Antique silver info : Spoonmaker


Great-Grandmothers silver spoons, her wedding "setting out," were kept nice for occasions such as a family dinner or a visit from the minister. Silver? Yes, but not sterling. If marked at all as to quality, it was pure coin. A most romantic stuff, this: Spanish pieces of eight, Mexican dollars, currency bearing the profile of an English George or a French Louis, stray daalders from the Low Countries, or, perhaps, a pine-tree shilling, worn too smooth for acceptance as cash. Such was the raw material of the early American silversmith—a material derived from the thriving West India trade and from bold New England privateering ; and bloodstained much of it quite probably was. As yet our western silver mines were undreamed of.

Although no silversmith accompanied the one hundred of Mayflower fame who founded the Plymouth Plantation, the prosperous Puritans from eastern England were hardly settled in their Massachusetts Bay Colony before silversmiths were among them. John Mansfield of London was the first. He came in 1634. The next year marked the arrival of colourful John Hull of Leicester, to whom we owe the pine-tree shilling.

In 1652, appointed mintmaster by the Massachusetts General Court, Hull disregarded the higher English law and minted shillings of only three pennyweight each, a quarter less than the standard English shilling. Since, for his services, one out of every twenty coins was his, the privilege was profitable. So he amassed his only child Hannah's fabled dowry of her weight in pine-tree shillings, for the time when, on February 28, 1675, she married Samuel Sewall. Possibly John Hull did seat his daughter in one pan of the scales, and balanced her with coins of his own minting; but dowries were seriously considered and undoubtedly he and the future chief justice, of Salem witch-trial fame, knew the sum beforehand. It amounted to four hundred pounds sterling, the equivalent of one hundred and twenty-five pounds of Hannah. Sewall drew a handsome dowry and Hull had opportunity to be ostentatious in a manner befitting his standing as a Boston merchant prince. True or imagined, the story has since earned many a shilling for schoolbook historians, from Peter Parley down.

But this bears only indirectly on silver spoons, simplest product of early American silversmiths. As the colonies prospered the silversmiths increased in number. Search of the records shows that, before 1800, more than four hundred men of this calling had plied their trade in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia ; in addition, Newport, Hartford, New Haven, and Baltimore had their silversmiths. A study of local histories constantly discloses the names of isolated craftsmen in nearly all the colonial towns of size. For example, in 1770, William Cleveland, grandsire of Grover Cleveland, was a spoonmaker at Norwich, Connecticut.

Many of these men were of English ancestry. New York spoon-makers were frequently of Dutch descent. Occasionally one finds silversmiths of Huguenot strain. Such was Appollos Revoire, who came to Boston in 1723, prospered, married Deborah Hichborn, and trained his famous son, Paul Revere, in the trade.

Whoever they were, these spoonmakers followed a craftsman's trade, learned only by a rigorous apprenticeship at which an adept young man had to serve at least three years. Then, if lucky, for his first year as a journeyman he might find a place at fifty dollars the year, and board. The tools of his trade were cleverly contrived; but were all hand tools. No power-driven machinery for him. His spoons were produced by brawn, tempered with skill and a craftsman's eye. So the trade of spoonmaking in America continued for a little over two hundred years. From pieces of eight to the finished spoon, this is the way the spoonmaker wrought until the advent of machine-made flat silver:

The silver coin was first melted in crucibles in a charcoal-fired forge. The molten metal had to reach just the correct temperature, or it would be full of flaws when cold. Then it was cast in iron-bar molds. When cool, these molds were unclamped and out came bars of silver of fifty ounces troy weight each. Why fifty ounces? Nobody knows. That was the custom.

Then came the first annealing process. Each bar of silver, held by iron tongs, was heated red-hot over the forge fire. This was necessary to reduce the brittleness of the metal, to make it malleable. Next, between polished steel rollers, turned by sweating apprentices, the bars were rolled into strips of uniform width and thickness, eight to twelve feet long. During this process the silver went back several times for the necessary annealing in a brick forge very like that of an old-fashioned blacksmith's—handpumped bellows and all.

When the master workman was sure that the metal was truly tempered, the long ribbons of silver were cut into shorter pieces, seven inches long for tablespoons, and five for teaspoons. Once more they were annealed; then they were plunged into a copper pan containing dilute sulphuric acid, and were boiled until the black, dull metal became snow white.

