From Silver Spoons to Shell Casings

Gorham Manufacturing Company

In 1873, an economic depression gripped the country and threatened the future of the Gorham Manufacturing Company. The company’s skilled metalworkers and innovative designers had a reputation for creating quality goods, but none of these things mattered if people couldn’t afford to purchase the company’s products.

Suddenly, Gorham received a commission to create a silver service like no other in the world. Costing more than $1 million dollars to produce, this 24-person set of dishes, utensils, and decorative items consisted of 740 pieces, that, when completed, filled seventeen trunks. In all, it took nearly seven years to create this impressive collection for insurance magnate Henry Jewett Furber. The Furber commission defined the Gorham Manufacturing Company’s reputation as the country’s premier silver manufacturer for the next century.

The Gorham Manufacturing Company began in 1831, as a small partnership between two Providence silversmiths, Jabez Gorham and Henry Webster. By the 1860s, Gorham was the world’s leading producer of silverware. Even Mary Todd Lincoln purchased a Gorham silver tea service for use in the Lincoln White House.

Though the company initially focused on silver goods, Gorham also dramatically expanded its bronze casting facilities when it accepted a commission to cast “The Skirmisher,” a massive sculpture commemorating the battle of Gettysburg.  By the 1890s, Gorham had the world’s largest bronze foundry. Gorham’s bronzes include such well-known pieces as the 12-foot-tall “Independent Man” atop the Rhode Island statehouse, the statue of George Washington in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and the 1893 statue of Christopher Columbus erected at this location.

In 1900, the company showcased its work at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Receiving a grand prix and five gold medals, Gorham’s amazing display was a highlight of the exposition. As the century continued, however, Gorham’s fortunes ebbed. Interest in silver flatware waned in favor of modern products. The Great Depression decreased the company’s sales even more dramatically.

During World War II, Gorham virtually abandoned its civilian industries to focus on producing goods for the war effort. These included small arms parts, tank bearings, torpedo components, and millions of 40mm shell casings. After the war, Gorham struggled to retain its preeminence, and decreased demand and increased production costs plagued the company. In 1986, the company’s Providence facilities closed after nearly a century of operation.

Today, Gorham’s legacy lives on through the hundreds of bronzes that dot the American landscape and the company’s unique and highly collectable silver products.

Discussion Questions
Why might the sale of a silver tea set to Mary Todd Lincoln have helped Gorham silver become popular?

How could Henry J. Furber afford to buy such an extravagant set of silver during a time when many Americans were struggling financially?

Why did Gorham Manufacturing Company have increased trouble selling their products in the twentieth century?

Why isn’t silver flatware as popular today? What do most people use instead?

Why might the residents of Providence have erected a statue to Christopher Columbus where they did? Would you put up a Columbus statue today? Where?

Images

Gorham Manufacturing Company Drop Presses

Gorham Manufacturing Company Drop Presses

By the 1860s, Gorham had become the largest supplier of silverware worldwide. Modern advancements in the production of flatware allowed the company to produce and market a range of different styles, catering to a diverse audience. Precision-cut steel dies, mounted in the company’s drop presses, enabled the company to create quality pieces at a mass-produced level. This photo, dating from the 1890s, shows workmen operating the drop presses in the preparatory room of the factory. | Source: John Hay Library, Brown University Library View File Details Page

1904 Writing Desk

1904 Writing Desk

In the early 1900s, World’s Fairs were a venue for exhibiting works of astounding craftsmanship designed to captivate and awe the viewer. This desk, conceived by William C. Codman, the company’s chief designer, was the centerpiece of Gorham’s exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Requiring over 10,000 hours of labor to produce, and containing more than fifty pounds of silver, this lady’s writing desk garnered Gorham the grand prize in silversmithing at the fair. | Source: Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library View File Details Page

Mythologique Flatware

Mythologique Flatware

Today, over 2,500 pieces of Gorham silver are preserved in the collections of the RISD Museum. Acquiring the collection directly from Textron, Gorham’s successor, the collection includes both finished examples of the company’s work as well as unique design samples. These pieces from the “Mythologique” flatware series were used to market the pattern to potential clients -- hence the unfinished bottom portion of the silverware. | Source: RISD Museum View File Details Page

Furber Dining Service

Furber Dining Service

This tiered epergne, or centerpiece, is one piece from the 740-piece dining service made by Gorham in the 1870s for Colonel Henry J. Furber. Containing place settings for twenty-four guests, as well as candelabras, butter pats, wine coolers, and other specialized pieces, the set highlighted the skills of Gorham’s craftsmen. Most of the collection’s serving pieces and hollowware featured scenes of nymphs, cherubs, and mythological creatures -- like the Roman god Neptune on the epergne -- while the flatware, with cranes, cherry blossoms, and parasols, was vaguely “Japanesque.” | Source: RISD Museum View File Details Page

Gorham Cream Pitcher

Gorham Cream Pitcher

Martelé, from the French verb, “to hammer,” was introduced by Gorham at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. By 1900, most of Gorham’s other products were mass-produced using modern machinery. Although this made Gorham silver more affordable to the general population, Gorham’s executives sought to create an exclusive product line that referenced Gorham’s beginnings as an artisan shop. Only abut 4,800 Martelé pieces were produced -- a cream pitcher such as this took about one hundred hours to hammer out and finish by hand. | Source: RISD Museum View File Details Page

Audio

Robin Tagliaferri

Robin Tagliaferri recalls her grandfather bringing home pieces of silverware that he would find when mowing the grass near the factory. He initially worked in Gorham’s bronze foundry, but after his health deteriorated due to the extreme working conditions in the foundry, he transferred to the groundskeeping staff. | Source: Mashapaug Pond and Reservoir Triangle Collection, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library View File Details Page

Jeffrey Herman

Jeffrey Herman, a Rhode Island silversmith, spent two years working in the design department at Gorham, shortly before Textron Corporation made the decision to close the Providence plant in 1986. | Source: Mashapaug Pond and Reservoir Triangle Collection, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library View File Details Page

Video

Manufacturing Gorham Silverware

Until 2002, three years after this documentary was filmed, Gorham, as a subsidiary of the Brown-Foreman Corporation, still operated a small factory in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Today, the Gorham name is still used on a number of different flatware patterns manufactured overseas, including “Chantilly,” which has been manufactured continuously since 1885. | Source: The Silver Queen Inc. and the Silver Museum Education Outreach Program View File Details Page

Street Address:

Columbus Square
Providence, RI 02907 [map]

Cite this Page:

Rebecca Soules, “From Silver Spoons to Shell Casings,” Rhode Tour, accessed August 23, 2017, http://rhodetour.org/items/show/17.

Related Tours

comments powered by Disqus

Share this Story