In 19th- and early 20th-century America, new wealth and social competition spurred a sterling surge of artistry in tableware.
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You don’t need a sterling silver tomato server. You can, and you almost certainly do, dole out slices of tomato with a plastic spatula or a table fork, or maybe you scoop up your freshly cut round on the flat, wide blade of your favorite heavy-duty kitchen knife and slide it directly onto your sandwich-in-progress. But if this was the very early 20th century, and you were a well-to-do person perusing the wares at Tiffany & Co.’s New York boutique, a sterling silver tomato server—perhaps from its Greek myth-inspired Olympia pattern, pictured opposite (and currently available from Spencer Marks of Southampton, Mass.)—might seem absolutely necessary. In an age before radio, television, and the Internet, dinner parties were a vital form of home entertainment, lasting multiple hours and giving guests and hosts alike the chance to demonstrate their refinement and sophistication. Proper dinner parties called for a goodly amount of silver holloware and flatware, and truly epic events demanded spectacular silverware and lots of it, plus a battalion of servants to lay it out, gather it after each course, reset the table, and maintain it all via the Sisyphean task of polishing.
As with so many luxury goods, having a Tiffany & Co. sterling silver tomato server was not really about having a dedicated tool for wrangling squidgy slabs of raw plant matter. Yes, it was about delighting your guests, and showing them that you deemed them worthy of your highest level of hospitality, but it was also about showing them that you could afford a sterling silver Tiffany piece designed exclusively for the task of shepherding and dispensing tomatoes in a civilized manner, and showing them that you could afford fresh tomatoes at a time when fresh fruits and vegetables were largely beyond the budgets of the teeming masses.
The perfect storm of social, cultural, and technological forces that created an America in which such an object was a must-have is on full, vibrant display in “Tiffany, Gorham, and the Height of American Silver, 1840–1930,” which opened in April and continues until January 4, 2016, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). More than 60 pieces of holloware and flatware are on view at Lilly House, a 22-room mansion dating to the 1920s that sits near the main museum building. Silver expert Charles Venable, who is also the director and CEO of the IMA, assembled the exhibit, which spotlights the decades when America’s silversmiths outshone their colleagues in Europe.
Talent was certainly a factor in the flowering, but so too were mundane developments such as an 1842 tariff, championed by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, which hiked the price of imported silver by 30 percent. A host of silversmithing innovations, such as spinning and electroplating, permitted the creation of new shapes, forms, and decorative schemes that were difficult or impossible with the traditional technique of hand-hammering. Advances in transportation and refrigeration permitted upper-class menu-planners to offer exotic, expensive foods such as oysters, asparagus, ice cream, and salad, and silverware manufacturers designed pieces expressly for all those delicacies and more.
Helpful as all these changes were, they did not guarantee that American silver would scale the heights that it did. The leadership at two American firms—Tiffany & Co. in New York and the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, R.I.—exploited the prevailing conditions to the full. Each followed its own route to success. After John Gorham took the helm of his father’s business in 1848, he embarked on educational trips to European silverworks, pursued outside investment, made good use of the cutting-edge technology of his day, and ultimately lured European silversmiths and designers across the ocean to train his native-born workforce. Jeweler Charles Louis Tiffany, on the other hand, simply purchased the silversmith firm J.C. Moore in 1868 and entrusted it with all of the company’s silver goods. Tiffany’s formidable gift for marketing helped him turn potential weaknesses into strengths; he made his single New York store into a don’t-miss destination.
Viewing the IMA exhibition delivers strong evidence that the Gilded Age should actually be called the Silver Age. Waves of immigrants arrived in America around the same time that the robber barons built their fortunes, prompting the latter to try holding back the former with the tines of a silver oyster fork. In this pre-World War I era, etiquette became a weapon and the dinner table a battlefield where one’s social standing could be shattered by inadvertently mixing up one’s bouillon spoon with one’s cream soup spoon. “Etiquette in general functioned to keep people outside your class out,” says Venable, who stated in an article that he wrote for IMA Magazine’s Winter 2015 issue that place settings of the era swelled to include up to 17 different pieces. “You had to be educated and poised to sit through multi-hour meals with utensils that were very specified in their use. It would have been a way to demonstrate your refinement and education. The way you were raised was very important to people. If you didn’t know how to use [the silverware] fluently, it could be uncomfortable. They were watching [to see if ] you would make a mistake.”
