Mark the difference…between the supine conservatism of the English [silver] manufacturers and the alertness and constant progress of the American maker. For instance [Gorham] would not be satisfied unless it produced every year or two new patterns, nearly all of which are beautiful, and of which they will produce a complete service of all articles for table use from a salt-spoon to a soup ladle.
London Magazine of Art, 1886
In the heyday of American silver, roughly 1850-1940, manufacturers on this continent astonished their European rivals and international customers with both the quality and proliferation of their products. At the center of this industry was a New England firm established in 1831 by Jabez Gorham.
During its first decade and a half, the firm prospered, basing its reputation on fine jewelry and coin silver. The great leap came after 1847 when Jabez’ son John assumed the leadership of the firm. John Gorham was among the first American silversmiths to fully recognize the possibilities of the industrial revolution, introducing a fleet of new machines (mostly of his own design) to accelerate and augment hand manufacture of fine silver.
Buoyed by presidential patronage (both Mary Todd Lincoln and Julia Grant chose Gorham for the White House; Mrs. Lincoln’s set is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History) the firm continued to expand and diversify its line, introducing new patterns and new techniques. Patterns such as Fairfax, Strasbourg, Buttercup, Melrose and of course, Chantilly, the best selling silver pattern in the world, became household names.
In the twentieth century, the company underwent a series of mergers, culminating in its acquisition by Brown-Forman, which folded it into its Lenox division along with that other mainstay of American silver makers, Kirk-Stieff. Gorham’s historic archives are housed in the John Hay Library at Brown University. For your own more accessible research, try Dorothy Rainwater’s, Encyclopedia of Silver Manufacturers.
Note: Since posting my last short essay on the enduring Chantilly pattern, I’ve already started to hear from friends whose families have collected it over the years. I was intrigued to hear, for example, from a friend whose mother and aunt both chose Chantilly for their weddings in the 1940s, because it was one of the few patterns available after World War II. What stories, memories, anecdotes do you have? I hope you’ll take a moment to share them on this site. I’d like to collect some for a future post on family stories about the things we value and the memories they evoke.