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Thursday, 03 January 2013 04:37

Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York


The New-York Historical Society holds one of the finest collections of early American silver in the nation. A trove of nearly three thousand objects, it is remarkable for being composed almost entirely of silver donated by descendants of the original owners, who preserved their inherited tankards and teapots as tangible links to New York’s past. Appreciated today for their workmanship, aesthetic qualities, or rarity, these pieces have additional layers of meaning conferred by the patina of successive generations of use. The richly documented objects open a window onto silver’s symbolic meanings, its role in sustaining kinship ties, and its ability to convey the ambitions and achievements of its owners.

A new collection catalogue and companion exhibition, Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York, bring long-overdue attention to the Historical Society’s holdings. The catalogue features entries on 150 aesthetically and historically compelling objects, ranging from high-style masterpieces to unassuming heirlooms. The selection embraces the full range of lustrous metals available to New Yorkers, from European settlement to the present day, including sterling, coin silver, and electroplate. All of the objects were made or owned in New York, although some originated as far afield as Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, and Canton. This sampling of highlights includes both well-known masterpieces as well as previously unpublished discoveries.

Brandywine bowl by Benjamin Wynkoop (bap. 1675–1751), New York City, ca. 1700. Silver. H. 5O, W. 12W, Diam. 8O in. “WK/B” in heart-shaped surround struck twice near lip. “P/C * M” engraved at bottom of one lobe; “E·D·P” engraved in block letters at bottom center of opposite lobe (later); and “H. C. de Peyster” engraved in script lettering on side of bowl (later). Bequest of Catharine Augusta De Peyster.

The brandywine bowl, a distinctive silver form favored by elite families of Dutch descent, embodies the perpetuation of Dutch tradition and fashion in New York. The bowls are traditionally associated with the ritual of the kindermaal, a celebratory feast held in honor of a mother and her newborn child. Guests feasted on sweet cakes and sipped a potent brew of brandy and raisins from a communal bowl. Celebrants used the twin handles to pass the bowl from person to person, serving themselves with a spoon. More than twenty New York two-handled paneled bowls survive, ranging in date from the mid-seventeenth until well into the eighteenth century.1 Similar paneled bowls were made throughout Northern Europe but were particularly popular in the northern Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen. This example has several typical features, including cast caryatid handles and lobed panels delineated by deeply chased scrolls. Its exuberant repoussé chased flowers, punchwork foliate scrolls, and cross-hatching stamped on the footring distinguish it as an exceptional example of the type. The bowl belonged to New York City merchant Cornelis De Peyster and his wife Maria Bancker, who may have acquired it upon the birth of their third child, Elisabeth, in 1699.

Teapot attributed to Kiliaen Van Rensselaer (1663–1719), Albany or Watervliet, N.Y., ca. 1695. Silver and pearwood. H. 7K, W. 9, D. 5N in. Demi-horse on torse in shield surround struck four times on underside. Bequest of Major General Philip Schuyler.
This rotund vessel, which belonged to Johannes Schuyler (1668–1747) and Elizabeth (Elsie) Staats Wendell (1659–1737), is the earliest known teapot made in New York. Luxurious Baroque mantling enclosing the Schuyler crest embellishes one side, while the other is engraved with a cipher of the couple’s initials. The marriage chaplet above the cipher and the feathery wreath tied with a bow suggest that the teapot commemorates the Schuylers’ wedding in 1695. The teapot is attributed to Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, who was apprenticed in New York City in 1678 and completed his training under Boston silversmith Jeremiah Dummer.2 By late 1683, he had set up his own shop in Watervliet, just outside Albany. Although previous scholars have surmised that Van Rensselaer’s silversmithing career must have all but ceased when he inherited the Manor of Rensselaerswyck in 1687 and turned his attention to the administration of the estate, a small body of work tied to him suggests that, at least for a brief period in the mid-1690s, he was producing ambitious silver for the leading families of the Hudson Valley.3

Coffeepot attributed to Abraham Le François (active ca. 1742–1773), Kingston, Jamaica, ca. 1750–1760. Silver and ebony.

