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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

American Silversmiths

( Originally Published 1940 )



Silversmithing is a craft in which we may well expect to find pride of workmanship and permanent value of the finished object at their highest. Two factors in his work set the silversmith apart from all other craftsmen. These were the value of his material, and the artistic requirements of his craft. The silversmith had to be a man in whom everyone had absolute confidence. He was the social equivalent of the small town banker. We shall find in him none of the Bohemianism of the carpenters and none of the flamboyance of the glassmakers. Such qualities were not conducive to investment.

And investment was, in an oblique way, the business of the silversmith. In the 17th and 18th centuries each piece of silver was made to order for an individual. The customer gathered together enough silver coin for the purpose, handed it in a sack to his chosen silversmith and said, "One porringer . . . three caudle-cups . . . one tankard . . ." or anything else he might desire.

This was the same as putting money in the bank. The skill of the craftsmanship in the finished product added a certain amount to the actual value of the silver, comparable to interest. The buyer's investment was thus a good one in which he gambled only with the slight margin of the craftsman's skill. He felt the silver objects to be slightly safer from thievery than the coin would have been, being unidentifiable, and paper currency was most uncertain. Silver was his gilt-edged security.

In the 17th century the English standard for silver coin (sterling), and hence for plate, was 925 parts of silver to each 1000 parts of metal. In case the coins given him were not all sterling the silversmith's first step was to remove the base metal and bring the finished piece up to standard. The opportunities for cheating were manifestly great. The entire proceeding would be virtually impossible today, first because all our metal coins are largely alloy, and also because it would now be a violation of the law to destroy or deface United States currency.

Only about 1750 did it become common for the silversmith to furnish his own silver and be paid for this in addition to his workmanship. But he still continued to acquire his silver in the form of coin, much of which came from the Spanish colonies in South America. Silver was not successfully mined in the United States until 1852.

The silversmith had to establish himself by means of personal contact, whereas most other craftsmen could merely hang out a shingle and start to work. He was probably one of the first Americans to fraternize in the interests of business. He held office wherever he could, joined every club, the most affluent church, and was active in politics. After all, a fellow assemblyman might order a tea-set from him. A reputation for honesty was one of his major assets. Part back-slapper, part banker, part artist, part worker; the early American silversmith was a wily and versatile man indeed!

The earliest known American silversmith came from London to Boston in 16,34. His name was John Mansfield. Unfortunately no specimen of his work has been found.

One of the earliest smiths whose work survives was John Hull (1624-1683). A Boston man, he has the distinction of probably having been the first silversmith to learn his craft in America. He was the son of a blacksmith and was apprenticed to his half-brother, Richard Storer, who had formerly been a member of the London Goldsmiths' Guild.

Hull apparently flourished and in 1652 he was selected by the Massachusetts Assembly to be the head of their new and illegal mint. For this work he took, as partner, his friend Robert Sanderson, who had come to this country as a full-fledged goldsmith in 1638. This partnership, though created originally to supply coins for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, extended into all branches of silversmithing so that Hull & Sanderson became one of the commonest marks on early American silver. Hull became wealthy and held many political offices in addition to that of Mint-Master.

Hull had an apprentice, Jeremiah Dummer (1645-1718), an excellent silversmith who subsequently became as successful as his former master, holding the positions of County Treasurer, Judge, Selectman, etc. in the customary manner of silversmiths. In addition to these accomplishments, Dummer was one of our foremost early painters. He left us a self-portait, together with portraits of many of his contemporaries. Dummer's son, William, later became Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts.

We can already begin to see that nearly all American silversmiths, within a given region, were related to one another either by blood, marriage, or apprenticeship.

John Coney (1655-1722) was the brother-in-law of Jeremiah Dummer and was probably apprenticed to him. Coney, in turn, had as apprentice a Frenchman by the name of Appollos De Rivoire, whom we shall have occasion to consider later. John Coney was not only a silversmith but a good engraver. He made the plates for the first paper money of America, that of Massachusetts Bay, in 1690. He also made the Seal of Harvard College.

When Coney died the Reverend T. Foxcroft, a relative by marriage, delivered his funeral oration. Fragments from this eulogy are worth repeating:

"I have often heard him speak of Christ with expressions of Love and Esteem; of Sin, with Tears; of earthly Enjoyments with a just Contempt; and of Heavenly Things with much Concern and Affection.

