Friday, December 6, 2013

Gorham Silver, Part 7: It's a Wrap

As mentioned in Part 6 of this series, Gorham reached its zenith of accomplishment in the years when Edward Holbrook served as president and William C. Codman as chief designer.  Codman retired in 1914, and Holbrook died in 1919, bringing this Golden Age to a conclusion.

Interestingly enough, both of their sons took over their roles--John Holbrook as president and William Codman as chief designer.  John had been a VP for 13 years when his father died, but he was a disaster as president, and the company went through five presidents between 1919-1923 before Edmund Mayo took over the reins.

William Codman was well-trained in academic styles, but was not a fan of "modern" design, which was being demanded by the public. Codman's opinion of modern design an be summed up in his 1929 book on the History of Silverware Design:
Recently, a style so called "Modern" has been introduced to the public, but it does not appear to have made much headway. . . . If we see elements of the Greek, the Gothic, or more of the Italian Renaissance in our silverware, let us be thankful our designers have the good sense to value the best in the past.
Codman stayed on at Gorham as chief designer into the 1930s, but Mayo took some steps to reduce his influence. One of the things he did was to bring in Erik Magnussen, a Danish modernist silversmith, who worked as a designer at Gorham, independent of Codman, from 1925-1929. His official title was "Designer (Special Work)".

Erik Magnusson coffee service, 1929; in the RISD Museum.
Erik Magnusson coffee service, 1929.
Here is a beautiful coffee service called "Cubic," designed by Magnusson in the style of Cubist painting, and meant to evoke skyscrapers, radio, motorcars, and jazz. The form consists of a series of irregular triangles, and flat, shiny silver areas contrast with triangles of gilt and oxidized brown.

This set was radical, even for Magnusson. It was exhibited a number of times, and was pictured in the New York Times where it was named "The Lights and Shadows of Manhattan." It is currently on permanent display at the RISD Museum.

When the depression hit, production slowed significantly, though Gorham kept their artisans working--they meticulously produced hundreds of examples of 19th century hollowware from original designs and dies. Today these pieces are the only known examples of certain Gorham patterns.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the company stopped making bronze and brass goods, all plated wares, and most church goods. Hollowware production was cut by 70%, and sterling flatware was limited to six-piece place settings in 13 patterns.

More than 30 kinds of war materiel were manufactured at the Gorham plant during the war, including millions of 40mm shell casings, small arms parts, tank bearings, and torpedo components.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Gorham embarked on an acquisition program to expand their lines and diversify. They acquired silver and bronze companies, as well as companies in other industries. By the middle 1960s they were cash rich, with 2,400 employees and $40 million in sales. They were a prime candidate for a takeover, so in 1967 they merged with Providence company Textron, whom they'd approached as a "safe haven."

By 1985, due to a variety of causes such as rising silver prices and reduced demand, and possibly a lack of focus due to their wide product lines, Gorham had shrunk significantly in size. Textron therefore relocated manufacturing from the Providence plant to a Smithfield, RI facility, where it remained until 1992, when it moved out of state.

Textron sold Gorham in 1988. Since 2007, the sterling silver patterns have been made by Lifetime Brands, who also own the Wallace and Towle Silversmiths names. They still produce 19 patterns of flatware, including Chantilly, which has been made continually since 1885! Gorham stainless steel flatware is manufactured by Lenox Brands.

The site on which the Gorham plant stood was acquired by the City of Providence in 1990. Serious concerns were raised about the site's environmental safety, and it was named a "superfund" brownfields site in 1995.

Providence was unable to interest developers in the Gorham plant buildings, so all (except the Carriage House) were demolished in 1997. The City built Alvarez High School on part of this site; it opened in 2008.
Location of Alvarez High School, on former site of Gorham plant.
The last remaining building, the Carriage House, was being restored by local firefighters to become the Providence Fire Museum, but was destroyed by a fire "of suspicious origin" in 2009, bringing to a sad end the long and colorful history of Gorham Silver in Rhode Island.

