Published: May 1, 2012
Silver is a very special metal, and over the years, Americans have enjoyed all manner of silver objects, ranging from spoons and tankards to dinner services and presentation pieces.
At first available to only the most affluent American colonists who could afford expensive, imported silverware, the onset of gifted domestic silversmiths and the rise of a middle class made it possible for increasing numbers to acquire silver treasures that served decorative, commemorative, presentational and household uses. Designs in such diverse styles as rococo, classical, Oriental and Native American reflected artistic influences on the nation’s increasingly talented silversmiths.
Recent research into the histories and owners of older silver pieces offers fascinating glimpses into American cultural and social history, reflecting individual accomplishments, family pride, consumer patterns, technological progress, rituals of presentation and commemoration of great events in war and peace.
One of the best exhibitions on the subject in some time, “Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York” draws on the trove of more than 3,000 silver objects in the collection of the venerable and invaluable New-York Historical Society (NYHS). On view through September 2 and spanning the Sixteenth through the Twentieth Centuries, the exhibition features 150 notable silver objects with a focus on their owners, the context in which they were used and their cultural significance.
The collection is remarkable because most of it was donated by descendants of original owners, enhancing the exhibition’s insights into Gotham’s history. As NYHS president and chief executive officer Louise Mirrer observes, this is “more than a display of objects †it is an exploration of four centuries of New York culture through the lens of silver objects, appealing to scholars and enthusiasts of silver, material culture and New York history alike.”
On view are pieces in the full range of lustrous metals, including sterling, coin silver and electroplate. Most were made in New York, but some came from as far away as England, France, Argentina and China.
Curated by Margaret K. Hofer, NYHS’s curator of decorative arts, with her associate curator of decorative arts, Debra Schmidt Bach, the exhibition is organized around themes that reflect the multiethnic character of colonial New York; evolution of production from small-shop craftsmanship to industrialized manufacture; traditions of honoring public achievement or marking rites of passage; uses for drinking alcoholic beverages and tea and coffee; and silver’s ability to express its owners’ social standing.
Like most American museums, the NYHS did not begin to collect silverware until late in the Nineteenth Century. It has since assembled one of the nation’s finest collections of early American silver. Exhibitions and scholarship have extended the reach of the still-expanding trove.
“The society’s holdings today boast a depth and breadth that make them a vital resource for historical and art-historical inquiry,” says Hofer. The exhibition catalog is the first devoted to NYHS’s silver collection.
The silver objects in the exhibition’s first section emanate from colonial New York and reflect Dutch cultural hegemony, rising British influence and, finally, neoclassic styles favored by native silversmiths after the American Revolution. Clients were typically wealthy, white men of European extraction.
The earliest object and one of the oldest Dutch silver pieces extant in America, dating to 1589, is cylindrical in form with a flared rim and engraved decorations †a beaker imported from the old country that likely held beer. It is an example of a European-made object that served as stylistic inspiration for New York silversmiths, who created “some accomplished American interpretations of the form,” according to Hofer.
Perhaps the most elegant object from the colonial period is a large, two-handled Brandywine bowl elaborately decorated with rose and tulip depictions created by American craftsman Benjamin Wynkoop around 1700 for prominent New York businessman Cornelius De Peyster and his wife. Continuing traditions of Dutch fashion and usage, this handsome bowl was filled with a potent brew and passed among guests at festive gatherings.
Another highlight, made early in his career by Myer Myers, is an elegant baroque waiter, or small tray, with an undulating border. It was probably used to pass glasses of wine. Myers (1723‱795) went on to become the leading New York silversmith of the late colonial period and a pillar of the Jewish community.
The evolution of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century silversmithing from craft to Nineteenth Century industry, from individuals hammering, casting, engraving and chasing wares to processes using machine-flattened sheet silver and steam- and water-powered manufacturing greatly increased the efficiency of production. By the 1870s, New York silver was primarily made by large manufacturers whose reduced prices made silver affordable to many more Americans.
Teapots, tea sets, a sugar bowl and creamer and an elaborately decorated water pitcher by Tiffany, Young & Ellis document handcrafted silver items before 1870. Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812‱902) began business in New York in 1837 with a small notions and stationery store; when he died in 1902, his firm was the nation’s leading silver and jewelry company.
Precious metal objects have long been used to salute individuals for leadership, achievements and courage. Illustrious Americans were honored with all manner of silver pieces: tea sets, trays, tureens, water pitchers and swords. A handsome example, dating to 1772‱773, is a huge salver or tray with an impressive, engraved seal of the city of New York, presented by a royal governor to an engineer for repairing the Battery at the tip of Manhattan, a critical defense fortification.
Typical of Gilded Age extravagance is a large, eye-popping loving cup presented by Tammany Hall stalwarts to state Senator Thomas F. Grady in 1898 that is adorned with busts of 17 Tammany leaders and gilded tigers’ heads for handles. A Twentieth Century political piece, an ornate cigar box made by Tiffany & Co. and presented to cigar-smoking New York Governor Alfred E. Smith after his defeat for president in 1928, features a reprint of a laudatory The New York Times editorial on the inside of the box.
