By Richard V. Simpson
In the world of silversmithing, the undisputed giant remains for all time the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island. The company incorporated in1865 and by 1872 employed 450 at its Steeple Street plant. Gorham’s rapid growth is due in great part by securing a lucrative contract from Tiffany & Co., to manufacture all of that company’s line of silverware.
Gorham exhibited in every major International Fair from 1879 on. For the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Gorham cast a silver statue of Columbus winning public accolades and garnering 47 prizes for excellence.
Since 1831, when Jabez Gorham (1791 – 1869) first formed a partnership with Henry L. Webster for the purpose of manufacturing jewelry and silver spoons on Steeple Street in Providence, the Gorham Manufacturing Company has become one of the world’s largest and most honored producers of fine silver. While serving a traditional apprenticeship under Nehemiah Dodge, one of Providence’s most respected silversmiths at the turn of the 19th century, Gorham learned to make coin-silver flatware. Fashioned of lightweight rolled silver and cut with simple dies and tools, coin flatware was the mainstay of Gorham’s several early partnerships.
In 1848, Gorham’s son John (1820 – 1898) succeeded his father as head of the firm and he immediately embarked on a campaign to expand production. John traveled to England in 1852 and purchased the first steam-powered drop press used in America for the production of silver flatware. This innovation reduced production time, lowering retail price making silver flatware available to a wider audience. The firm’s revenue increased steadily, and by mid-century Gorham was among the largest silver manufactories on the world.
Gorham’s early success came about because of familiarity with English and French styles of cast embellishments, such as leaves, flowers and vines, and engine-turned engraving combined with naturalistic forms produced by the latest machine technology. In contrast to the conspicuous naturalism, some hollowware combined elements of the Rococo, Classical and Renaissance Revival styles in chased, beaded and engraved decoration. Such commanding Victorian eclecticism undoubtedly appealed to Mary Todd Lincoln when she ordered a service in this extreme pattern as part of the White House inventory of state dining service in 1861.
During the 1870s, Gorham received enviable commissions; the largest single commission ever received was the 740-piece dining service for Colonel Henry J. Furber, president of Universal Life Insurance Company. The Furber service embodies the opulence and eccentricities of High Victorian dining; the service took over six years to produce.
Among the most striking displays at the Philadelphia Centennial was the Japanese exhibit. The display was the introduction to most Americans to the arts of Japan. Gorham was not to be outdone; Gorham artists and designers had access many volumes of illustrated Japanese art in Gorham’s extensive library. Designers, thus inspired, employed engraved designs and cast ornaments such as birds, insects, bamboo, fans, dragons and other Japanese cultural devices on many diverse surfaces during the periods of Asian influence in the applied art of America. Gorham produced many wares in direct imitation of actual Japanese metalwork such as sward guards (tsuba) and dagger handles (kozuka).
By the 1890s, Gorham had outgrown its Steeple Street plant and moved to a large and efficient facility in the Elmwood section of Providence.
At every stage of its development and growth, Gorham employed European artisans and designers who brought with them knowledge of the latest European fashions and technology. From Birmingham came silversmith George Wilkinson arriving in 1857 who took charge of the design department. With Gorham’s entrepreneurial instincts and Wilkinson’s artistic talents, the quantity and quality of hollowware increased dramatically in the decades of the 1850s and 1860s.
Wilkinson hired French-trained designer, Englishman Thomas J. Pairpoint. Pairpoint was responsible for many of Gorham’s High Victorian designs between 1868 and 1877.
Pairpoint, very much aware of his worth as a celebrated leader in silverware design made a very lucrative agreement with Mt. Washington Glass Works’ management for use of his name. The Mt. Washington Britannia metal manufacturing plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts was renamed the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company and Pairpoint became chief of operations and principle designer.
French silversmith and die-cutter F. Antoine Heller left Tiffany and Co., and joined Gorham in 1881. Heller’s Beaux-Arts training is apparent in his designs for pictorial flatware notably the popular Fontainebleau, Medici and Old Masters patterns in which the sculptured forms are in high relief.
