Antiques: Silver towns info


The quality and quantity of silver produced by American silversmiths in and around Boston during the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth centuries is amazing. One would hardly expect to find any indication of luxury in a land only lately peopled with savages. But the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which Boston was the capital, differed from other settlements in that reasons for its founding were political and religious, rather than economic. All during the reign of Elizabeth, the Puritan movement in England had grown steadily and by the end of the sixteenth century had attracted to it many country gentlemen and wealthy town merchants, especially in the eastern counties.

From these came the tide of immigration which, as a result of the harsh measures of James I and the short-sighted policies of his son Charles, literally poured into Massachusetts during the decade between 1630 and 1640. Exclusively English, more than twenty-six thousand came and settled in Boston and near-by date for any actual piece is 1634.

This was engraved on a beaker by Hull and Sanderson and presented to the First Church of Boston. Incidentally, this practice of giving to a church certain pieces originally intended for secular use has preserved to us many a fine example of early colonial silver that might otherwise have found its way to the melting pot because of changing fashion or the need to realize on investment.

Since this Puritan colony was settled exclusively by Englishmen, its silver craftsmen followed the changes in English design closely but modified them to conform to the austere taste of their patrons. Beauty of line was the prime requisite, combined with proper balance. There was little decoration, and that little was used to emphasize form. As news regarding changing styles was slow in reaching the New World, it is probable that the earliest silver made here followed that of the Commonwealth period. But so few examples have survived that American silver design may be said to begin with the Restoration period, and to be followed with due editing of the more elaborate details by the Queen Anne, Georgian, rococo, and Adam styles.

Meanwhile Boston, although a small village by present-day standards (its population even as late as 1680 was only five thousand) was the largest and most thriving town in all the colonies, as well as the centre of the official and commercial activities of New England. This position it continued to hold until the middle of the eighteenth century. The silversmiths who were either born in this seaport capital or served their apprenticeships there continually increased in number. Many set up their shops in Boston; others settled in the numerous towns already established in New England; still others fared forth into New York, New Jersey, and the newly founded but prosperous and rapidly growing Philadelphia.

Of those who worked in Boston during the century and more of its supremacy, there remain many examples. Some pieces are in private collections; some are presentation pieces to churches; some were given to Harvard College or to some of its teachers. An example of the latter is to be found in the famous Nicholas Sever collection of fourteen pieces, dating between 1715 and 1728. All, with one exception, were made by John Burt, Boston (1691-1745).

Other outstanding Boston silversmiths of these early days were John Coney, whose work is too well known to need more than passing mention; John Dixwell, son of one of the regicide judges; Jeremiah Dummer, already mentioned as one of the apprentices of John Hull; Nathaniel Gay, who was born in Boston, served his apprenticeship there, worked and died there, collecting in the course of his career a certificate of good behaviour under family government. There were also Timothy Dwight, who in his short life produced silver of merit; John Allen, partner of English-born John Edwards who arrived in Boston in 1688; John Pot-wine, whose long life (1698-1792) was spent partly in his native town and partly in Hartford, Connecticut; and Edward Winslow, whose work was so highly regarded that some of his pieces found their way to England as gifts.

A sweetmeat box sent by Sarah Middlecott to her son in England shows that Winslow was perfectly capable of elaborate design, although his Puritan clientele gave him little opportunity of exercising his skill. This silver box, oval in shape, is intricately embossed with flutes and acanthus leaves. The lid is similarly treated and fitted with a handle in the form of a convoluted snake. The inscription on the base reads: "Ex dono Sarah Middlecott N. England m Mch. 1702."

Jacob Hurd and his two sons, Benjamin and Nathaniel, made silver of outstanding merit. Jacob made a teapot for Edward Holyoke, who was president of Harvard in 1737. It bears the owner's coat of arms and in its grace and simplicity reflects Boston silver at its best. In 1758 a two-handled cup and cover made by Nathaniel Hurd went to England as a wedding present to Frances, daughter of John Whitchurch of Twickenham, and John Madocks of Vron I. Denbigh, Wales. It stayed in the Madocks family for more than a century, then was sold and finally found its way back to America.

Equally impressive in quantity and distinctive design was the early silver of New York but not so much has been said about it. Both communities began early to have their silversmiths. Both had many merchants whose shipping and trading interests brought them ample means for indulging in the luxury of household silver, particularly that concerned with eating and drinking. And there the similarity stops. Bostonians gave much of their silver to the church for communion plate; New Yorkers kept theirs in the home. Boston silversmiths followed the English tradition in design and ornamentation; those of New York were cosmopolitan.