The torture test went both ways. Guests expected a lot more than mere sustenance when they submitted their R.S.V.P.s to their hosts, and opulent silverware was part of the evening’s entertainment. One of the standout pieces in the IMA show is a circa-1890 gilt silver turtle soup tureen with tray by Gorham. Every decent host needed a soup tureen in his or her dinner party armory, but a turtle-themed soup tureen was that much more exquisite. Wealthy 19th-century diners coveted turtle soup; President William Howard Taft hired a chef for the White House whose primary task was to prepare the dish. Lewis Carroll’s inclusion of the Mock Turtle in his children’s classic Alice in Wonderland shows how deeply turtle soup had permeated the consciousness—chefs found ways to imitate it when they couldn’t obtain the main ingredient.
Silverware is notoriously expensive, and tureens are among the priciest serving pieces you can buy, given their size and how well they lend themselves to silversmithing flights of fancy. A tureen specifically meant for turtle soup testified to the heights of the artisan’s skill and the depths of the purchaser’s funds. Sure, you could have your servants fill it with some other soup, but that would amount to playing a mean trick on your guests, who would see the magnificent turtle with the smaller turtle on its back and expect one of the great delicacies of the age. “This is one of the grandest ones I’ve ever seen,” Venable says of the tureen. “You can imagine people smiling and laughing as the servants bring it around and ladle out the soup.” Of course, this assumes it was used, which it might not have been, judging by the amount of wear. “It probably sat on a sideboard, and you’d look at it as you would a Renaissance bronze,” Venable says.
Another Gorham showpiece passed through the hands of Spencer Gordon of Spencer Marks back in 2010—a sterling silver ice bowl with matching tongs dating to circa 1882. Perhaps 100 of the bowls were produced, and the ice tongs, which would have endured significantly more handling than the bowl, are virtually impossible to find in good condition. “A hundred and fifty years ago, you would be able to show it off at a party of yours, and it would be something everyone would appreciate. It would have impressed,” says Gordon, who points out that the bowl, designed in the 1860s, has patriotic overtones. It was made after the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, and it celebrates what was once an all-American industry: ice, which was cut from the country’s pristine frozen lakes and rivers. The bowl and tongs were snapped up by clients who had just returned from a trip to the Arctic, where they had seen polar bears.
Tiffany and Gorham’s striving for silver supremacy yielded many gorgeous works of art, from the circa-1879 pair of Tiffany candelabra in the IMA exhibition, to the enameled “Wild Rose” vase that Tiffany made for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and that later found its way to Spencer Marks, to the forward-looking works that Danish designer Erik Magnussen made for Gorham in 1928, two of which appear in the IMA lineup. Around 1880, both Gorham and Tiffany produced pieces in the Japanesque style. James McConnaughy of SJ Shrubsole in New York, a specialist dealer, points to two vases of silver and mixed metals bearing fanciful flora and fauna designs; the Gorham piece, he says, illustrates Japanesque “whimsy,” while the Tiffany piece shows the “sophisticated influence of Japanese art.” But Gorham went a step further with its Martelé line. Launched in 1900, it was in essence a bespoke silver-making service, with the emphasis on traditional hand-hammering; the word martelé means “hammered” in French, and the hammer marks visible on the surface of a piece was part of its aesthetic. Martelé orders were fulfilled by a small cadre of Gorham’s top artisans, and they used Britannia silver, a higher grade of the metal than sterling, because it was easier to work. During the decades when it was offered (the rise of the sleek, streamlined look of Art Deco pushed the visibly hand-worked Martelé out of fashion), more than 10,000 Martelé pieces might have been made.
Three examples of Martelé are included in the IMA exhibition—a coffee pot, a loving cup, and a compote dish. But M.S. Rau of New Orleans now has an exceptional Martelé item that brings home the silver-mad excesses of the Gilded Age. It is one of the very few complete Martelé flatware sets commissioned from Gorham, still in its original 20-inch-high fitted chest. The word “complete” takes on absurd dimensions, as the set extends to 285 pieces. The tally covers 12 strawberry forks, 12 bouillon spoons, 12 cream soup spoons, 12 ramekin forks, 12 ice cream forks with gilt tines, 12 ice cream spoons with gilt bowls, 12 fruit knives, 12 lunch forks, 12 ice tea spoons, a lemon fork, a berry spoon, an asparagus fork, a salad serving spoon, and grape shears, among many, many others.
America was virtually alone in its proliferation of specialized silverware, says Phillip Youngberg of M.S. Rau. “A different utensil with everything you ate—that’s the way we did things,” he says. “Why sell 12 pieces when people would love to have 24? We took it to the nth degree. Why use a dinner fork to eat oysters? Why not make it really special?” American silversmiths and their marketers innovated countless ways to make dining more special, and their creations have lost none of their glory more than a century on.
So, no, you don’t need that sterling silver Tiffany tomato server, and nobody strictly needed it when it debuted in 1878. But people wanted it, and it’s easy to see why they wanted it—it’s beautiful, unabashedly beautiful. And sometimes, that’s reason enough.