At this juncture the actual spoonmaking started. Each short strip of silver was now cut lengthwise, twice for tablespoons and three times for teaspoons. A giant pair of shears was used for the job, and the cut followed a carefully scratched line made by a sharp awl-point gauge. The silver strips were now ready for hammering and for shaping the bowl of the spoon. This was done on a polished steel "stake," a slightly rounding anvil. The instrument used was a short-handled, curving-faced, heavy hammer, also of polished steel. The workman swung this six-pound hammer with quick blows and unerring aim. Long practice had taught him just how to spread the bowl, and to keep the proper thickness of its edges. Great care had to be exercised never to hammer the silver too thin in any one spot.

Then followed another annealing, a second hammering, and yet another annealing. After this the spoon was planished (the handle shaped), and came forth looking much like a spoon, although perfectly flat and a little irregular in outline. This planishing was done on the stake, with a heavier, polished steel hammer having one flat and one rounded face.

Trimming the spoon, to make it symmetrical, was done with the aid of a die conforming to the outline of the spoon. Now came a special annealing of the bowl only. Then another boiling. The next step was to "strike up" the bowl itself. This was accomplished with two tools, a set and a punch. The set was a piece of lead in which was a depression the size and shape of the back of a spoon bowl. The punch had a face of polished steel that fitted loosely into the depression in the set. By laying the still perfectly flat silver spoon bowl over the hollow in the lead mold and driving the convex face of the punch sharply downward, the bowl was given its conventional, concave form.

It took two men to accomplish this. One held the spoon and the handle of the punch; the other struck the head of this punch two or three sharp, accurate blows with a heavy sledge. Now the spoon was nearly made. Planishing had shaped the handle and the use of the set and punch had formed the bowl. Smoothing and burnishing would finish the job.

The edges, still almost knife sharp, were smoothed and rounded with coarse and fine files and a three-cornered scraper of polished steel. Next the spoon was honed with Scotch stone and water. Then it went to a foot-treadle lathe to be brushed with Bristol brick and oil until it was perfectly smooth. After it had been wiped clean of oil, it received its final annealing, and then the last boiling in sulphuric acid. After rinsing in clear water, it was scoured with fine, wet lake or sea sand until the whitish cast, or "fur," had disappeared.

At last it was ready for burnishing, the final process. Using steel or agate burnishes of various shapes, dipped in soapy water, the journeyman rubbed back and forth until the spoon was finally scratchless and mirror like. This required a high order of strength and steadiness of hand. The wooden handle of each burnisher was braced against a thick leather breastplate. The slightest slip might cause a scratch that would be next to impossible to eradicate.

It was a good day's work to make a dozen teaspoons or half a dozen tablespoons. For this the journeyman was paid $ 1.50. In making large spoons the steps were the same as for the smaller ones, with the exception that the bowls were not struck up with the aid of the set and punch and were not trimmed with a template. Shaping the bowl of the tablespoon was directed entirely by the eye, and accomplished with a single hammer, while all trimming was done with files.

The selling price of such spoons varied according to weight. An average dozen teaspoons weighed three ounces, troy, but sometimes weighed as much as five. The silversmith bought his coins for $1.25 an ounce, a liberal premium over their monetary value, and usually added a dollar or more for profit and overhead. In the last days of spoonmaking by hand, a dozen teaspoons, weighing four ounces, sold for seven or eight dollars.

To whom did the owner of the shop sell his product? First, as an adjunct to his establishment, he maintained a retail store in which he sold what spoons he could, all carefully stamped on the back with his name or mark. As another outlet, the best of the Yankee peddlers were available. These ancestors of our modern house-to-house salesmen were particular to handle only spoons from makers known for the quality of their workmanship and honesty of weight. With a small tin trunk, padlocked and secreted under the wagon seat, the peddlers went about the countryside. In this trunk they kept the spoons which they had for sale, and the bits of old silver and coins that they had boughbor bartered for in Yankee notions. This old silver was traded in when next the peddler needed a fresh supply of spoons.

The spoonmaker in the smaller communities often sold his products, at wholesale rates, to silversmiths in the larger centers, marking them with the other man's name. This practice means that much of the silver bearing the name of a city silversmith was not really the product of his shop but the surplus of some silversmith in a smaller place. Possibly some of the Paul Revere spoons may have been made for him and not by him. It makes no difference. The steps by which the work was done all followed the same rules of the craft.

