Hundreds of pieces of Gorham silver go on view at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, providing a brilliant view into the “golden age” of American silver.
When the World’s Fair in St. Louis closed its doors on December 1, 1904, after a seven-month run, an estimated 20 million people had visited the expansive presentation in the newly designed Forest Park. Dubbed the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the fair commemorated the land deal the United States had made with France 100 years earlier, giving the burgeoning country 827,000 square miles west of the Mississippi. The event was a picture of “Manifest Destiny,” with 1,500 newly erected buildings dotting a 1,200-acre area, and the spirit of patriotism wafted through the air like the scent of roasting hot dogs—which were widely popularized at the event. (Contrary to popular belief, they did not debut there, though both French’s mustard and the ice cream cone did.)
Amid the fair’s various amusements and dazzling displays was the lavish Martelé Writing Table (1903) by the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, R.I. Gorham made the show-stopping ebony desk, which took some 10,000 hours of labor and five pounds of silver to produce, expressly for the fair. The company utilized its complicated Art Nouveau-influenced martelé style to create its intricate decorations. Debuted by Gorham only about seven years prior, martelé characteristically featured curvaceous, rolling forms with a hand-hammered finish and was on full display with this piece. With a global flair, the writing table also blended references to French 18th-century design with Hispano-Moresque inlay of silver, mother-of-pearl, exotic woods and ivory. Its legs rest on small pads of ivory with Renaissance Revival female masks representing the four seasons, while winding poppies form the silver gallery at its top and morning glories decorate its mirror—representing night and day. The writing table, with its abundant mixture of technical and decorative elements, won Gorham the fair’s Grand Prize in silver.
The Martelé Writing Table is one of the 600 silver and mixed-metal pieces going on view on May 3 in “Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance, 1850–1970,” a new exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Providence-based museum’s Gorham collection, consisting of 2,500 metalworks and some 2,300 design drawings, is the largest in the world. The show draws primarily from the museum’s extensive cache but also features several important loans from public and private collections, like a martelé dressing table from the Dallas Museum of Art that will be displayed alongside the writing table described above for only the second time in history.
“The exhibition has been in the making for a long time,” says Elizabeth A. Williams, the RISD Museum’s David and Peggy Rockefeller curator of decorative art and design. “Gorham is not only an important part of the museum’s collection but also the history of Providence.” The exhibition travels to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Mint Museum in 2020, Williams notes. “This is particularly exciting because there really hasn’t been a multi-venue Gorham silver exhibition ever before,” says the curator.
The history of RISD’s holdings is directly influenced by the company’s recent history. After Textron, a Providence-based conglomerate that bought Gorham in 1967, sold the silver manufacturer to Dansk in the late-1980s, it gave RISD the bulk of its collection in 1991. In 2005, the Lenox Group, which owned Gorham at the time, gifted the museum 2,300 design drawings. (Clarion Capital Partners, operating under the name Lenox Corporation, now owns Gorham.)
Gorham’s beginnings, however, were anything but corporate. When Jabez Gorham founded it in 1831 in partnership with Henry L. Webster, it was just a small shop in the heart of Providence, selling handmade spoons, thimbles, and other small items of coin silver. Under the direction of Jabez’s son, John, who succeed his father as head of the company in 1847, the business grew to become one of the largest American manufactures of sterling and silverplate. At its zenith, the vertically-integrated company employed over 3,000 men and women, working in design, production, and marketing. In keeping with growth and demand, Gorham opened a state-of-the-art plant in 1890, occupying over 35 acres of land in south Providence.
The manufacturer’s success owed just as much to the innovative and prescient business practices of John Gorham as it did to the beauty and quality of its products. With mechanization in mind, Gorham embarked for England, soon after he took over the company, to meet with the inventor of the steam-powered draw press. “Though it was typically used for making larger items, he asked for a steam-powered draw press specifically for making silver,” says Williams. “Gorham was the first silver manufacturer to have this kind of machinery, and it increased production exponentially.” However, Williams notes, Gorham still finished and polished pieces by hand. “They always kept that balance between making production efficient and keeping the stylistic aspects and quality up to par.”
John Gorham was ahead of the curve when it came to marketing his company’s products, as well. Utilizing the nascent photographic medium, Gorham had pictures taken of available pieces. These images were bound in books for the company’s salesmen to use when traveling. “At that time in New England,” says Williams, “you basically had peddlers taking things from city to city, but when Gorham expanded its manufacturing in 1855–56, it started photographing works so salesmen could take pictures with them and fewer actual objects.” The company’s reputation quickly expanded to other American cities, notably New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, where they became a strong force in the 1860s. Gorham opened a retail store in the “Ladies’ Mile” shopping district in Manhattan in 1884. It moved to a Fifth Avenue building, which was commissioned from Stanford White, in 1905.
The decades between Gorham’s founding and its sale to Textron coincided with the “golden age” of American silver. A boom in American silver began in 1842 after Congress enacted a tariff on imported silverware. Lulls during World War I and the Depression aside, the industry only began to die down in the middle of the 20th century. Gorham’s place as a top American silver manufacturer has been underscored over the years by several particularly patriotic commissions: Mary Todd Lincoln acquired a tea and flatware service for the White House in 1859 and, much more recently, George W. Bush chose the company’s Chantilly pattern for his flatware on Air Force One. For a commission from Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Gorham used 2,000 ounces of sterling silver to create a Century Vase for the country’s 100th anniversary and for the battleship USS Rhode Island Gorham created an extensive silver service in 1907. (After World War I the U.S. Navy returned the service to the state; it is now on view in the Rhode Island State House.)
