Gorham Silver on Dazzling Display in Providence

Tea and Coffee Service, 1873-75. Gorham Manufacturing Company. Silver with gilding and ivory. (The Gorham Collection. Gift of Textron Inc. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence)
American ingenuity, ambition, and exuberance came together in a wild array of silver objects, from sauceboats to sardine forks, pickle stands, and puff boxes. 

Welcome to the wonderful, wild world of American silver! This week and next, I’ll write about two fantastic new exhibitions on American silver. This article will cover a retrospective of Gorham silver made in Providence from the 1850s to around 1920. It’s at the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum, itself a wonderful place in the heart of old Providence. Next week, I’ll write about a show at Newport’s Redwood Library, on the New York Yacht Club’s collection of splendid, massive Tiffany silver sailing trophies. It’s the first time these trophies have been displayed to the public.

Yes, Americans once obsessed over such items as silver bitters bottles, call bells, celery dishes, horseradish jars, puff boxes, pickle stands, toddy kettles, yo-yos, and picks, tongs, forks, jugs, and ladles of a multitude of shapes for an array of edibles. We’ll see some of these objects as well as elaborate trophies the size of small trees honoring achievements in sports, politics, and conquest.

Some will cry “irrational exuberance” and think not about Alan Greenspan and stock market bubbles but a silver-gilt ice bowl designed and produced by the Gorham Manufacturing Co. in 1869, decorated with silver icicles, moose heads, polar bears, and floating ice. I’m not surprised the moose are rolling their eyes, as if bemused by the spectacle in which they serve as handles. We’d just bought Alaska, the Arctic was the new frontier, and even then, Americans liked their refreshments cold, cold, cold.

Ice Bowl, 1866, and Ice Tongs, 1869. Gorham Manufacturing Company. Silver with gilding. (The Gorham Collection. Gift of Textron Inc. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence)

It’s wacky but it’s wonderful. And “wonderful” is the best description for the Rhode Island School of Design museum’s retrospective called “Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance, 1850–1970.” It’s an immensely satisfying look at one of America’s premier makers of fine silver, based in Providence. The objects on view are themselves wonders of American design, craftsmanship, taste, and ingenuity. The show is a triumph of scholarship.

Seeing as many shows as I do, I can say with authority that it’s uncommon, and all the more gratifying, to encounter an introductory gallery that describes parameters, issues, and goals as lucidly as this one and then delivers the goods with such elegance. The first object we see is a 15-pound sterling-silver spoon, made by Gorham around 1950 to market its new, soon-to-be ubiquitous “Melrose” pattern. This object, the 25-pound coffee pot nearby, and the rest of the show’s opening gallery establish several things.

First, the silver in the show is best considered sculpture, regardless of how small or what the objects might have held or picked or spliced or ladled. They were designed and molded using high aesthetic standards and the finest craftsmanship. Almost everything in the show is three-dimensional. Even plates have a dynamic presence. We need to abandon all thoughts of mere utensils, the nightmare of polishing, or memories of cranky great-aunts serving tea. This is art and, given America’s love of consumption and of making things, it’s consequential art.

Second, these objects lived with people. They might have been admired and cherished but almost all were used, usually for dining. Gorham’s growth and style coincided with the development of American etiquette. The show is an art show, but its essence is social history. This theme is splendidly and intelligently developed. It’s a lifestyle show.

The new American people, most a generation or two from the frontier, hadn’t had centuries for comportment to seep into their DNA. Manners were first come, grab all you can, with your hands if you must. Frontier Americans ate fast. Knives might be used for cutting meat but doubled as floss, screwdrivers, or weapons. As a bourgeois class emerged, and then a class of rich people, the dining room became a sacred space for family values, mind your manners, and a stage to display family wealth to guests. Silver and coffee services grew more elaborate and refined as leisure took on rituals. From the spectacular “Martele” centerpiece from 1903, replete with Neptune and nereids that took hundreds of hours to emboss, to, say, a simple “Melrose” service for eight bought in the late Forties as a wedding gift for a new couple, these objects expressed status — the wealth and taste to acquire beautiful things — but also aspirations for a better life.

Finally, they are manufactured goods. The show goes from strength to strength, but it makes the point very early that Gorham was a creature of the Industrial Revolution. It produced many one-off cast, embossed, and engraved objects such as the Admiral Dewey Cup from 1899, commissioned to honor the hero of Manila Bay and made from 70,000 dimes collected via public conscription. As singular a masterpiece as this is, the Dewey Cup and the many, many thousands of mass-produced table services in a multitude of patterns emerged from a form of assembly line.

Production of high-end goods in America didn’t develop from an old European guild system. It was unregulated and driven by the constant invention of new tools and new machines. In the case of silver, from founder Jabez Gorham’s early days in business in the 1830s, old-fashioned hand hammering was obsolete. Technology, especially technological innovation, formed the art in the show as much as taste. Smartly, the show has an early section on tools and techniques, augmented by a fine video. Technology bred efficiency and speed, but it also made more time for design, experimentation, and variety. Objects were not made beginning-to-end by one person. Many people were involved, each with a function and expertise.

