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Silver Of The Colonies

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The history of American silver parallels in a most interesting way the social development of the country. The first silver used by the Colonists was simple and useful, but as the country grew and prospered, the demand for more and finer pieces increased. By the time of the Revolution, wealthy Colonists were living as graciously as their contemporaries in England, and after we became a nation, the work of American silversmiths reached great heights, which continued into the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Then the machine won the battle of decoration over design, and ugliness tried to hide behind prettiness.

In the early seventeenth century, when the first settlers came to Virginia and New England, they had little room in their small ships for luxuries. No doubt a few of the more prosperous brought along some of their treasures and these must have included silver. Precious metals have always been a form of exchange, and good to have for emergencies. The earliest silver brought to this country was English and Dutch. This may have been melted down in later years by Colonial silver smiths and made into pieces we now recognize as American.

The early years in the new country were hard. There were houses to build and lands to till. For some time life was a battle for existence. There was little need for luxuries and little means with which to procure them.

History records how the country prospered. Shipping was established with England, the West Indies, Spain, and Portugal and trade brought silver coins from these foreign lands. A class of wealthy shipping merchants developed. The first luxuries were imported from England, but soon local craftsmen were needed and cabinetmakers and silversmiths opened shops in the cities where they copied the designs of English craftsmen.

The early silversmiths were naturally English. It took seven years of apprenticeship to develop a silversmith in this country. A lad born in the Colonies would be apprenticed at fourteen to a master who had recently come from London. The boy stayed with his master until he was twenty-one and then he too became a master silversmith, if he had proved his skill.

Because the settlers of New England were religious, the first silver made there was usually for churches and reflected the simple tastes of the people. On the whole English designs were followed, but gradually certain characteristics developed which made New England silver different from that made in New York, Philadelphia, and other parts of the country. Even today many New England churches are proud owners of early silver that has been treasured for generations. Occasionally a town or region holds an exhibition and it is always a surprise to see what fine pieces are still owned by even the smaller country parishes.

Although New York and Philadelphia designs usually followed those of the London silversmiths of the period, early New York silver shows the influence of the Dutch ancestry of its makers. There is more applied decoration and greater boldness in design. The list of New York smiths includes such Dutch names as Gerrit Onkelbag, Peter Van Dyke, Henricus Boelen, and Jacobus Vanderspiegel; in Boston appeared names like John Coney, Jacob Hurd, Robert Sanderson, Jeremiah Dummer, and John Burt. These men with English names thought as the English did. However even in the early days of the Colonies an interesting mixture of nationalities was indicated, particularly in the names of Huguenot silversmiths-Le Roux, Boudinot, Goelet, Du Bois,and Soumaine. Each smith added something from his own country to his work, thus developing in America a wonderful tradition of fine design and workmanship.

In the beginning the Colonists used what utensils they could make and the few they had brought with them. Probably the first plates and perhaps even the first spoons were of wood. This early ware was known as treen, a term derived from the word trees; treen was the simplest form of the most plentiful material. But there were also pewterers among the early settlers and they were soon making spoons and plates of pewter.

Until 1652 the Colonies had no currency. In that year, John Hull, a silversmith from London, was made mintmaster by the General Court of Massachusetts. He was probably the first silversmith to work in Boston. Hull with his partner, Robert Sanderson, produced the willow-tree, oak tree, and pine-tree shilling used in the New England Colonies until 1683. This partnership also produced many fine pieces of silver with Hull and Sanderson marks. In the Mabel Brady Garvan collection at Yale University is one of their spoons, the earliest known American one, and also a small dram cup.

The coins made by Hull and Sanderson were intended only for New England. But silver had a way of getting around even in those days for it was a medium of exchange. It was also worth stealing and a merchant with money at home or in his place of business had cause for worry.

It is at this point that the silversmith becomes an important member of the community. To him the prosperous man took his coins and had them melted down and fashioned into household articles-spoons, tankards, and porringers. After melting the coins, the silversmith refined the metal, and poured it into a skillet to form a flat block of silver. The block was hammered out to the desired thickness and worked into whatever article the patron ordered. The metal was worked while cold, but was repeatedly heated over charcoal to prevent brittleness and to make it tougher. This process was called annealing.

A finished article was polished by rubbing with pumice and then with a burnisher. This method did not cut away the surface but simply rubbed it smooth while leaving some hammer marks. Collectors feel that these marks add to the charm of a piece of old silver. The surface of antique silver has a patina rather like that of fine old wood and rubbing. Furthermore, since each piece was made wholly by hand,no two were alike.

A merchant, who had his coins made into household articles, had them engraved with initials or crest. In this way his wealth in silver was useful; it was still an investment, but it was not likely to be stolen, for initialed silver was fairly easy to trace. However, old records show that sometimes articles of silver were stolen, but after advertisements appeared with a detailed description of some family piece, it was usually returned and the thief punished.

While the North was developing skillful craftsmen who made things in the English manner, the South imported nearly everything, ordering luxuries and even necessities from London agents. These were paid for in tobacco, and when crops were good, more luxuries were imported. As a result of this policy there were few important silversmiths in the South until well into the eighteenth century. Even in Williamsburg, capital of the Virginia Colony during the early eighteenth century, there was not a silversmith of importance and all fine articles were imported from London.

The first articles made by American silversmiths were spoons. Knives and forks were not in general use until the eighteenth century. Today American spoons of the seventeenth century are rare. Yet many must have been made. However, they got such hard use they doubtless had to be melted down and were then made into spoons of later design or possibly into other articles. Whatever the reason for scarcity, the few early spoons known today are in museums or private collections.

One fine early spoon with the mark of Hull and Sanderson is in the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. It has a large bowl rather like a fig, and the handle is a straight piece. This type, usually called the Puritan spoon, is the earliest form known in this country.

After the spoon, the porringer, small bowl, and tankard were made for food and drink. Liquor in some form was generally enjoyed, even by the clergy. Those who could afford it had these articles made of silver; others used pewter, or even pottery. The tankards were usually made large to hold the quantities of liquor apparently necessary in a cold climate. Tankards, porringers, and bowls were also used in the churches and have been found in the collection of early church silver.