For a picture of silversmithing in its last days, we turn to the tight little state of Vermont. The craft did not flourish there until well into the nineteenth century. And the reason is not far to seek. Although Samuel Champlain, in his voyage up the lake that bears his name, explored part of its western boundary as early as 1609, few settlers had the temerity to locate there until a century and a half later. First, it was an Indian battleground. Then, during the French and Indian Wars, raiding parties from both sides found it a convenient thoroughfare between Canada and southern New England.

Nevertheless, attempts at settlement were made as early as 1752 and with the English conquest of Canada the number of adventurers attracted by the fertile soil of the valleys lying between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River steadily increased. Conditions were to remain more or less pioneer) however, for another half century. No sooner had the settlers bought their lands than this region on either side of the Green Mountains, popularly known as the New Hampshire Grants, became a bone of contention: between the governments of New Hampshire and New York and then between the latter and the settlers themselves. This controversy continued for more than twenty-six years and was settled only when Vermont, a separate entity, was admitted to the Union in 1791.

Consequently, the eighteenth century Vermonter had little time and less money for luxuries. His house was of either logs or squared timbers. His furnishings were of the plainest. His family silver, if any, consisted of a few pieces brought from his Massachusetts or Connecticut home. As in other ventures in pioneering, bare necessities came first; as the resources of the area developed, life became easier and more arid more comforts began to be taken as a matter of course.

To the indispensable trades of blacksmith and shoemaker were added others common to the time. Among these craftsmen were cabinetmakers and a few struggling silversmiths. One silversmith is known to have been working in Rutland about 1795. There is record of another in Bennington even earlier and there is in existence at least one spoon made by Eaton at Middlebury about 1800. But Vermont was no bonanza for this craft during the first forty years of the nineteenth century. Silversmiths came and went. Some stayed a short time in a town and then moved on; others remained and combined their trade with clockmaking or some other calling.

It was left for two men, working in the latter years of American silversmithing, to become the outstanding silver craftsmen of Vermont as regards both quantity and standard of workmanship. These two men, Roswell H. and Bradbury M. Bailey, one working on the "east side" of the state at Woodstock and the other in the Otter Creek Valley at Rutland, dominated silversmithing in their state and successfully resisted factory competition until the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

Roswell H. Bailey, who was born at Unity, New Hampshire, July 22, 1804, did not come of a silversmithing family. His ancestor, Richard, who came from Yorkshire, England, to Massachusetts about 1638, was one of a company to set up the first cloth mill in America. It is probable that he was also a farmer, as were many of his descendants. In any case, Roswell Bailey's immediate ancestors were farmers and he, too, tried his hand at it in White-field, New Hampshire, from 1831 to 1835. Meanwhile his two older brothers, Ebenezer Eaton and Samuel Chase Bailey, had learned the trade of silversmithing and established themselves in Claremont. At the age of thirty-one, Roswell apprenticed himself to them. The usual time required to learn the trade was three years but he proved an apt pupil and bought out his last year and j oined the firm. Another brother, Charles, had learned the craft there and the four brothers apparently were in partnership until 1839 when Roswell withdrew and went to Woodstock, Vermont.

There he set up for himself and soon had what was probably the largest silversmithing establishment in the state. He had fully a dozen journeymen and apprentices and also his own agents, carefully selected Yankee peddlers, who traveled from town to town. He made some forks and a few hollow pieces, such as teapots, sugar bowls, and cream pitchers, but chiefly spoons, including 4,000 dozen of the toy or doll size." The latter were the work of his apprentices for whom they served as exercise in training the eye to exactness and nicety of line. He also supplied spoons wholesale to country merchants. Like many another manufacturer, however, his big outlet was Boston and his largest customer there, Palmer & Batchelder..

Although his shop was large, he did not attempt engraving but for years depended on the skill of a counterfeiter then serving a sentence for the misuse of his ability in the state prison at Windsor. This accomplished rogue later obtained a pardon by engraving the Lord's Prayer on the reverse of a gold dollar and sending it to the president at Washington. This pious act was considered proof that he should be set free by the chief executive.