"The lying Tongue, the false Ballance, all deceitful Working, & subtil tricks, criminal Postponing of Payments, ec. was an abomination to him.

"His moral Defects I have not mentioned; for there are only such as are consistent with a good Estate, and small in Comparison of his Virtues: and therefore to be charitably covered in sacred Silence."

John Coney was, in truth, an excellent craftsman, who taught his art well to those who were to follow him.

Timothy Dwight (1634-1691), another prominent New England silversmith, is known to have lived with John Hull and was probably apprenticed to him. Edward Winslow (16691753), who produced a great quantity of silver work, was the grandson of trouble-making Anne Hutchinson of religious fame. He held even more political offices than was usual among his fellow smiths.

David Jesse (1670-1705), John Allen (I67I- ? ), and John Edwards (1671-1746) were well known artisans. John Hurd did good work, and so did his son, Nathaniel. In regard to the latter some of his account books bring out an interesting fact. Nathaniel Hurd was a true artist-craftsman, and also one of America's great early copperplate engravers. Yet his books show that he mended pots and did other similar tasks. Thus it is seen, and evidenced by records of other American silversmiths, that these aristocrats of craftsmanship were by no means above the most humble task within their skill. Such was hardly the case in England, where a prominent silversmith would not stoop to anything beneath his position.

Newport, Rhode Island, was a center of silversmithing. Among its silver workers are prominent names in American silver annals: Samuel Vernon (1683-1737), Benjamin Benton (1659-1749), John Tanner 1713-I785), John Coddington (1690-1743), Thomas Arnold (1739-1828), Daniel Rogers (1753-1792), and Jonathan Otis 1723-1790, who practiced the latter part of his career in Middletown, Connecticut.

In the center of Rhode Island's anomalous Narragansett region, where a society closely resembling the rich Southern feudalism grew into being, there existed the hilltop town of Little Rest, now Kingston. In this town flourished a number of silversmiths, in spite of the fact that this is not a craft usually occurring in a country town.

The "Narragansett Planters" were tremendously rich, and although they probably ordered much of their plate from the famous craftsmen of Boston, or Newport, there was still enough demand to support a group of local artisans.

One of this group, Samuel Casey, has on record one of the more speckled careers in American silversmithing. He was the son of one Thomas Casey, supposedly the only survivor of the Irish Massacre of 1641. Thomas subsequently fled to America, to the town of Newport, where his son was born.

Samuel Casey was made a freeman in Exeter, R. I., in 1745. Nearby he acquired a home and practiced the craft of silversmithing. Where he learned it is not known. He prospered. His work is much more imaginative than that of most of his contemporaries. He engraved naked ladies straddling large fish, and other skilful and intricate designs. Then, on a windy September night, his house caught fire and burned to the ground. His entire fortune, of about five thousand pounds, was invested in the house, its luxurious furniture, and the implements of his craft.

After this catastrophe he moved to Little Rest and took over the "Helme House," a large gambrel-roofed building with a capacious garret. In Little Rest, in point of fact in this very garret, Casey forsook the strict probity which we have cited as characteristic of American silversmiths. It must be remembered, in justice to Casey, that an ironic fate had directed a craftsman of his superlative skill to a small town that was not willing or able sufficiently to patronize him. In addition to this, he was apparently supported by the community in his misdemeanors.

The fact is that Samuel Casey took to what was then called "Money Making," but would now be called counterfeiting. He was in league with certain local merchants and his strong young apprentice-relative worked the press which was located in the attic. There was much hiding of dies under stone piles and concealment of false metal in "great chambers." There was obscure talk, and the burying of false Spanish Dollars in local salt-water lagoons.

In some way Casey was exposed. Anticipating trouble he asked one of his relatives to take the dies, press, and other apparatus to a nearby lagoon and sink them out of reach; which was done.

When arrested, Casey at first broke down and told all, then regretted and pleaded Not Guilty. The jury, composed of his fellow townsmen, brought in a verdict of Not Guilty. They were severely chastised by the Magistrates and sent back into the jury-room to think the case over at greater length. After more painful thought the harassed jury returned to the courtroom with the Gilbertian verdict that ". . . if in the opinion of yr Honors the written confession of the Deft. be considered lawful evidence, then we find the Deft. Guilty; otherwise Not Guilty."