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of Magnusson coffee service by the author.

Providence Journal, "Fire destroys carriage house that was to become fire museum," by Maria Armental, April 15, 2009.

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.)

Gorham Silver, Part 6: The New Plant and the Apogee of Accomplishment

The rise of Edward Holbrook discussed in Part 4, and the creation of the bronze business discussed in Part 5, coincided with a need for expansion, since Gorham had filled the Steeple Street block to capacity. Holbrook had not yet taken on the presidency of Gorham, but he certainly heavily influenced the 1888 board decision to build a brand new plant on a multi-acre site off Adelaide Avenue in the Elmwood section of Providence.

Architect's drawing for Gorham Manufacturing plant, about 1890.
Architect's drawing of the new Gorham plant, about 1890.
When the plant opened in 1890, it was the most modern in the world for making silver and bronze. It consisted of 33 acres and 25 buildings, and had its own water supply (Mashapaug Pond, the largest body of fresh water in the city). It also had its own fire department, electric light plant, and photo studio, and a building for making the wood cases for the silver. It also included a library and a museum, and a dining room and recreation center for the workers (which was very forward-thinking at the time!)

After the move, Gorham hired a new chief designer, William C. Codman, a 52-year-old Englishman. Codman was the chief designer for the pieces Gorham made for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where Gorham won 55 medals! He also designed the Chantilly flatware pattern in 1895, which has always been Gorham's best seller. Codman would go on to design over 50 flatware patterns during his 23 years at Gorham, but this was clearly the winner and is still made today. It was the most popular sterling flatware pattern made in the 20th century, by any company.

Lady's writing table and chair, Gorham Silver, 1903; at RISD Museum.
Lady's writing table and chair, Gorham, 1903.
In 1894, Holbrook officially took over the reins of the company; the years from the completion of he new plant to 1914, when Codman retired, are considered to be some of the greatest of Gorham's achievement. Holbrook and Codman had a great partnership and vision; Burr Sebring, who was the director of design at Gorham in the 1970s, called it a "perfect matrix of leadership and artistry."

Among the many beautiful pieces designed by Codman was a lady's writing table and chair made in 1903 to exhibit at the 1904 Worlds Fair in St. Louis. (That was the "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie" fair.) There was also a 16-piece silver desk set that went with it.

It's a real tour de force and was intended to showcase the incredible talent of the Gorham artisans. Click here to examine the desk in more detail.

William Codman signature on lady's writing table, Gorham Silver, 1903.
William Codman signed the piece.
It was designed by Codman, but the work was executed by many, many craftsmen. There were silversmiths, chasers, modelers, inlayers, leather carvers, and cabinetmakers. However, Codman, as the chief designer, got to sign the piece in the right top drawer.

The desk is particularly remarkable in its use of silver, ivory, and mother of pearl inlay in the challenging surface of ebony and rosewood.  The form of the desk is 18th century French rococo, the women on the drawers and legs very Art Nouveau, and the arabesques on the top are traditional Hispano-Moorish.
Costing slip for Gorham Silver lady' writing desk, 1903.
Costing slip for the desk.

The back border on the top includes morning glories for morning and poppies for evening, as well as an owl to represent wisdom, and perhaps inspire the writer?

There are about 50 pounds of silver in the desk and chair, and over 12,000 hours went into the creation of this work. The cost was almost $13,000; the costing slip for the desk alone is shown here. The price was set by Gorham at $18,000 for the desk and chair, plus another $2,000 for the desk set.

The pieces were awarded the Grand Prix for silversmithing in St. Louis, and they were also exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where they won the gold medal.

Antoinette Heckscher, Lady Esher, who owned the Gorham lady's writing desk.
Lady Esher and daughter, 1932.
Sometime after that, the set was purchased on behalf of a young American socialite, Antoinette Heckscher, who had married the British Viscount Esher, and had become Lady Esher in 1912. Antoinette had gotten a lot of society attention for announcing her engagement in the New York Times on 11/11/11, breaking it in January (also in the paper), and then remaking it, to marry later in 1912. The Times said of her that she was "highly cultivated, had traveled much, and is interested in the woman suffrage movement. She marched last May in the big suffrage parade."