On view in “Designing Brilliance” is another patriotic object, the Admiral Dewey Cup (1899). It was designed for Admiral George Dewey, who became a national hero in 1898 after his victory in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. The 8-foot-6-inch-high cup, which comes to the show from the collection of the Chicago History Museum, has a rich oak base and intricate silverwork made of, curiously, dimes. “A Chicago newspaper held a competition, asking each American to send in one dime for the purposes of this cup,” says Williams. Seventy thousand Americans sent in dimes, and Gorham quickly put them to use, making the cup in four weeks. Many of the dimes were melted down, but some were ingeniously overlapped, serving as scales for the sea creatures that encircle the cup’s three-cornered base. The design drawing for the cup, a large-scale work in its own right, is six feet tall. Williams says, “We have the design drawing, and we’re showing the cup and the drawing together.”
The first piece of Gorham silver to come into the RISD Museum’s collection was the New Bedford, Whaling City, Souvenir Teaspoon. Made in 1891, the silver spoon commemorates New Bedford, Mass., which was nicknamed “The Whaling City” as it was one of the most significant whaling ports in the world throughout the 19th century. A highly-detailed, many-sailed ship punctuates the spoon’s handle. A delicate silver rope wraps around the spoon’s stem, which terminates with a harpoon-like tip that stabs into its bowl where a whale is seen swimming. “We might think of a souvenir spoon as touristy,” says Williams, “but this Gorham example was very well made.”
The Bonbon Spoon, another notable utensil in the exhibition, showcases Gorham’s experiments with enamel in the 1890s. Made around 1893, the silver spoon features gilding and plique-à-jour enamel, which gets its name from the French meaning “open or against the light”—its enameled cells are see-through and give off a brilliant stained-glass effect when held up to the light. This type of enamel was developed in the 12th century but saw a resurgence of popularity in the 1890s when Gorham and just one other American maker began producing it again. To create plique-à-jour, each color of enamel is placed individually into a framework of twisted wires that creates the design. The pieces are only held in place by surface tension. This particular spoon has a lusciously colored peacock design, which becomes even more brilliant and jewel-like when held up to the light.
No one style epitomizes Gorham. “They were very fluid,” says Williams. “They would look at something and try to figure out how to make it their own, or they would debut something entirely new to see if it would be successful.” With this philosophy in mind, Gorham produced an enormous range of products. “Gorham would have hundreds of different flatware patterns available at once,” says Williams. “They influenced and were influenced by their customers, so sometimes one form could have up to 50 different variations ranging in ornamentation, and even from there it could be customized.”
Gorham’s hard-to-pin-down style was also due to company’s willingness to hire and highlight new designers. In the 1920s, Eric Magnussen, a Danish designer, was brought in to develop pieces in keeping with the trend at the time—a more Modern aesthetic. In the 1960s, the American designer Donald H. Colflesh helped usher in a mid-century sensibility. Magnussen’s Cubic Coffee Service (1927, silver with gilding, ivory, and oxidized decoration) is a highlight of the show and a work that put Gorham at the vanguard of Modern design within the silver industry. Gold and dark-patinated triangular facets punctuate the highly geometric sterling silver objects of the service, creating a Cubist effect. The service is as if the two-dimensional objects of Cubist paintings truly popped out into three-dimensional space. Gorham described the set as “…based on tall buildings seen from various perspectives and from shadows on the backs of skyscrapers.” In 1960, it was Colflesh’s turn to reinvent the coffee service. The Circa ’70 Coffee and Tea Service utilized space-age forms, giving the appearance, says Williams, “that it could elevate and take off at any moment.” The service is made in silver with ebony, and its tray, which was not designed by Colflesh but approved by him, features Formica, a material that was new at the time. “The RISD Museum’s set still has a little tag on the bottom of the tray that says ‘this is Formica,’” says Williams. “It’s hard for us now to imagine Formica making its debut in serving ware!”
A major highlight of the RISD Museum’s exhibition is the Furber Collection, an 816-piece service made between 1866 and 1880 to serve 24 diners. Made for Henry Jewett Furber, president of the Universal Life Insurance Company of New York, the commission was the largest Gorham ever received. Much of the service was bought back by Gorham in the 1940s and entered RISD’s collection with the gift from Textron. The epitome of Victorian dining, the Furber set includes an exceedingly grand and complicated epergne (silver with gilding and glass) made in 1872. The sumptuous piece depicts a silver-gowned Columbia standing on a globe and holding a heavy gilded garland with the assistance of two putti. It features shell-shaped bowls—for flowers—decorated with golden hummingbirds and oblong bowls—meant for fruit—adorned with allegorical representations of Love and Contentment.
The Furber Collection will be displayed in near-entirety in a pavilion-like structure that mimics Gorham’s display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. About the display structure, Williams says that viewers can see through it and walk into it, and it will allow the individual pieces of the collection to be displayed in a dense manner. “It’s like a retail display of that era,” says the curator. “It’s meant to be a spectacle.”
By Sarah E. Fensom