In 1891, designer William Christmas Codman became Gorham’s chief designer. Codman introduced the firm’s Martelé (hand-hammered) line of silver, which was the principle part of the company’s display at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Raised from solid silver, Martelé blends elements of Art Nouveau with fundamentals of the Arts and Crafts Movement: the hand of the artisan is evident.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought production to a standstill, however, Gorham initiated an innovative project which kept his artisans working; from original designs and dies they meticulously producing hundreds of examples of 19th-century hollowware. The project insured that workers would not lose their touch due to idleness and created an invaluable design resource; the Depression-era reproductions are now the only known examples of certain patterns.
One of the striking characteristics of many American coin silver spoons of the 1830-1850 periods is their light weight and fragility. To measure how light these coin silver spoons are is by comparing them with later spoons. A spoon made in the 1840s, weighs 0.38 troy ounces, while a sterling, 20th-century Gorham Chantilly teaspoon weighs about 1.0 ounce.
In 1895, designer Codman added a new flatware pattern called Chantilly to Gorham’s repertoire. Chantilly is a pretty pattern, but not a daring design. The most interesting thing about this pattern is its longevity. It is the most popular sterling flatware pattern made in the 20th century. Today, over a century after the pattern’s introduction, it continues as Gorham’s best selling sterling flatware pattern. The reason for this popularity is that Chantilly is not overly fancy but not too plain; it is not “flashy” in its finish. The standard finish for the handle of Chantilly is a mat, satin surface called a “butler” finish. The handles are oxidized to emphasize the pattern.
During his 23 years at Gorham, William Codman designed more than 50 flatware patterns, but none has sustained the popularity of Chantilly.
Gorhams’ designers sought to emulate the elegant treatment of ordinary materials used by Japanese artisans. In the 1880s, the firm experimented with a variety of base metals such as copper, brass, bronze and iron. However, as a commercial venture the production of ironware proved unsuccessful. We can assume patrons were unwilling to pay for iron what they had previously paid for silver. Gorham was further influenced by other eastern cultures as they produced designs in Turkish, Indian and Persian motifs.
However, Gorham’s bronzes proved very successful as many commissions were filled for heroic statues, commemorative monuments and fantasy fountains.
Gorham made small bronzes as early as 1860; unsigned, most of these early bronzes cannot be identified as a Gorham product.
In 1885, Gorham made their first large non-ecclesiastical sculpture. The sculptor Frederick Kohlhagen signed a commission to create a Civil War memorial for the Gettysburg Battlefield. The artist approached Gorham to cast his sculpture, The Skirmisher. The result set off a national reaction as cities and towns began ordering replicas of the Gettysburg and other Civil War bronze statuary.
In 1890, the Gorham Company, under its new head Edward Holbrook, built the world’s largest bronze-casting foundry. By 1920, the company employed almost 2,000 workers.
A sculpture well known in Rhode Island is the figure atop the state capital in Providence. The building’s architects, McKim, Mead & White, commissioned the twelve-foot figure of The Independent Man. The sculptor, George T. Brewster, modeled a young man clad only in a loincloth with a spear in his right hand, and holding in his left hand an anchor, the symbol of the state since 1647.
Brewster received $3000 for his work and Gorham received $2000 for casting the statue in bronze.
During the years 1915 to 1940, Gorham produced a significant number of bronzes, ranging in size from a few inches to five or six feet, intended to decorate homes and gardens. Most of the artists producing models for the Gorham foundry were conservative, academic sculptors, many of who are known to advanced collectors of fine art. Among the wears offered to 20th-first-century decorators/collectors are coffee-table sculptures, flower holders, fountains, bookends and automobile hood ornaments.
Author’s Note: The value ranges of the items pictured in this article are for items in perfect, as made condition. Additionally, values vary depending upon show, shop or auction sale, the scarcity of the item and the geographic location of the sale.
Reference: Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York, published by the New-York Historical Society, is a survey of the Society’s renowned collection of silver. 2011, www.gilesltd.com.