Published: December 22, 2006
Status, prosperity and delicious indulgences. That is the top-line social history behind the exhibit of 250 pieces of Maryland silver now on permanent display at the Maryland Historical Society. But the deeper story of the hollowwares produced in Maryland, their evolution and impact on American silver styles across the nation, reflects the true importance of this landmark exhibition.
In describing the exhibit, “Served in Style: Silver Collection of the Maryland Historical Society,” Jeannine Disviscour, who created and curates the show, called it “dazzling” — and she was not just mining a cliché. The silver is displayed in a gallery bathed in sunlight. Given the setting, every chased detail, repoussé decoration and decorative banding can be seen, studied and admired.
Disviscour said, “[The exhibit] is an opportunity to talk about bigger issues, such as what the founders valued. They were new people in a new land with new ideas. They made new products, inspired by the English makers, but all the while building our own styles and history.”
The Eighteenth Century silver in Maryland homes was not unlike that found elsewhere in the colonies. That is to say, it was English. Among the many exquisite London pieces on display with Maryland provenance are a 1741 salver by Robert Abercromby (active 1731–1750) and a remarkably modernist-looking pap boat — a small container without feet that curves into a short lip at one end — made by George Hunter (active 1748–circa 1762). A chocolate pot attributed to Thomas Tearle of London and fashioned with a fruitwood handle from “Readbourne,” the Maryland mansion built in the 1730s, represents the status associated with drinking expensive, imported chocolate. The removable finial provides an opening for a stirring rod.
Disviscour commented that while she and an assistant were polishing the silver, readying it for exhibition, she filled the vessels with water “to see if they would pour.” The chocolate pot, she said, “had the widest arc of all. Filled with chocolate, which is heavier than water, it probably flared out even more. The effect must have been impressive.”
And impressions were what silver is all about. Whether given as dowry, presentation pieces, christening items or trophies, silver makes a statement akin only to gold.
In the Seventeenth Century, most silver came from Mexico or Peru. As a result, Spanish American “reales” were the common coins in circulation in the American colonies. Yet even they were scarce. In 1658, Maryland ordered coinage to be struck in England. A second order to mint coinage came in 1793 and the duties were shifted away from the English shops and instead awarded to an Annapolis silversmith named John Chalmers. The reverse of Chalmers’ shilling is a wreath encircling two hands clasped in friendship. On the obverse, the new republic’s politics seem apparent. Two birds representing the new states fight over a worm, while a snake, said to represent the government, lies in wait behind a hedge. Thomas Sparrow, also of Annapolis, engraved the dies.
While Annapolis claims the first generation of Maryland silversmiths — Philadelphia transplants and English or Irish immigrants — there were so many that several held day jobs as pub owners or jewelers, engravers or clockmakers.
Scissor-form sugar tongs by Philip Synge Sr (working in Annapolis circa 1730–1739) are just one of the small items that deserve a look. A rare dessert spoon by Philadelphia-trained Thomas Sparrow is also on display, as is a spoon created by one of his sons — either John or James Chalmers Jr.
If the number of spoons in the exhibit appears excessive, the reason could be that spoons are the silver item most likely to have been found in small estates.
While smiths in Frederick, Chestertown and Easton created silver symbols for the local gentry, it was Baltimore that ultimately became synonymous with Maryland silver.
By 1790, Baltimore was the second largest port in the country. As such, it catered to both new and old wealth with the accoutrements of prestige. Inspiration for the first Baltimore artisans, however, emanated from the Philadelphia makers.
By the eve of the Nineteenth Century, regional design motifs were beginning to take shape. Within a few years, they came together in what is known as Baltimore neoclassical style. Typical traits of Baltimore neoclassic are urn-shaped vessels rather than oval drum shapes, simple engravings and brightly cut borders. Finials were typically of urn or pineapple form. Beaded edges and oval or vertical paterae decorated spouts. Vessels frequently stood on square-shaped bases and had a pierced gallery around the mouth.
During the golden age of Baltimore makers, buyers could indulge their fancies with a pantheon of silversmiths, each with a slightly different take on style. John Houlton (active 1794 –1798) and William Ball (active 1789–1915), for instance, tended toward the evolving neoclassical style. Charles Louis Boehme (active 1799–1812) created items with a robust Empire style. Simon Wedge (active 1798–1823), another follower of Empire styling — and the first to apprentice a free African American — characteristically used plinths and bases with animal feet. Wedge created animal spouts and broad bodies of lobed or fluted curves.
