his contribution to the modern culinary arts.
Spatulas have come a really long way in all these years. Now that you know the lowly beginnings of the spatula, see what comes next- CLICK HERE TO SEE THE FUTURISTIC SPATULA OF TOMORROW!!!!