Gorham started in Providence in 1831 and expanded haphazardly in the city center, cramming new demands in awkward, old spaces. By the early 1890s, Gorham had a new, purpose-built factory at the city’s edge. It was both factory and campus, with divisions for design, research, mass production, and custom-made work. Gorham was both a factory and a community and was considered an exemplary company for its employee wages, training, and benefits.

Gorham produced millions of pieces of silver. The show could have gone in lots of directions, risking incoherence and effulgence. It’s a smart, disciplined show, though. A gorgeous, fascinating section examines the Gorham dining silver of one couple, Henry and Elvira Furber, rich New Yorkers who owned 129 pieces of hollowware, among them pitchers, bowls, decanters, and sauceboats, and centerpieces and candelabras and a flatware set of 687 pieces. The Furbers bought their silver over 20 years, and during that period their taste, always advanced, changed from heavy Renaissance-revival forms in the 1860s to the loveliest examples of japonisme design around 1880, the dawn of the arts-and-crafts movement in America.

One of the show’s splendors is the Furbers’ 1872 epergne set on a mirrored plateau decorated with a cast version of the Parthenon frieze. The epergne is capped by a cast figure of a female Columbia waving garlands. She’s flanked by putti and by dishes in the form of exotic birds. It’s massive, and it’s a design mishmash, but it works. It weighs a ton, and almost every inch is cast, engraved, embossed, pierced, or gilded. It’s got the mass of Grant’s Tomb, the complexity and insistence of a grain thresher, and the thrust of a skyscraper. It’s all about power. It’s no wonder it was displayed by Gorham at its booth in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, effectively America’s first World’s Fair.

Epergne, 1872, and Plateau 1876. Thomas Pairpoint, designer; Gorham Manufacturing Company. Silver with gilding and glass. (The Gorham Collection. Gift of Textron Inc. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence)

There are many examples of Gorham at its luxurious peak. There’s the silver, glass, and ivory dressing table and stool from 1899, part of the “Martele” line Gorham introduced in 1896. The line produced a special division. It emphasized the individual craftsman and handwork and allowed him some creative leeway. It’s in the arts-and-crafts tradition of controlled creativity, based on set patterns and designs but with each object having its own flair. Mostly, it has art nouveau style, though the firm introduced the “Athenic” line for a more historicized look that also mixed media like glass and other metals.

What is American about this work? English Victorian and Edwardian silver, after all, is grand, too. Once civilized, Americans did what Americans do. They ran with the ball. It’s dazzle and sparkle taken to an extreme. Gilded Age America was rich, and by the 1880s, English aristocrats were already feeling the pinch. Taste for splendor was growing enervated, too. Gorham style was driven by technology, an American forte, but also the willingness of Americans to crossbreed styles. An 1879 silver vase mixed copper and brass to show a samurai borrowed from Japanese ukiyo-e prints. It’s a hybrid, with force and individuality, a look American silver tends to achieve whether painstakingly crafted like this or made in mass like a simple spoon.

Vase, 1879. Gorham Manufacturing Company. Silver, copper, and brass. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through exchange of the gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Frank P. Burnap, Mrs. E. A. Grosvenor Blair, Hilliard Hughes, Nettie Yanoff Brudner, Miss M. H. Bogie, and Mrs. John B. Stover; the bequests of Mary B. B. Crouch and Christine Hall Hough; and other Trust properties, 92-17. )

This period coincided with a change in the economics of silver. Eighteenth-century English and American silver objects were first and foremost stores of value. What was precious was the metal, not the design or craftsmanship. There were no IRAs. Wealth was in property, and silver was the most convertible. Often, pieces were melted when their owners needed money. By the 1860s, the balance flipped. Silver was cheaper, so design became more important. This is one reason a big firm like Gorham had many lines and patterns and offered things like different forks for pickles, sardines, cake, and ice cream. The company was a marketing machine. Cleverly and subtly, it pushed the etiquette industry to set higher, more complex standards, thus broadening and deepening demand.

Ice Cream Plate, 1879. Gorham Manufacturing Company. Silver with gilding. (The Gorham Collection. Gift of Textron Inc. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence)

So what happened? Gorham was traditionally brilliant in changing styles. In 1958, it introduced its “Circa ’70” line, with lovely streamlined silver, very meet-the-Jetsons, never imagining just how awful the 1970s would be.

The demise of Gorham and elaborate dining silver needs are more things to add to the pile of blights Baby Boomers have visited upon us. A conglomerate bought the company in the 1960s. We can’t blame them for that, but it muddied the links between management, innovation, and quality control. In the haze of pot smoke, hippies tend to get their silver-mounted claret jugs mixed up with their martini shakers.

Fashions change, and fine dining and its equipment went out of style. “It needs polishing” is a feeble excuse, since silver, stored properly, rarely needs polishing. “Cooking’s too much work” is more like it. Society became more egalitarian, and good silver became the realm of old fogies. Today, Gen X’ers sometimes see old silver as a fascinating, classy anachronism, but mostly they put their bucks into experiences. There will never be another Gorham, so this is a historical show. Still, as a show of design and the history of taste and production and as a complete delight, this is the very tops. Kudos to RISD. Providence should be proud.