Curator Hofer admits a “particular fondness” for an extravagantly decorated, 1931 aeronautical/hot air balloon trophy for “its inventive form and wonderful Art Nouveau details, especially the Winged Victory figures that appear to guide the balloon skyward.”
Since the nation’s founding, Americans †and New Yorkers †have celebrated momentous occasions and rites of passage †marriage, christening, death †with gifts of precious metals, especially silver, which has come to symbolize hope, love and sorrow. Among the examples on view are spoons (for births); mugs or flatware (christenings); rings, porringers, drinking vessels and tea wares (marriages); rings and spoons (funerals/mourning) and various objects for religious purposes.
Among the dazzlers is a two-handled cup and cover decorated with symbols of fecundity †foliage, pomegranates and seeds †presented to New York merchant Isaac Gouverneur and his bride on their wedding in 1777 and likely filled for special occasions with a spiced alcoholic beverage. Another two-handled cup and cover, 1914, was one of 14 made for members of the Corsair Dining Club, an elite group formed by financier J.P. Morgan. Upon the founder’s death, banker Frank Knight Sturgis, a member, collaborated with the deceased’s son and Dominick and Haff, specialists in presentation pieces, to design this dignified piece inspired by British loving cups.
A sleek Hanukkah lamp or menorah with arched candleholders, made in 270 hours of labor by Judaica silversmith Bernard Bernstein in the Bronx in 1999, testifies to the enduring role of silver in religious pieces.
Silver “vessels of conviviality,” featured in another thematic section, include tankards, canns, beakers and other drinking containers that were presented as gifts, used on ceremonial occasions and prized as family heirlooms. Displayed is a Myers tankard, circa 1746‱740, which was reputedly used by ardent patriot Mrs Robert Murray to entertain British General William Howe and his officers in her home in 1776. She detained the invaders long enough for Continental troops to flee to safety in Harlem Heights.
Tankards and other silver vessels associated with consumption of alcoholic drinks declined in popularity with the rise of the temperance movement in the early Nineteenth Century and were replaced by silverware for more socially acceptable beverages like tea and coffee. They complemented vessels dating to the colonial period, which became symbols of status and refinement in social rituals surrounding the consumption of these nonalcoholic favorites. The earliest New York-made teapot, a distinctive pear-shaped vessel with a straight tapering spout, was created in Albany or Watervliet for the marriage of Elizabeth and Johannes Schuyler in 1695.
By the 1870s, the curators note, coffee drinking had become “an essential pick-me-up” for the American worker. “Today, coffee drinking remains an intrinsic part of American culture, although formal rituals and the use of costly silver wares have been almost entirely displaced by the convenience of electric coffeemakers and disposable cups from neighborhood coffee shops,” they said.
The exhibition closes with a section devoted to “Elegant Dining,” showcasing the manner in which Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Americans flaunted their social status and refinement through dining rituals, consumption of fashionable foods and ostentatious displays of silver tablewares. Among the varied serving and eating utensils are ornamented and special-purpose knives, forks and spoons, a marrow scoop, a fish slice, a double-bladed server, a porringer, a salver, a sauceboat, a soup tureen and a butter cooler.
An intricately designed pair of bottle stands with delicately pierced sides and wooden bases, 1770‱776, designed by Moses Myer to hold glass decanters or wine bottles, graced the table of Philip Schuyler of Albany, a Continental Army general, politician and wealthy landowner. The centerpiece of the Schuylers’ dining table was a rare, spectacular epergne †a multi-tiered stand with dishes to hold pickles, relishes or dessert confections †augmented with a mirrored plateau, both made in England in the late Eighteenth Century.
A highlight is an exotic ice cream dish, encrusted with floral ornament and supported by four elephant trunk feet, made by Tiffany & Co. in the late 1870s for mining tycoon John W. Mackay and his wife. This was part of an extravagant 1,250-piece dinner service created by a team of Tiffany craftsmen from silver ore extracted from Mackay’s Nevada Comstock Lode.
The most unusual pieces on view are a table knife and fork decorated with an eagle and swastika motif and bearing the initials “AH” that were part of a German-made 3,000-piece dinner service presented to Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday. Liberated from the Fuhrer’s Bavarian chalet at Berchtesgaden by an American GI, they were given to New York Jewish business leader Carl M. Loeb, who donated them to the historical society. “These disconcerting objects are oddities” in the collection, acknowledges Bach, but reflect the society’s “dedication to preserving artifacts of historic interest.”
At a time of simplified lifestyles in which silver plays a reduced role in America’s existence, this eye-appealing, informative survey is a reminder of the importance of silver objects in the past lives of numerous families and in the history of New York. It is yet another demonstration of ways in which the vast collections of the New-York Historical Society can be displayed for public enjoyment and education.
The 352-page, illustrated catalog, a model of useful scholarship, includes chapters by silver experts and detailed entries on exhibition objects. Published by the New-York Historical Society in conjunction with D Giles Limited, it sells for $45 paperback, and $69.95 hardcover.
The New-York Historical Society is at 77th Street and Central Park West. For information, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.
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