The irate Magistrates lost no time in deciding that the defendant's written confession was quite legal and condemned Samuel Casey to be hanged by the neck until dead.

On the night before Casey was to be hanged a large mob of towns-people painted their faces black and attacked the jail. It is not recorded that they met with any resistance. They broke down the doors and set Casey free. He rode hurriedly Southward and no more is known of him. It seems likely that he practiced his craft in some other colony under another name.

Other men in Little Rest who struggled against the almost insurmountable odds of metropolitan competition were Samuel's relative, Gideon, and his apprentice, John Waite.Waite, while by no means the equal of Samuel Casey, earned a considerable reputation. He was justice of the Peace and held various judgeships and other offices: He engraved bills for the State of Rhode Island and also practiced the humbler trade of locksmithing. When the Revolution came John Waite organized a Militia Company which called itself the Kingston Reds (sic). Under Waite's leadership this company distinguished itself against the British.

Waite's brother, William, combined silversmithing with the calling of a Baptist Minister. Another silversmith of the period, Joseph Perkins, was also a gunsmith. The city council com manded him to go to New York City to purchase one hundred firearms with which to resist the British, then immediately decided to save money by ordering the arms by mail. Perkins served for one year in the Kingston Reds, under John Waite.

Then he concentrated on becoming a successful manufacturer of silver buckles and buttons which he distributed, with a perspicacity ahead of his time, through retailers at a commission of 7%. He prospered, notwithstanding the fact that he became exceedingly intemperate before his death. When he was buried his respectable family changed his profession, engraving upon his tombstone, "Joseph Perkins, Merchant, died 1789 . . . ."

Nathaniel Helme was another excellent craftsman of Little Rest. He is an instance of a silversmith springing from a wealthy and cultured family. His father, judge James Helme, had built the house occupied by Samuel Casey.

There were some fine smiths in Connecticut: Captain Robert Fairchild (1703-1794.), Ebenezer Chittenden (1726-1812), John Gardiner (1734-1776), Peter Quintard (1700- ? ), Cornelius Kierstede (1675-17S7), and others. The two last named were New York City silversmiths who practiced in their later years in Connecticut.

The silversmiths of New York City numbered several prolific families. One of these was the family of Boelen. Jacob and Hendrick were brothers. Henricus was the son of Jacob, father of another Jacob, and cousin of Koenrat Ten Eyck. This spans nearly three quarters of a century of silversmithing.

New York City had a custom of bestowing the honorary status of freeman upon persons who had no possible use for it. The first of these was given to Provincial Governor Cornbury in 1702. It was decided that the document should be enclosed in a gold box and "Alderman Boelen (the first of the Jacobs) is directed to make the said box."

Bartholomew Le Roux, one of the many Huguenot refugees in New York, afterwards made a number of these boxes, as did one Samuel Johnson. Le Roux, in common with the majority of his fellow French immigrants, was violently anti-French and was a leader in insisting that the city should guard itself against French attack. He married a Dutch girl and his son Charles was later official silversmith of New York City and made the greatest number of the famous "freeman boxes."

Peter Van Dyck, who was probably apprenticed to his fatherin-law, Batholomew Le Roux, became the most prolific of early New York silversmiths. Myer Myers, a Jewish silversmith (1723-I795), was also outstanding among them.

In Philadelphia the earliest record is of one Cesare Ghiselin, another Huguenot, being paid for a piece of silver work by William Penn in 1701.

John Nys, still another immigrant Frenchman, practiced in the Quaker City at about the same time. Phillip Syng Sr. (1676-1739), an Irishman, founded one of the numerous silversmithing families there. There were two sons, Daniel and John, and two grandsons, both "Phillip," all good silversmiths.

Francis Richardson (1681-1729), of the same city, also sired a brood of smiths. He was succeeded by sons, Joseph and John, and grandsons, Joseph and Nathaniel. This family engaged in active smithing up until 1827, when Nathaniel died.

A few silversmiths struggled against great odds in Charleston, South Carolina. They could not flourish for it was the consistent habit of the southern gentry to send to Europe for their luxuries.

