The Aesthetic and Art Nouveau movements were enthusiastically embraced by America. The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition inspired a new generation of designers and painters with their elaborate Japanese display. These young designers assimilated these international styles into their visual lexicon, adding their own individual embellishments along the way.
In the area of decorative arts, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) was perhaps the best know advocate with his magnificent use of bronze and glass. Metal objects made by Tiffany Studios of New York were retailed in Europe through Bing in Paris. They were featured in Studio magazine in England, influencing a generation of craftsmen.
Tiffany was seminal in promoting his own form of the Aesthetic movement with the company’s Japonisme, Persian, and native American detailing; this is evident in the diverse range of metalware which was produced for the desk and table. Most items were fashioned in bronze then patinated with gold or various antique finishes.
The clientele for Tiffany Studios shared a similar visual sophistication to the patrons of Liberty & Co. and Morris & Co. in England, as well as Samuel Bing’s emporium, L’Art Nouveau, in Paris. Luxurious items in silver and bronze were expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. A cost-effective solution was recognized by utilizing pewter or Britannia metal and modern moulding technology as an alternative.
Gorham, founded in 1865 and located in Providence, Rhode Island, was a celebrated company best known for their exclusive range of silver and mixed metal cabinet pieces. Gorham espoused and promoted both the Aesthetic movement and the Art Nouveau style by creating the Martele range of hand-crafted silver objects. This exclusive line was overseen by William C. Codman, an English designer/craftsman. The range was extremely expensive and laborious to produce, but fortunately the investment paid off and Gorham were internationally celebrated at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris where they received five gold medals. This acknowledgment raised the profile of Gorham, who continued to mass produce a more commercial and affordable Britannia metal range. Some of Gorham’s Britannia items were in the Art Nouveau style, incorporating naturalistic elements such as insects flowers and shells into the designs.
Pewter was also making its way into the exhibitions and showrooms of the smaller Arts & Crafts workshops springing up around America. The revival of pewter as a medium was sparked by a renewed interest in this material as it filtered over from Europe. Pewter was also widely used in 18th- and early 19th-century America for domestic items such as plates and tankards, so it wasn’t entirely surprising that pewter had a resurgence in the new century.
Karl Kipp was one of the founders of The Roycrofters, a reformist community of craft workers located in East Aurora, New York. He began his career as a book-binder, but soon moved into the production of hammered copper and pewterware. Around 1895 – 1903, Kipp produced a number of pewter items including trays, vases, and drinking sets.
The furniture maker Gustav Stickley was also aware of the revival of hand-craftsmanship in England when he spearheaded what became known as the “Mission” style in America. Some fine examples of Stickley furniture designed by Harvey Ellis incorporate inlaid pewter in the manner of H. Ballie Scott and the Guild Of Handicrafts into decorative panels adorning the backs of chairs and the doors of cabinets. Small workshops had also begun to produce items in pewter, echoing the fashion for hand-crafted luxury items.
Boston metal-smith Rebecca Cauman (born 1872) produced beautifully crafted enamelled bowls and was especially known for her covered boxes, many of which had enamelled interiors. Rebecca attended the Massachusetts College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her pewter items had an elegant simplicity — they were similar to her production in silver and copper, but with added copper and enamelled cabochons.
After the First World War, many of the larger American factories reproduced the look of hand-planished pewter. This popular style remained fervent throughout the 1920s.
Serge Nekrassoff was born in Russia, in 1895. He served in the Russian Imperial Guard and, like many, was forced to emigrate at the time of the Russian Revolution. In 1919 he became an apprentice metalworker in Paris, with copper being his most common medium. Nekrassoff moved to New York around 1925 and opened his first workshop on 14th Street. It was at this point that he began producing work in pewter. In the 1930s Nekrassoff re-located to Darien, Connecticut, where he expanded his workshop and employed up to 18 craftsmen. He developed a house style which is somewhat reminiscent of Georg Jensen, incorporating stylised floral motifs and hand-planished surface decoration.
The Meriden Britannia Company of Meriden, Connecticut, founded in 1869, was one of America’s most proficient makers of fine silver-plated pewter/Britannia metal. Some of the items were finished with a planished surface echoing items made by Liberty & Co. in England.
The Derby Silver Co., founded 1872 in Shelton Connecticut, produced a varied range of flat and hollowware which was sold through their own retail outlets in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. Items such as the champagne cooler in a conservative but stylish Art Nouveau style with a sinuous floral design, were typical of this factories quality and sophistication. Some of Derby’s items were stamped “Victor Silver Plate Company.” This was most likely Derby’s budget range of goods sold through the S & H (Sperry and Hutchinson) green stamp outlets.
The International Silver Company, founded in 1898, can trace its origins to Ashbil Griswold, an entrepreneur who established a pewter workshop in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1808 (see above).
Around the turn of the 20th century, 13 workshops and factories, including the Manhattan Silverplate Company, Rogers Brothers of Waterbury Connecticut, Meriden, Derby, Webster, and Wilcox merged into the International Silver Company. This strengthened the finances of all of the companies involved and secured the future of these smaller factories.
They all produced a similar range of cutlery and hollowware based on traditional Sheffield designs. A few experimental items in the Art Nouveau style were produced, including a lamp by Webster, however most lacked the imagination and fluidity of their European counterparts such as Germany’s WMF.
It is possible that the merger of these companies led to a conservative backlash from centralized management directives, as most of the examples of pewter that I have found are either based on traditional American shapes, such as the designs of Paul Revere, and popular traditional models similar to those available in English pattern books of the period.
Pairpoint was another factory located on the East Coast of America in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It began as the Mount Washington Glass Company in 1894, later merging with a small local Britannia metal workshop to form the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company. They received encouraging praise for their designs for lamps and tableware, including tea sets and candlesticks.
In 1900 Pairpoint became the Pairpoint Corporation. This company is best known for their reverse painted lamps with unusual pewter bases, some fashioned as animals and tree trunks. Another example of Pairpoint’s inventiveness is clearly seen in the novelty cigar compendium designed as a champagne bottle. All of the sections unscrew to reveal an ashtray cigar compartment and match holder.
The Ansonia Clock Manufacturing Company of New York produced elaborate ormolu designs in Britannia metal with gilded figures. Later on in the early 1900s they produced a number of designs in the continental Art Nouveau style. Many of the clocks have figural maidens in sensual poses.
After the First World War, some interesting designs in pewter emerged in the Modernist and Art Deco styles. American pewter for the most part remained conservative and traditional, however there are a few examples that merit mention such as, the Cubist tea-set, “Diament,” designed by Gene Theobald and Virginia Hamill ca. 1930 for the Wilcox Silverplate Company. This was manufactured in silver-plated Britannia metal with Bakelite handles and utilized ocean liner-style streamlining to create a compact set that fitted together on the tray like a sculptural puzzle. The smokers’ compendium by Josef Hoffmann’s son, Wolfgang, employs a Modernist approach to design in the Bauhaus style which is particularly successful.
Many novelty cocktail shakers were produced during this period, including the “Golf Bag” designed by G. H. Berry in 1926. It was manufactured by the Derby Silver Company in Britannia metal and has the distinction of being one of the earliest novelty cocktail shakers produced. Also of note were the designs produced in the 1930s for bookends, match holders, and bowls from Russel Wright; many bring into play animal forms.
© Paul Carter Robinson, 20th Century Pewter: Art Nouveau to Modernism, published by Antique Collectors’ Club, 2012. This excerpt re-printed with permission from the author and publisher.