During Roswell's years in Claremont he had married his distant cousin, Fidelia Bailey, also of Unity. About '844 her young brother, Bradbury M., became increasingly aware of the difficulty of wresting a living from the stony soil of an upland farm. He went to Woodstock and became an apprentice of his brother-in-law and cousin. He, too, had no silversmithing background yet was facile enough to master his craft well within the customary three years. His brother, Samuel, learned the trade too and worked as journeyman for a time in the Woodstock shop. He had a wandering foot, however, and presently drifted away into that region of the United States vaguely referred to in those days as "the West." He came back to enlist in the First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War and died in Andersonville Prison, 1864. The few spoons of his making that are found today show good workmanship and are in the Bailey tradition.

Bradbury M. Bailey stayed on with his brother-in-law for a time as a journeyman, then set up in business about 1848 in Ludlow, Vermont, where he had relatives. By 1852 he was established in Rutland. The anticipated coming of a railroad convinced him that this would be a propitious location for business, and so it proved. His shop was as outstanding for the "western side" of the state as was that of Roswell on the "east side." He employed six to eight journeymen and two or three apprentices. With the latter the old guild relationship held, the apprentices boarding with their master.

Like his brother-in-law, he principally made spoons of all sizes, but he also made pearl-handled knives with silver blades. He was proud of his ability to fashion such novelties as shell and shovel-shaped sugar spoons. For these he himself filed and polished the steel dies with which the special bowls were formed, and he is said to have considered his shell-shaped sugar spoon his masterpiece.

In my opinion he quite overlooked a small beaker, his only piece of hollow ware, made as a show piece after completing his apprenticeship. Its proportions are smaller but otherwise it is in the manner of some of the best beakers of the eighteenth century. It is beautifully engraved with a leafy design framing the words "Manufactured by B. M. Bailey, Ludlow, Vt." This was undoubtedly the work of the erring engraver at Windsor and apparently one of the few B. M. Bailey pieces that went through his hands. For the younger Bailey, rather than be dependent on either a jailbird or a competitor, taught himself engraving and did a creditable job.

He had at least two partners, an earlier one named Parmenter and, in the latter days of his silvermaking, one named Parker. In each case the partner served chiefly as shop foreman while B. M. Bailey turned more and more to merchandising. His methods were much the same as those of his cousin and the advertising of the two establishments was similar. For instance, both men advertised in the Vermont directory of 18 56 with wording almost identical. Each ended with "N.B. All kinds of Jewellery repaired. Spoons and Spectacles made over, or repaired, with the greatest neatness and dispatch."

Probably both men followed the usual custom of buying coins and old silver either to apply on bills or for new pieces. A woman who knew B. M. Bailey said of him: "He was noted for his fair dealing. A friend of mine had a quantity of silver so worn, bent or broken as to be useless. I told her of the one silversmith I knew who would give her a fair price for it. She took these battered fragments to Mr. Bailey and received in place of them six fine new teaspoons. I well remember how pleased she was."

The working span of both establishments was beyond the average. Roswell H. Bailey remained in active business until 1872, a period of over thirty-three years. He died at Woodstock, April 3, I 887. The onrush of inexpensive, plated tea sets had long since ended the demand for his hollow ware pieces. For more than three decades handmade silver spoons had stubbornly held their own against the clumsier machine-made product. Now they, too, were no longer profitable and their day was over.

Over in Rutland, B. M. Bailey kept on for three years more. Then one day in 1875 he stood before the bench where he had not worked in years, made two silver tablespoons, impressed B. M. Bailey and the word "warranted" on the back of each, engraved them with an Old English B and closed his shop. He died in Brooklyn, New York, January 17, 1913.

Both these men used a variety of marks. The name R. H. Bailey or B. M. Bailey and the town are most common. Sometimes only the maker's name appears; sometimes the name and the word "warranted" or "pure coin." In 1874 and 1875 B. M. Bailey was prone to mark his spoons only "sterling." Although the men followed the styles of their time and made only minor changes as the years progressed, their work has sufficient individuality so that Bailey spoons once identified can be readily recognized without recourse to their marking.

Their silver is considered a collectible today and much of it has been found far from Vermont. New England families settling in Ohio carried it with them. B. M. Bailey himself made several trips to Illinois and doubtless took some of his silver there. A few years ago some R. H. Bailey teaspoons were instantly recognized in Florence, Italy. A woman of Woodstock birth had taken
them there as a reminder of her home town and its chief silversmith.

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