Andrew Ellicott Warner’s work from 1805 to 1870 offered distinctive repoussé leaves and milled bands. These bands, which often featured the Greek key, basket weave or vine design, were produced by passing strips of silver between engraved rollers, a sort of early mass production technique.
One of the more unusual Warner items is a Toby jug commissioned by Enoch Pratt, a noted philanthropist and founder of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The jug was copied from a ceramic one Pratt provided as a sample.
Samuel Kirk (active 1815–1872), scion of English silversmiths, made his way to Baltimore in 1815 after training with James Howell of Philadelphia. He founded the Kirk Company, which eventually became Samuel Kirk & Son, Inc, America’s longest running silver house.
Kirk’s revival of repoussé was so innovative stylistically and technically that it set the standard for decoration of fine silver throughout the nation. The look became known as “Maryland Silver” or “Baltimore Repoussé.”
Among the outstanding Kirk items is a pitcher engraved with the McKim crest. Made in 1843, it features a band of sea creatures in Renaissance Revival style, along with Kirk’s trademark flowers and acanthus leaves. Another piece, circa 1830–1846, is a chinoiserie-style coffee pot with floral decoration and Renaissance Revival figures. A Kirk ewer, circa 1861–1868, depicts a lion, camel, ibis and dog skipping around the central band. To keep his lexicon of style creative and broad, Kirk fitted standardized parts in a variety of ways.
After Kirk’s death in 1872, his sons carried on the Kirk tradition. Well in into the Twentieth Century, the Kirk Company continued its trademark repoussé along with pieces in neoclassical or Federal style.
In addition to the Kirk vertu, the Maryland Historical Society holds 3,800 detailed diagrams of Kirk Company silver. A gift of the Kirk Museum Foundation, these masterful works in pencil on vellum or pencil and watercolor on vellum provide insight into the creative process behind the Kirk masterpieces. Many are concepts for silver designs, others were production guides that include part numbers, time estimates for completion and cost.
Maryland lawmakers in 1814 had the foresight to apply a standard of assaying to Maryland silver. “Baltimore was unique in its introduction of requiring assay marks on silver plate,” Disviscour said. To demonstrate, she has filled an entire case with silver spoons from the period 1814–1843 and provided catalogs that provide in-depth information on the marks.
Assay marks prior to 1814 often read “Sterling” or “Sterg,” implying that the quantity of silver in items was the same as in English and Irish sterling silver, which was 92.5 percent. During the period of mandatory silver assaying, Baltimore marks consisted of the maker’s initials or name, a letter that referred to the date and the Maryland state shield with clipped corners. After mid-1815, a Mercury / Liberty head could be seen.
After the deregulation of silver in 1830, items were marked with a number that indicated the amount of silver contained (“11,” “11 oz,” “11/12,” “11” with a superscript “2,” for example). When Kirk, Warner and other makers added more copper to the alloys, the marks read “10.15,” “10.19” and “Crown,” indicating the quality followed that of French coins.
Gilded Age silver was lavish in ornamentation. Particularly popular was flatware heavy with repoussé handles. Machines that stamped out the repoussé, along with an adherence to the rules of etiquette, probably accounted for the popularity of place settings consisting of as many as eight pieces. Being able to nonchalantly navigate the sea of silver by your plate was the ultimate tribute to good breeding.
Naturally, such settings were kept in elaborate cases. The top shelf was made for items that have been rendered virtually obsolete by a more casual lifestyle. These include a butter pick, gravy ladle or punch ladle, hot cake lifters, sugar tongs, berry spoons, butter knives, dressing spoons, serving spoons in various sizes, the asparagus fork, cold meat fork, salad spoon, lemon fork, pickle or olive fork and spoon. The middle and bottom drawers held place setting utensils.
Silver flatware services made excellent presentation gifts. The exhibit contains one “Presented To James McC Trippe, Speaker of the House of Delegates Members and Employes [sic] Session 1914.” Another was given to James McConky Trippe, speaker of the House of Delegates, 1912–1914.
In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, recurring economic recessions and World War I caused smaller firms to close their doors. The stock market crash of 1929 put a stop to the short-lived rebound.
The Maryland Historical Society also holds an extensive collection of Americana, including the original manuscript of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Maryland Historical Society is at 201 West Monument Street. For information, 410-685-3750 or www.mdhs.org.
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