In discussing Boston we mentioned John Coney's French apprentice, Appollos De Rivoire. This Appollos was born in France and was taken, as a child, by his fleeing Huguenot family, to the Island of Guernsey. While still a boy he was sent, alone, to Boston, there to be apprenticed to the famous Coney.

He was well supplied with money and his apprenticeship was strictly for educational purposes. John Coney died before the expiration of Appollos' apprenticeship and so the boy served out the rest of his time under some smith whose name is not known. By 1723 Appollos De Rivoire had changed his name to Paul Revere and was well established in his own business.

Of this name-changing, his son later wrote: "Appollos made this alteration merely on account the Bumpkins could pronounce it easier . . ." Revere married a Boston girl and begat several children, of whom Longfellow's night-riding hero was the third,(I735).

With no implied disparagement of his father, the second Paul Revere was one of the most excellent and versatile of early American craftsmen. The bottom rung of his talents is revealed through an advertisement, printed in 1770:

"ARTIFICIAL TEETH. PAUL REVERE takes this method of returning his most sincere Thanks to the Gentlemen and Ladies who have employed him in the care of their Teeth . . . he still continues the business of a Dentist, and flatters himself that from the experience he has had these Two Years, (in which time he has fixt some hundreds of Teeth), that he can fix them as well as any Surgeon Dentist who ever came from London . . ."

He adds further that he also cleans teeth and will do so in any Lady's or Gentleman's apartment.

Even in this ad his anti-Royalist proclivities are apparent. He was a powerful influence among the Revolutionary element of Boston. He engraved, printed, and sold many virulent cari catures and bombastic allegories of patriotism. Most famous, perhaps, is his engraving of the Boston Massacre. His copperplate engraving, it must be added, was bad. As he had had no training this was a fact rather more to his credit than otherwise.

Revere was a man who would tackle anything. To the question "Can you do it?" he had only one answer. He would clean his neighbor's teeth or attempt a view of the City of Boston in copperplate with equal alacrity. His engravings were published in the magazines of that day on the strength of his name and his effrontery rather than on their merit. He was also the author of quite a bit of undistinguished verse, largely on political and revolutionary themes.

Revere was a leading organizer of the Sons of Liberty. His personality commanded respect from both workers and merchants. He was an excellent horseman and hence was employed as messenger by the Committee of Safety. He took part in the Boston Tea Party. He was forty years old when he made his famous midnight ride. William Dawes started ahead of him, by a different route, with the same message, warning Hancock and Adams that the British had placed a price on their heads and were about to raid ammunition hide-outs. Revere arrived first, and hence gets the credit. On the way he was ambushed and pursued by British horsemen, but out-rode them, arousing the Minute Men as he galloped through the countryside. On the following day was fired the "shot heard round the world" and the war was definitely under way.

Revere manufactured gunpowder, repaired spiked cannon, and became a Lieutenant-Colonel. On the mismanaged expedition to Maine in 1779 Revere, who was in charge of the artillery, became insubordinate and was subsequently arrested. This probably unjust consequence spoiled his chances of securing a high post in the Federal Government, for it was not until 1782 that he was acquitted by an adequate Court-Martial.

He had married Sarah Orne, in 1757 and she had borne him eight children. Five months after her death, in 1773, he married Rachel Walker. The second marriage was childless.

Typical of Revere's versatility and his willingness to tackle anything is the fact that when, in 1775, the Continental Congress authorized him to issue the first national paper money he not only engraved the plates but constructed the presses on which he printed it. He was, in all, in addition to being a silversmith, dentist, engraver, powder manufacturer, printer, brassfounder, maker and merchant of hardware and jewelry, bellfounder, iron-founder, seal maker, picture-frame carver, and it is even said that he occasionally shod horses. He ventured into ship-building and made copper sheathing for the hulls of boats. His contributions toward design for speed helped pave the way for the later Yankee Clippers. His son, the third Paul, followed him in all these trades and was proficient.

As a silversmith he had virtually perfect taste and endless skill, both in his forms and ornaments. The high price of Paul Revere's silver today, of which a relatively large quantity exists, is by no means entirely due to his Midnight Ride. He stands without need of apology in the top rank of American craftsmen. He died in 1817, leaving a fortune of $31,000.