Since Manhattan was originally a trading-post colony of the Netherlands, the first silversmiths were of Holland birth or heritage; and, although by 1660 New York had become an English colony, the silver made by its craftsmen retained the Dutch flavour, in both design and ornamentation. Gradually this was modified by the influx of English and Huguenot craftsmen and pieces of silver with a distinction all their own were the result. In form and ornamentation they were a mingling of Dutch and English traditions with slight touches of the French, reflecting the presence of a tightly knit though small group of Huguenots. Because of these three influences, New York silver until the middle of the eighteenth century and, in some cases, almost to the outbreak of the American Revolution varied distinctly from that being made in the other English colonies.

Among the craftsmen of Holland birth or blood were Jacob Boelen, who migrated from the Netherlands in 1660, the year New York became an English possession; his son, Henricus, and his grandson, Jacob II, who continued to work at the craft until 1754; Cornelius Kierstede, 1675-1732, who moved to New Haven in 1722; Gent Onkelbag, 1670-1732; Nicholas Roosevelt, 1715-1769; Adrian Bancker, 1703-1772; and Myer Myers, who during his long life 1723-1795, began working in the New. York Dutch manner and gradually shifted to the English tradition. These men made tankards, Caudle cups, brandy bowls, porringers, and teapots for such families as the Van Cortlandts, the Varicks, the Schuylers, and others, whose traditions were obviously those of the Low Countries.

The Huguenot silversmiths included such masters as Bartholomew Le Roux, 1663-1713, who was followed by his two sons, Bartholomew II and Charles, as well as John Le Roux, a more distant relation; Simeon Soumain, 1685-1750, one of the greatest of the New York craftsmen; and Elias Pelletreau, 1726- 1 810, a Soumain apprentice who worked both in New York and at Southampton, Long Island, during his life span of eighty-four years. Another Soumain apprentice was English William Anderson, whose work antedates 1750 and is of typical New York detail.

More than a half century younger than either Boston or New York was Philadelphia. It was a planned community. There was nothing of the shoestring about the project financially, nor was any element of conquest involved. Instead of a trading post to exploit the gullible Indian or an agricultural settlement, Philadelphia was a town, given over to the peaceful enjoyment of trade and industry, where members of the Society of Friends and others willing to abide by their tolerant plan of life might follow their vocations unmolested and with every prospect of profit for the industrious.

Almost from the first, Philadelphians had a little surplus money for a rainy day. There were no banks, so, according to the practice of the time, they put it into silver plate. Thus, a tankard was more than a drinking utensil; it was a bankbook as well. Further, the gold- and silversmiths of the period were also the bankers, keeping funds for those who had a few extra pounds but did not want to convert them into service items for the home.

Cesar Ghiselin is without doubt the first worker in the precious metals to ply his trade in Philadelphia. Just when this man of Huguenot family reached the new colony is not known, but he was there in 1693 and owner of property valued for tax purposes at one hundred pounds sterling. In 1718 he moved to Annapolis, Maryland, but returned about a decade later, the years of Philadelphia's depression which immediately followed William Penn's death being at an end, and spent the rest of his life there.
Contemporary with Ghiselin were two other Huguenot silversmiths, William Paschall and John Nys. Of the latter it is known that he was working in Philadelphia in the year 1700, because of an entry in William Penn's cashbook covering a payment to him of two pounds, ten shillings. There were other silversmiths too, all through the eighteenth century, some known only by name today, others by outstanding pieces.

For instance, there were the Syngs, father and son. The first Philip Syng, an Irishman, reached Philadelphia in 1714, worked at his craft there and was in due time succeeded by his son, Philip Jr. To the latter must go the credit for fashioning the inkwell used in the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for which he was paid twenty-five pounds, sixteen shillings. He had a long life and was a prolific craftsman, producing much fine silver still in existence. Also, in various records and old documents there is every indication that many of the later eighteenth century silversmiths of Philadelphia served their apprenticeships under him.

Francis Richardson was the first of another silversmithing family. He reached Philadelphia in 1690 at the age of nine and obviously must have learned his trade there, probably under one of the early Huguenot craftsmen. By 1705 he was sufficiently established to be able to marry, a privilege generally denied apprentices on the ground that their entire time belonged to the master to whom they were indentured. He was followed by his son, Joseph, who in turn was succeeded by his son, Joseph Jr. In fact, the Richardson family followed the same calling in Philadelphia for well over a century. The many pieces of silver bearing the mark of members of it testify to their keen and able craftsmanship.

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