Friday, December 6, 2013

Gorham Silver, Part 4: Edward's Rise and John's Fall

Gorham continued to grow rapidly in the period during and after the Civil War. In 1863, the company was incorporated as the Gorham Manufacturing Company, with John Gorham owning 3/8 of the stock, and his cousin and business partner, Gorham Thurber, also owning 3/8. Their silver lines expanded in the post-Civil War period; during this time Gorham became the dominant U.S. manufacturer of solid silver flatware. They would go on to produce silver in 313 different patterns!

In 1870, a young man named Edward Holbrook, just 21 years old, joined the company as a salesman, and was very successful at it. By 1878, Holbrook was the highest-paid man in the company, and he borrowed additional money from the company to start buying Gorham shares.

Neptune Epergne by Gorham Silver, 1876; at RISD Museum.
Neptune Epergne, 1876.
Meanwhile, while Holbrook's career was on the rise, John Gorham's star was falling. He had become involved in business operations outside of Gorham in about 1870 and spent a significant amount of his personal capital and his time on those businesses, which appeared to have failed (probably due to the Panic of 1873).  By the end of 1875, he had lost all his shares in the company, and had to declare personal bankruptcy. He was relieved of his duties with the company and dropped from the board in 1878.

This action appears to have hurt him deeply; in a letter to the stockholders dated February 13, 1878, he wrote:
I am conscious during the whole period of 36 years that I have been connected with this business . . . I have hesitated at no personal sacrifice whereby I felt the property of the business could be advanced. . . . I feel that the course pursued by the present action of the company to be an injustice to me, unwarranted in consideration of the years of service given. . . . leaving me at this period of a life's work with nothing to show of its results.
While the 1873 Panic had caused Gorham's sales to drop precipitously, they were fortunate that year to receive a commission from Col. Henry Jewett Furber of Chicago for 740 pieces of silver (service for 24) for his wife Elvira Irwin Furber. This incredible set included a piece called the Neptune Epergne which was designed by Thomas Pairpoint and exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

The pieces in the so-called Furber Service were produced between 1873 and 1879, and the complete set is now owned by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. The pieces were estimated to have a value of $500,000 in 1987; not sure what the value would be today!

By the time the Furber Service was finished, young Edward Holbrook was well on his way to acquiring the majority of Gorham shares. By the end of 1882, he owned 341 shares, and was elected a director of the company. By 1888 he had absolute control of the company, and was elected treasurer.

(to be continued)

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of Neptune Epergne from RISD Museum website.

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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