Silver : An American Art Form

"Silver represents the first important art form in this country. The historical events with which silver objects are associated represent major aspects of our development as a nation."- Early American Silver by Martha Gandy Fales

Throughout the decades of the 19th century, American silver went through several iterations. Those eras and innovative periods slowly carved out the history of the craft and solidified American silver as a well-respected trade in the United States and worldwide. For centuries, silver objects were viewed as physical objects in which to consolidate wealth. Before the development of organized banking, many Americans had their personal savings shaped into spoons, teapots and other forms. If times became difficult, the objects could easily be melted down into ready coin.

Beginning in the early 1800s, silversmithing was a very insular trade. Silver products were produced by a small team that typically included a master silversmith, journeymen, and apprentices that produced enough goods for the local market. Simple machinery was used for certain aspects of production but the products were more often than not, handmade. Objects were produced in a custom-made or made-to-order fashion, appeasing the individual customers and solidifying the silversmith's business in their community. There were few advertisements for the business and little deviation from popular English and French styles.

However, following the War of 1812, the American market changed. This time period, called the "Era of Good Feelings" led to an increase in consumerism in America, particularly focused on an increased consumption of English-made goods. During the war, the English blocked trade routes to America, leading to a deprivation of manufactured goods. In the relief of British blockades, Americans' demand on foreign goods increased in the prosperous post-war time. In turn, the increasing presence and demand for English goods muffled the American craftsmen and drowned out domestic manufacturers in the process.

The 1840s brought many changes to the silversmith trade as well -- new methods of production, shop organization, and marketing all came as a result of the economy's upturn. The 1840s represent a pivotal moment in silversmithing in the United States and the economic prosperity continued to improve the profession up until the 1870s. Increased supplies of silver bullion, new machinery that could improve productivity, and the invention of electroplating by J. O. Mead allowed for new silver forms, larger quantities of place settings, and greater affordability to a broader set of consumers. Increasingly, manufacturers were making readymade products created for mass consumption, a trend that most trades followed during the mid-1800s.

The Civil War brought along another revolution in the silversmithing industry. As wartime raged on, much like other times of unrest, the American lifestyle shifted. American manufacturers began producing more wartime related materials, often decreasing the production of domestic goods. In the years that followed the end of the Civil War, Americans, once again, demanded goods and products that had lulled during the conflict, silver being one of them. The silver industry boomed with the pent-up demands of consumers after the war.

During the 1870s, prices of silver dropped as a result of the discovery of the Comstock Lode in western Utah Territory, or modern-day Nevada. The lode of silver ore drove supply up leading to a price drop of raw materials. Due to this change in supply, silver manufacturing companies held auctions to clear out their inventory, in order to quickly move product. As a result, average Americans could acquire silver for their households, a good that had not been readily available to those outside of the upper class. Nevertheless, the discovery of the Comstock Lode did not defeat the trade and by the mid-1870s, the profession reveled again. In the period between 1875 and 1915, United States silver and silversmiths gained international recognition for the quality of production. In some cases, American silver was seen as superior to their European counterparts. Silver production and consumption boomed. Stylistic changes occurred and American silver began branching into new, innovative designs that distinguished them from other producers. At the same time, manufacturing advancements allowed for more specialized machinery to infiltrate the production floors. Yet, it was the highly skilled craftsmen that made American silver so desirable. The craft of the silversmith did not wane during the influx of mechanical assistance.

A new stylistic movement was born from the boom of industrialization called the Arts and Crafts Style. Beginning in the 1880s in America, this style rejected the hyper-industrialized process of manufacturing instead favoring the look and feel of handmade objects. This movement valued the integrity of hand-wrought objects over machine-made ones. Alongside this stylistic movement was another-Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau is known for its feminine lines, organic lines, and stylized natural elements. Once again, this technique was often only achievable through the creative hand of the craftsman. Both styles countered the growing industrialization that was happening in the United States in the late 19th century.

By the end of the century, many of the finer wares were still being made by hand. Even Augustus Steward, a silversmithing instructor at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts acknowledged that, "it is strange that one should have to admit it, but it is nevertheless true, that while America, youngest among nations, leads in a new style of design, she, at the same time, keeps very definitely to the old style of silversmithing." This success followed American manufacturers into the 20th century, increasing the output of goods to foreign countries.

Genesee Country Village & Museum's collection of silver includes both American and English-made pieces in a variety of styles and forms. The collection of flatware, drinking vessels, serving utensils, and personal artifacts spans the 19th century and highlights the beauty of finely crafted silver.

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