H. 12V, W. 10N, D. 4Y in. “A D” in lobed surround, “AL F” (conjoined AL) in shaped surround, and alligator head struck on underside. Bequest of Emily Ellison Post, in memory of her parents Charles Litchfield Ellison and Harriet E. (Morton) Ellison.

This ornately chased coffeepot is a rare example of eighteenth-century Jamaican silver. The extravagant vessel reflects the island’s incredible wealth, its ties with colonial New York, and the participation of both British colonies in an international economy dependent on sugar cane plantations, the slaves imported from West Africa who worked them, and rum production. The fact that Jamaica supported at least twenty-three goldsmiths around 1750, when this coffeepot was made, is itself a testament to the island’s prosperity. From 1747 until about 1765, an assay master regulated the quality of gold and silver wares made on the island.4 Objects meeting the sterling standard were struck with the mark of an alligator’s head as well as the initials of the assay master. This vessel bears a mark associated with Abraham Le François, who worked in London before moving to Jamaica around 1749. According to the donor, the pot was owned in the Ross family of New York, possibly by Robert Ross (1734/35–1790).

Salver by Lewis Fueter (1746–1784), New York City, 1772–1773. Silver. Diam. 21O in. “L Fueter” in script within a conforming surround struck on underside. Gift of James Lawrence Aspinwall.
Royal Governor William Tryon and the General Assembly of New York presented this magnificent salver to engineer Thomas Sowers (1740–1774) as a token of appreciation for his services in repairing the Battery at the tip of Manhattan, a critical site for the defense of the colonies. Lewis Fueter, the Swiss-born silversmith responsible for this grand commission, was only twenty-seven years old and had been practicing the trade in New York for a mere four years. Fueter’s loyalist stance insured steady patronage from the royal government. However, he endured persecution for his political position and ultimately left the city when the British evacuated in 1783. The salver is remarkable for its massive size and for the elaborately engraved decoration, evidence of the hand of a highly skilled, London-trained artisan. The crisp and expert rendering of the pre-Revolutionary seal of New York City, with implements for building fortifications below, all surrounded by an exuberant wreath of flowers, is almost without peer in colonial American silver.

Pitcher by Wood & Hughes (active 1845–1899), New York City, 1854. Silver. H. 13, W. 7, D. 9Y in. “WOOD & HUGES” struck incuse on underside. Bequest of Townsend Lawrence.

John W. Lawrence (1800–1888) received this elegant vessel in 1854 upon his retirement as president of the Seventh Ward Bank in Manhattan. The pitcher was made by the firm of Wood & Hughes, which employed a labor force of 105 men and women and was one of the nation’s largest silver manufacturers.5 The Lawrence pitcher is noteworthy for its large-scale naturalistic ornament, which is incorporated into the vessel’s shape and breaks free of its surface. Water lily leaves form the pitcher’s lip and spout, while its handle is shaped as a branch, wrapped with the tendrils of a lily plant. This realistic rendering of plant life is unusual for the 1850s; in fact, it anticipates Art Nouveau designs of a half-century later. The aquatic plants may have alluded to the fresh, pure water the pitcher was intended to hold.
Tureen made by Simon Chaudron (1758–1846), designed by Charles Frédéric Billon (ca. 1766–1822), and engraved by William Kneass (1740–1840), Philadelphia, 1813–1816. Silver. H. 16K, W. 15K, D. 9 in. “CHAUDRON” and “STER*AMERI*MAN*” in serpentine banners struck on underside of cover. “Designed by Belin/Directed by Chaudron/writing by Kneass/Philadelphia” engraved on underside of base. Bequest of Frank C. Jones Sr.

