Saturday, November 23, 2013

Gorham Silver, Part 2: The Strategist

Gorham and Webster had generated a lot of business since its formation in 1831 and by late 1840/early 1841 the 49-year-old Jabez Gorham was comfortably well-off and ready to take an early retirement. The firm was split into two--a silver company and a jewelry company. Jabez's former partner, Henry Webster, acquired the silver half under the name H.L. Webster & Co., and the jewelry business was taken over by the partnership of Church & Metcalf.

But the retirement was short-lived. Later in 1841 Henry Webster was made a Boston offer he couldn't refuse, and he wanted to sell his Providence business. Jabez agreed to buy it back only if his son would go into business with him.

Photo of John Gorham, ca. 1865.
John Gorham ca. 1865.
John Gorham was the third child of Jabez and Amey Gorham, and his mother had died shortly after his birth. He was not quite 21 when he agreed to go into business with his father. (He'd spent the previous few years working on a farm and as a retail clerk.) He did not know much about the silver business, but he was ready to take on the challenge, and it turned out that he was eminently suited to it.

J. Gorham & Son prospered during the 1840s, and by 1847 they had outgrown their space at 12 Steeple St.  There they occupied the first floor, the basement, and half the attic, while Church & Metcalf (who'd acquired the jewelry business in 1841) worked on the second floor. Power when needed was provided by a horse-driven shaft in the basement; when they wanted extra horsepower on the first floor, they called through a speaking tube to the basement: "Get up, Dick!" They needed a steam engine but the building wasn't big enough to support it.

So John suggested they buy the lot next door, and build a four-story brick building, equipped with a 50-horsepower steam engine, to house manufacturing.

By 1848, Jabez had become nervous about the debt burden they were undertaking for the expansion, and so John (at the age of 28) bought him out, and became sole owner of the company, and Jabez retired for the second time.

The new building was completed in 1849, and by 1850 John was running a company with 14 employees that had nearly tripled its sales (to $30,000) since 1841.

But John did not want to rest on his laurels--he had a plan for expanding the company and four strategies for achieving his expansion goals. These strategies would seem obvious today, but in 1850 they were revolutionary:
  • Make all kinds of silver wares, not just spoons
  • Make only the best wares in the latest fashions
  • Mechanize operations
  • Hire a dedicated sales force and support it with a vigorous marketing campaign

(to be continued)

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of John Gorham from rootsweb, an community.

An exhaustive history of Gorham can be found in the book Gorham Silver by Charles H. Carpenter, Jr. (Revised edition published 1997 by Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, San Francisco.)

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