Silver takes center stage at DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum

Photo by David Ulmer

Photo by David Ulmer

By Karen Gonzalez

Over the course of some 30 years, the grandson of a silversmith began accumulating pieces that would become one of the finest private early American silver collections in the world. That collection will make the final stop on a four-city tour at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum of Colonial Williamsburg.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts organized “A Handsome Cupboard of Plate: Early American Silver in the Cahn Collection,” the traveling exhibition and hosted the first installation. It then traveled to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis before arriving in Williamsburg, where the exhibit will be hosted until May 25, 2015.

Each exhibit has showcased the strength and personality of the hosting museum. Colonial Williamsburg continues the tradition, adding 14 pieces from its own collection to the display, which highlights work from 1700-1815. The 50 objects include works by Jeremiah Dummer, American’s first native-born silversmith, as well as pieces from Paul Revere’s shop in Boston. The work of Quaker Joseph Richardson, Sr., a prolific silversmith from Philadelphia is also represented, along with Myer Myers of New York, whose work has been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Harvard University Art Galleries. Myers is a particular favorite of the collector, Paul Cahn, who has said “silver is one of the avenues that can transport (children) to the past.”

 “Silver always retains its value”

“Silver retains its value even as styles change in political turmoil.” says Janine Skerry, curator of metals at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Prominently displayed in the colonial home, silver objects stood as a testimony to the status and success of the owner. They were also considered a valuable heirloom to pass on to the next generation.

Photo by David Ulmer

Photo by David Ulmer

The silver, which was called “plate,” was often displayed in a cupboard especially designed for that purpose.

Wealthy Virginia plantation owner William Fitzhugh (1651-1701) wrote in 1688: “For now my buildings finished, my plantations well settled…& being sufficiently stored with goods of all sorts, I esteem it as well politic as reputable, to furnish my self with an handsome Cupboard of plate which gives my self the present use & credit, is a sure friend at a dead lift, without much loss or is a certain portion for a Child after my decease.”

Crafting silver objects has not changed very much in hundreds of years

The process and techniques for creating fine silver objects have changed very little since the beginning. It begins with heating pure silver to a very high temperature and mixing in a small amount of copper for durability. Pure silver is extremely workable and easy to mold, but far too soft for practical use.

The molten mixture was then cooled and hammered into a flat sheet before beginning the molding process to create the needed shape.

Broken silver or objects considered “out of fashion” might also be melted down to create new and fashionable objects.

The process of shaping the object was arduous and required great skill, patience and experience. Countless stages of hammering, molding, burnishing and polishing were necessary to create the piece. An average teapot required 10 full days or more to create, depending on the intricacy of the decoration.

Among the many decorating options, engraving and chasing were among the most common. Engraving is the art of cutting fine lines into the metal, leaving no “echo” on the other side.

Chasing actually moves the metal with a blunt tool. This technique of “bumping out” produces a design that is seen on both sides of the piece.

The most highly regarded standard was and continues to be the British sterling, which is 925 parts pure silver to 75 parts copper. In England, the quality and purity of silver workmanship was regulated through a complicated testing process, which continues to the present.

In order to acquire the excellent reputation of a quality silversmith, British apprentices trained under master craftsmen who were registered guild members. Master craftsmen were required to register unique touchmarks, or logos. Every piece was stamped with a master’s mark, tested for the quality of metal and then struck with at least three additional marks showing date, location and purity of metal.

America was the wild west

Contrasting the strict regulation and sterling standards of the British, “America was the wild west. There were no guild halls or standards. There was no government oversight.” said Skerry. Due to strained relations and independence from Britain, American silversmiths created their own honor-based standards system, continuing to adhere to a very high content of silver.

Examples of early American silver in the Cahn silver collection confirm the artistry and unique regional styles of American master craftsmen. From teapots to tankards, pipe lighters to porringers, silver objects were created for every purpose in the gentleperson’s household.

Each piece has a story to tell, and some show a life well used.

“I prefer the silver to look used, as long as it is not distracting to the piece. As a curator, I prefer that it remain evident that it had a life.” said Skerry.

“Repairing the metal usually means heating it up, which increases the likelihood of doing even greater damage. The color and surface change when reheated. There is a point at which you have to weigh the reality of age and use against the presentation of the piece. It’s particularly a challenge with sauceboats, because they often have the feet pushed in from being put down on the table too hard. It is a reminder of how soft silver is, even with copper added to it.”

Paul Cahn, who co-founded Elan Polo, an importer, exporter and designer of shoes, was collecting as a child, starting off as many children do, with marbles and stamps. “You learn a lot, historically, politically, geographically, when you collect stamps. It’s the same way for any collecting. It’s a fascinating learning process,” Cahn told the St. Louis Business Journal in a 2004 interview.

“I’ve been very successful at earning more than I need to live on, and I’m able to indulge wonderful hobbies,” he told the publication.
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