The citizens of Philadelphia commissioned this impressive tureen for presentation to Captain Jacob Jones (1768–1850) in recognition of his heroic capture of the HMS Frolic while in command of the USS Wasp during the War of 1812. A tour de force of late Neoclassical silver, it incorporates bold classical references, including masks of Neptune, god of the sea, and a commanding finial of a seated Athena, goddess of heroes. Lightly scratched into the underside of the base is an inscription identifying the three key craftsmen who collaborated on the commission, a rare instance in American silver. Silversmith and watchmaker Charles Frédéric Billon contributed the design; die sinker and engraver William Kneass executed the embossed and engraved inscriptions; and the shop of master silversmith Simon Chaudron raised the vessel and cast its many decorative elements. The influence of French style is apparent in this collaborative effort—little surprise given the French origins of the designer and silversmith.

Aeronautical trophy retailed by Black, Starr & Frost (active 1874–1929), New York City, 1907. Silver. H. 23K, W. 15O in. “BLACK, STARR & FROST/NEW YORK” and “STERLING/5191” struck on underside of one foot; metal labels “BLACK, STARR & FROST/NEW YORK” and “STERLING” affixed to wood base. Bequest of Alan R. Hawley.

This soaring trophy, a virtuosic display of Art Nouveau design, was presented by the Aero Club of America to New Yorker Alan R. Hawley in 1910 for his record-breaking balloon flight from St. Louis, Missouri, to Chicoutimi County in Quebec, a distance of 1,172.9 miles covered in two days. The trophy faithfully replicates a hot air balloon, down to the woven passenger basket, anchor, and sandbag weights. Winged Victory figures and bald eagles, symbolizing the triumph of American aviation, appear to guide the balloon aloft. Made at a cost of $1,500, the trophy is a sculptural interpretation of the traditional two-handled loving cup. The Aero Club obtained the cup through New York City retailers Black, Starr & Frost, although its designer and manufacturer remain unidentified. The trophy shares certain features with the Gordon Bennett International Cup—a fanciful dirigible guided by a Winged Victory—that was made in Paris one year earlier.
Tea caddy by Tiffany & Co. (1837–present), designed by Edward C. Moore (1827–1891), probably enameled by John T. Curran (1859–1933), New York City, 1884–1885. Silver and enamels. H. 3N, W. 4O, D. 3N in. “TIFFANY & Co/8053 M 8527/STERLING-SILVER” struck incuse on underside. “S.W./to S.M.F. W./June 7, 1885” etched on underside. Museum purchase, Foster-Jarvis and Hoffman Funds.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Tiffany’s chief designer Edward C. Moore expanded the firm’s repertoire of silver forms and patterns with exotic designs, particularly in the Japonesque and Islamic styles. A master silversmith, Moore was also a pioneering collector of Near and Far Eastern art. His own collection of Eastern metalware, ceramics, and glass inspired many of his innovative and eclectic designs.6 This opulent tea caddy—enameled, etched, and gilded inside and out—betrays the influence of Islamic design as well as Russian enameled silver. New Yorker Sidney Webster (1828–1910) presented it to his wife Sarah Morris Fish Webster (1838–1923) upon their silver wedding anniversary in 1885. The tea caddy was used by Mrs. Webster when hosting guests for tea at the couple’s lavish Stuyvesant Square home, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Indian medal, unidentified maker, probably Nuremberg, Germany, ca. 1736, with ca. 1750 alterations possibly by Anton Schmidt (1725–1793).
Silver. H. 2C⁄af, W. 1AE⁄af in. Gift of Miss Fanny Ogden.

