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Rebirth Of Silver Design

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Design started on its downward path in the nineteenth century soon after the machine became important and design grew steadily worse throughout the century. It passed through periods facetiously known as the General Grant, the Golden Oak, and the Mission, and on to something that has been called Early Halloween. Not until the twentieth century did manufacturers begin to see that the designs of a hundred or more years ago were good and could stand repeating.

It is said that some of our famous collectors of antique silver first saw its beauty at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. There in a series of huge buildings was exhibited everything the machine could do. Catalogues from that exhibition are amazing with pictures of objects ugly beyond understanding. Ostentation and size were the criteria of the day. But among all the machinemade objects were displayed some furniture, glass, and silver of the century before, the time of the American Revolution. Persons of discernment who were not engulfed by the taste of 1876 stopped to admire those exhibits, which were not called antiques at rhat time.

The late Henry W, Exving of Hartford, Connecticut, as a young man went to the Centennial and he said afterward that he made up his mind then to find out more about eighteenth-century things and to get some. Many will recall that when Mr. Erving died a few years ago he had one of the outstanding collections of furniture, glass, and silver in the country. Many of his pieces have been shown in books on antiques.

Although his collections were not so large as some today, he had only the choicest items.

Another man who at that time began to wonder about the craftsmanship of a hundred years or more before 1876 was Dr. Irving W. Lyon, also of Hartford, who studied and collected antiques and also wrote a book which is now famous, The Colonial Furniture of New England. Dr. Lyon began collecting in 1877 and he, too, became interested in early silver. In turn his son, Charles Woolsey Lyon, collected and was one of the pioneer antiques dealers in New York City. From him many early collectors bought choice things that are now in museums or noted collections.

Men such as these started the trend back to the appreciation of the crafts of the eighteenth century. Mr. Erving said that when he started housekeeping in the 1870s, he could not afford the furnishings in vogue so he had to buy "secondhand" things. At that time many a family had discarded the beautiful mahogany and delicate silver of earlier days for the heavy styles of the 1870s and 1880s. Thus the finer things found their way into secondhand concerns. There were no antiques shops then, but small stores where used furniture, mirrors, and even silver were sold cheaply because few wanted to be out of fashion. It was the very few like Mr. Erving and Dr. Lyon, with appreciation for the fine workmanship of a hundred years before, who paved the way for a renaissance of good design. They began to study the workmanship of the past and to interest others in it. In a few years these men were lending their possessions to museums and historical societies and more people showed an interest in collecting. It took years, however, before much was known about the origin of fine silver, since there were then no books of reference.

While bad design persisted through the 1890s and into the 1900s, interest gradually increased in old designs, and in the igoos there seems to have been a rebirth of appreciation. It did not reach far at first, but the late R.T.H. Halsey, and a few others, began to collect fine furniture and silver. Mr. Halsey was even instrumental in arranging an exhibition of old silver in Boston in 1906. This was the first time the public realized that beautiful handmade silver had been produced centuries before. Those who had inherited it had been taking it for granted and it had previously had little value for them except as it was useful. After this first important exhibition of American silver knowledge and interest in collecting grew.

Perhaps the greatest impetus to appreciation of our artistic heritage was the opening of the American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1922. This series of fine rooms, furnished in detail with the furniture, mirrors, glass, paintings, and silver of the past aroused the public in general and designers in particular to the beauty of it all. It was Mr. Halsey who gave further stimulus with Homes of Our Ancestors, the book he wrote with Elizabeth Tower, who later became his wife. The Wing and this book no doubt were contributing factors in the rebirth of good design.