Antoinette died in 1965, but had unloaded the desk and chair prior to that, since the pieces turned up at a Christie's auction in London in 1954. It was purchased for $3,500 by Mr. & Mrs. Frederick Thurber of Providence, descendants of Gorham Thurber, a former business partner of John Gorham, and they donated it to the RISD Museum--bringing it full circle back to its place of origin.

(to be continued)

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of the writing table from the RISD Museum website.

Photo of the signature and the costing slip from the Brown Digital Repository.

Photo of Lady Esher from

New York Times, "Miss Hecksher to wed O.S.B. Brett," August 29, 1912.

Architect's drawing of the new Gorham plant, plus 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.)

Gorham Silver, Part 5: The Bronzes

George Washington bronze at U.S. Capitol Rotunda; manufactured in 1909 by Gorham Silver.
George Washington bronze, 1909.
Gorham had started making small bronze pieces in 1860, and in the 1880s they opened an ecclesiastical department, making silver chalices, patens, cups, and crosses for churches. It was a logical next step to make bronze items for churches--lecterns, altar rails, doors, crucifixes, and sculptures.

In 1885, they made their first large non-ecclesiastical bronze sculpture for a Civil War memorial at Gettysburg, a statue called The Skirmisher. The sculptor, Frederick Kohlhagen, had approached Gorham to see if they were interested in casting it. Prior to that point, most large scale bronze casting had been done in Europe, but Gorham's completion of the project was the beginning of a hugely successful large scale bronze casting business.

Today there are over 700 Gorham bronze items listed in the Smithsonian Archives inventory of American sculpture. One of the best-known pieces is a 1909 bronze of George Washington that has a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Independent Man atop the RI State House; cast by Gorham Silver in 1899.
The Independent Man, 1899.
There are many Gorham bronzes in New England, included the Shaw Memorial by St.-Gaudens opposite the Boston Statehouse, the Gloucester MA Fisherman, the Brown Bear "Bruno" on the Brown University Quad, the Carrie Brown Bajnotti memorial fountain in Burnside Park in Providence, the Independent Man atop the Rhode Island Statehouse, and half a dozen statues at Roger Williams Park in Providence.

Some of the finest work done by Gorham in bronze were the doors, railings, etc. that enhanced many American public buildings in the first years of the 20th century. In Providence, the company carried out bronze commissions at the Union Trust Building, the First Baptist Church, the Fleet Library at RISD, the Mathewson Street Methodist Church, and the Old Stone Bank.

The Old Stone Bank had started out as the Providence Institution for Savings, but earned its moniker after its flagship stone building was constructed in 1854. In 1896-1898 a major expansion was done on the bank, doubling its size and adding an impressive dome.

Old Stone Bank door, Providence RI; cast by Gorham Silver 1898.
Closeup of Old Stone door with RI anchor, 1898.
As part of this project, beautiful bronze doors by Gorham were installed. They weighed over 1,000 pounds apiece, and, according to a Providence Journal article from the opening 1898, are "so easily poised that they swing on their ball bearing pintles and hinges as easily as an ordinary house door made of wood."

The doors would stay open during banking hours, and entrance to the bank was through a marble vestibule with mahogany doors.

Besides its new dome and new doors, the bank was also equipped with the latest technology. The same Providence Journal article states: "The bank is equipped with a telephone closet with its long distance telephone, and also has an internal system by which the Treasurer, sitting at his desk, can talk not only through the telephone exchange to persons outside, but also to clerks within the bank and to the Providence National Bank."

(to be continued)

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of George Washington bronze by CharmaineZoe found on FlickRiver.

Photo of Independent Man by Trent Maynard, found on the State Capitols website.

Photo of Old Stone Bank door by the author.

Providence Sunday Journal, March 6, 1898.

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.)

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.)

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.)