The silversmith's craft is difficult and intricate. He works with a vast assortment of odd-named and baffling tools. Possibly one of the simplest ways to roughly itemize these would be to take bodily a list found in the last will and testament of one John Burt, silversmith, of Boston, in the year 1745:

"2 Show Glasses ... pair of Chapes and tongs . . . 11 files ... a pair of large and small bellows ... a large Forgin anvil . . . one small ditto . . . 9 raising anvils . . . planishing Teaster . . . 2 Spoon Teasters . . . planishing ditto . . . 3 bench vises . . . 9 small vises ... a beak irons ... 40 hammers . . . pr. hammer . . . 2 Melting Skillets . . . 37 bottom stakes and punches . . . a drawing bench & tongs . . . Drawing irons . . . 10 pairs of shears . . . a brass Hollowin stamps . . . a pair of brass Salt punches . . . 1 thimble stamp . . . 6 pair of molds for casting . . , 15 pairs of tongs & plyers . . . a pair of large scales and weights ... pewter and lead molds ... 36 old files ... 12 strainers . . . 1 oyl stove . . . 3 small saws . . . 4 boreax boxes . . . 3 burnishes . . . 1 Triblet . . . a boiling pans . . . a parcel of punches ... 1 Touch Stone. . . ."

For the uses of these implements, so far as we can penetrate them, let us try to follow some of the silversmith's processes after he had received his instructions and a bag of silver coin from one of his customers.

The first thing he did was to melt the coin and remove any excess base metal by means of chemical processes. As a rule this refining would not be necessary and all he would have to do, after melting, would be to cast the silver into a plate of the requisite size, thickness, and shape. As often as not it was cast in the form of a round "skillet."

Then came the process called "raising." This meant hammering the flat sheet of metal into the required form. This basic shape might be like a pear, large at the bottom, narrower at the top, yet it was hammered from a single piece, without seams of any kind. The tools used in this process were simply a number of variously shaped anvils and hammers. Silver becomes hard and brittle under prolonged beating. This was remedied by frequently "annealing" the piece, re-heating it to a temperature just below the melting point.

Sometimes the silver must be "dragged" or drawn, into the desired shape. The "dragging" process involved manifold difficulties. The metal tends not to spread evenly, but to thin out in one direction under stress. The successful culmination of the process requires a profound intimacy between the craftsman and his material.

Of course the "dragging" of the main form is only the first step. Soldering in those days was an awkward process: there was no blow-pipe or soldering iron. The direct heat of a charcoal fire had to be applied to the required joint.

Ornamentation was embossed, engraved, or separately cut. The first of these methods consists of forming a raised design. In early times, if the piece were hollow ware, making it difficult to work from the reverse side of the design, the first thing was to fill it with pitch. Then the design was lightly hammered in outline from the outside with small, dull chisels. This is known as "flat chasing" and sometimes constituted the sole decoration.

If the embossing, also known as repousse, continued the pitch was taken out and "snarling irons" were used. The snarling irons were so named because of the sound they made when struck. They were pieces of iron with curved ends in various shapes. They were fastened in a vise and the curved end placed inside the silver piece at the point which was to be pushed outward. Then the snarling iron was struck with a hammer and conveyed the impact to the point of its contact with the silver, pushing the metal outward. In this manner many free-hand ornamentations were raised on early silver; the outlines were usually afterward sharpened by being gone over again with small, dull chisels.

In the process of engraving the metal is simply cut away in thin lines. At first this was done in unbroken lines but later the custom of engraving in short, almost microscopic gauges became generally accepted. The craft of engraving on silver is so similar to the fine art of engraving on copperplate for printing, that this accounts for the number of silversmiths who practiced both arts.

The third method of decorating pieces of silver was to cast silver ornaments and then solder them on. In casting, the ornament was usually first carved of wood. From this model an im pression was made in the two halves of a sand mold, in which the silver was then cast and subsequently finished with small files. A less common practice was to make the model of wax. This, when baked in a sand mold, caused the wax model to melt and drain off, leaving the space for the silver to enter. Under this method a model could only be used once.

Another mode of decoration had a brief vogue between about 1690 and 1710. It was known as the "cut-card." In this method a sheet of thin silver was cut to the desired shape and then soldered or welded onto the main body.



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