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Silver And The "Golden Age" Of The Colonies
But prosperity in the Colonies brought with it a desire for better homes and then for better appointments. The people began to live well and in somber New England the wealthy eighteenth century folk were chided by the clergy for their luxurious tastes. Life in New York and Philadelphia was always gayer, and even the Quakers had fine homes and furnishings.
The simple designs of earlier days were followed in the mid-eighteenth century by more elaborate forms. This time is often called the Golden Age of the Colonies. Now silver design, like that of furniture, was affected by the work of Thomas Chippendale, the fashionable cabinetmaker of London who made elaborate furniture for the nobility and wealthy people of Britain. He borrowed French, Chinese, and Gothic motifs and even mixed them sometimes. In this age of elegance, silver reflected the wealth of the day and few silversmiths made simple pieces. Everything was heavy with ornament. True, it was beautifcil and made by expert craftsmen, but ornament was soon to give way to bad taste.
Meanwhile two important events changed the styles which England and the Colonies followed. Excavation began at Herculaneum and Pompeii, cities buried by Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and the Scottish architect, Robert Adam, went to Italy to study. All Europe took immense interest in these excavations, which uncovered the forgotten classical world. Robert Adam was particularly affected. He returned to London to practice architecture with his head full of classic motifs, and began to use the style of ancient Greece in his houses. Robert and his brother, James, probably had more influence on the design of the day than any other designer. They employed cabinetmakers, sculptors, painters, even silversmiths to carry out their ideas.
This new inspiration, this extreme simplicity of line and the fine proportions of the classic style appealed to the new nation. Silver was now fashioned in straight structural lines. It was embellished with delicately engraved ornament, the simple motifs of the urn and swag.
The designs used by American silversmiths at this time were similar to those of England, but the people liked to believe the designs were as new as the nation and the silversmiths helped them think they were right. In 1790 Joseph Anthony, Jr., a Philadelphia smith, advertised silver of "entire new patterns," yet these were much like those in vogue in London.
The spoon at this period was made in all sizes with a pointed bowl and turned-down handle. It was usually plain except for a script monogram or the popular form of ornament known as bright-cut engraving, a delicate shallow pattern of zigzag lines around the edge, or an initialed medallion on the handle. The backs of spoons at this time often had an ornament in relief, a simple drop, an acanthus leaf, or a dove holding an olive branch in its beak. The dove motif was especially appealing to the Quakers.
The early silversmith learned his trade in every detail. He melted silver coins, rolled the resulting mass of silver into a flat piece, and then raised it with his hammers to some beautiful form. If he did not do all the work himself, he had at hand a workman whom he had trained to do at least part of the process for him. But the master craftsman required the finished product to be of such quality that he could be proud to put his stamp upon each piece, either his initials or his name. He stood back of every article that left his shop. Silver-making was highly specialized.
Gradually in various communities little shops sprang up where spoons were produced in quantity. Then these little shops made spoons for jewelers who had their names stamped on the product instead of the name of the maker. On this account many spoons are found today with names not listed in any book of American silver marks. The change in marking took place after 1830 when the machine was beginning to be used for all types of work and the day of the expert craftsman was for the most part at an end. The eagle also appeared on the backs of Philadelphia spoons. The American eagle, taken from the United States Seal, was now a popular decoration on other silver as well.
The coffin-end spoon also became the style. This type can never be mistaken for any other design because the handle resembles an old type wooden coffin. The death of Washington is believed to have made this design a vogue, although universal mourning had long been a mania. Tablespoons, mustard spoons, salt, and dessert spoons, as well as ladles and forks were made in this severe style which was often brightened by a bit of engraving for initials or a monogram.
The tankard was going out of fashion: it was no longer good taste to drink to excess and the temperance movement was having its effect on the new country and on silver.