Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gorham Silver, Part 3: Growing and Going Public

We left off in Part 2 with John Gorham's strategies for growing the silver company. John knew that further mechanization was the key to growth, and in 1852 he spent three months in England with several objectives: visit shops and museums for pattern and product ideas, hire skilled workers, and, most importantly, order a steam-operated drop press. 

John knew that James Nasmyth, a Scottish engineer, had invented a steam hammer in 1840, and he thought Nasmyth might also be able to design a steam drop press. Hand-operated drop presses had been used in England for several years, but they were very labor-intensive. Nasmyth was surprised at what the American was proposing, since he himself had been pitching the idea of a steam drop press to English silver manufacturers with no success. He agreed to build the machine and not charge Gorham for the patents, and the new machine was delivered across the pond to Providence in 1853.

Gorham Silver, "Josephine" pattern; designed 1855.
Gorham "Josephine", 1855.
With the new steam press they were able to produce flatware with patterns on the handles. Previous handles had been very plain since it was just not economically feasible to add pattern. They introduced three new patterns in 1855, and by 1859, Gorham had grown to 200 employees and almost $400,000 in sales.

Shortly thereafter, about 1860, Gorham expanded its product line once again when it started making small bronzes. It is said that, technically, bronze casting isn't much different from silver casting, except for the scale of large pieces (statues, doors, etc.). Gorham's first bronze casters came from France (just as they'd hired skilled silver workers from England).

Etching of Gorham complex on Steeple St., Providence RI, 1885.
Etching of Gorham complex on Steeple Street, ca. 1885.
Photo of Gorham complex on Steeple St., Providence RI, 1885.
Gorham complex on Steeple Street, ca. 1885.

New product lines and increased customer demand required new space, and the etching above shows a series of buildings in the foreground which were added to the original #12 Steeple (at the left end of the illustration) and the 1849 manufacturing building (which I believe is the one just to the right of it). Eventually they filled up the Steeple Street side of the block, and then built the large plant in the background.

The view in both of these illustrations is from the corner of Canal Street and Steeple Street, looking towards the First Baptist Church (whose steeple gave its name to Steeple Street) in the background.

NOTE: All the buildings at this site were razed sometime after Gorham moved to a new location in 1890. The Steeple St. block was filled in 1949 with a new building for the Providence Washington Insurance Company. Today that building is the Administration Building for the Rhode Island School of Design.

(to be continued)

Illustration Credits and References

"Josephine" photo from

Etching of Gorham complex from First: The First Baptist Church in America by J. Stanley Lemons (The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, 2001).

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

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