Upon presenting this medal to the Historical Society in 1923, the donor asserted that it had been awarded by New York’s provincial government to a Mohawk chief for bravery during the French and Indian Wars and later presented to General Philip Schuyler by one of the last Mohawk chiefs. Although scholars long accepted the family history at face value, none had ever provided a satisfactory interpretation of the inscription on the medal’s reverse. New research reveals that the inscription records the Iroquois names of five Moravian missionaries active among the Indians of Pennsylvania and New York in 1750. Ganousseracheri was the Onondaga name given to the noted missionary David Zeisberger (1721–1808), while Hajinkonis, T’Ganiatareco, and Tschigochgoaronc refer to missionary John Joseph Bull (1721–1788), Mohawk scholar Johann Christopher Pyrlaeus (1713–1785), and Reverend Christian Henry Rauch (1718–1763). Rachwistonis is Anton Schmidt (1725–1793), who was appointed blacksmith for the mission at Shamokin (now Sunbury), Pennsylvania, in 1747.7 When the names were engraved on the medal, its obverse was also reworked. The facing couple actually represents Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Princess Augusta of Saxony, whose marriage was commemorated by medals such as this struck in Nuremberg in 1736. When this example was reworked on the frontier in 1750—possibly by Anton Schmidt—a new inscription was added to identify the current king and queen of England. Most likely, the medal functioned as a form of passport, allowing its Native American bearer to pass safely through Moravian-friendly territory.

Boxes by Juan Pliego (1919–2000), New York City, 1969–1986. Silver, gold, precious and semiprecious stones, and other materials. Top right, square box: H. 1X, W. 2N, D. 2N in. Aztec-style Janus-faced figure with “PLIEGO” below and script letters “J” and “P” on either side in an elongated hexagon; “STERLING” and “HAND/WROUGHT” struck separately. Gift of Juan Pliego.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, a small but thriving community of studio craftsmen continued to produce silver on a small scale using traditional techniques, even as waning demand pushed the silver industry into decline. Mexican-born silversmith Juan Pliego is representative of a generation of independent silversmiths who spurned mechanical techniques in favor of handicraft. During the 1970s and 1980s, he inspired hundreds of students in the art of silversmithing through the Craft Students League and later through his own J.P. Crafts Studio. Many of Pliego’s objects incorporate precious and semiprecious stones, such as amethyst, opal, chalcedony, sapphire, malachite, lapis lazuli, and jade. In addition, he frequently incorporated gold and other metals, resins, and enamel in his work. These boxes—a sampling of the nearly one hundred objects donated by the artist in 2000—reveal Pliego’s exquisite craftsmanship and wide-ranging influences, from Aztec and Mayan design to Egyptian metalwork.

Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York, is on view at the New-York Historical Society through September 30, 2012. The book, published by D Giles Ltd., is available at

Margaret K. Hofer is curator of decorative arts at the New-York Historical Society, New York, NY, and is curator of the exhibit and author, with Debra Schmidt Bach, of Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York.

1. John N. Pearce, “New York’s Two-handled Paneled Silver Bowls,” The Magazine Antiques 80, no. 4 (October 1961): 341–345 and idem, “Further Comments on the Lobate Bowl Form,” The Magazine Antiques 90, no. 4 (October 1966): 524–525. Since Pearce’s study, additional bowls have come to light.

2. John D. Kernan Jr., “The Demihorse: Mark of a Silversmith Van Rensselaer?”
The Magazine Antiques 78, no. 4 (October 1960): 348–349.

3. Also attributed to Van Renssealaer are a porringer made around 1696 for Samuel Bayard and his wife, Margaret Van Cortlandt (Albany Institute, acc. no. 2006.042) and an unmarked teapot made for Augustus Jay and Anna Maria Bayard, who married in 1697 (Museum of the City of New York, acc. no. 84.190ab).

4. See Robert Barker, “Jamaican Goldsmiths, Assayers and Their Marks from 1665 to 1765.” Silver Society Proceedings 3, no. 5 (Spring 1986): 133–136.

5. Charles L. Venable, Silver in America, 1840–1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1994), 334.

6. Carpenter, Tiffany Silver, 27–28; and Elizabeth Kerr Fish, “The Islamic-Style Silver Produced by Tiffany & Company under Edward C. Moore” (Master’s thesis, Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 1997), 7, 12–13.

7. William Martin Beauchamp, Moravian Journals Relating to Central New York, 1745–66 (Syracuse: Dehler Press, 1916), 10–11; and Earl P. Olmstead, David Zeisberger: A Life Among the Indians (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997), 39–40.