For more than a century, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has been a leader in the field of early New England silver. Starting with acquisitions of silver and gold in the 1880s and 1890s and the “American Silver” exhibition of 1906 (die first museum exhibition of American decorative arts of any kind), the Museum’s curators have compiled an impressive record of acquisitions, exhibitions, and publications that have enhanced our knowledge and understanding of the work of American silversmiths—the first true artists in America. Generations of scholars and curators have played essential roles in this effort, from Francis Hill Bigelow to Jonathan L. Fairbanks, and including Florence V. Paull (later Mrs. Henri Leon Berger), Edwin J. Hipkiss, Wendy A. Cooper, Robert F. Trent, Michael K. Brown, and many others. No one, however, was more important than Kathryn C. Buhler, whose association with the collection began in the late 1920s and continued until her death in 1986. Her two-volume catalogue of the MFAs collection, published in 1972 and containing detailed information on more than six hundred objects, remains a cornerstone of any library on American silver, but it is only one of her many publications that add a wealth of information to our knowledge of the early silversmith and his patrons. Today, although the Museum’s interests in American silver and gold extend from Pre-Columbian times to the present, the cherished objects from colonial and federal New England are still a major focus of scholarly attention and collecting activity.

This volume of essays, produced through the good and patient auspices of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, is a direct outgrowth of this longstanding dedication to the lives and works of New England’s first generations of silversmiths, from Hull and Sanderson through Paul Revere, by the Museum’s curators. It is the permanent record of a conference held at the Museum in April 1996. While each essay that follows can stand alone, they are grouped here around four broad themes, in roughly the same order as they were presented at the symposium. Naturally, there is much overlapping and interconnectedness. As a whole, the papers reflect a general trend away from traditional issues of connoisseurship, such as the identification of marks and the compilation of dry biographies, and toward a more integrated understanding of silver objects as part of the material world and as reflective of the attitudes and values of their makers and users.

Professor Richard Bushman of Columbia University opened the conference with his sweeping, insightful overview that examines “The Complexity of Silver.” His essay focuses on the power of silver in the colonial world, a status derived from its use as money, its beauty when fashioned into stylish objects, its significant use in a religious context, and its priority in a hierarchical world of men and materials. These attributes made silver, in Bushman’s view, a powerful tool used by the colonial gentry to solidify their own position (a theme reiterated by many of the essays in this volume). But, as he reminds us, silver also had a “darker existence.” Its value naturally led to its theft by criminals and its replication by counterfeiters, both destabilizing factors in society. Even more importantly, silver ore mined in Mexico and South America with the use of slave labor was the ultimate source for the coins and teapots of early America. Shiny objects, Bushman observes, were thus tarnished by their shady past.

Four papers comprised the Style, Form, and Function section of the conference. Robert Barker, an independent scholar located in London, began this portion of the proceedings with a richly detailed study, largely based on primary sources in England, of “Exports of English Silver: A Factor Affecting the Transmission of Style to Colonial Silversmiths, 1730–1769.” His remarks will be incorporated into his doctoral dissertation, and thus are not repeated here.

In a subtle and sophisticated iconographical analysis, Patricia E. Kane of the Yale University Art Gallery examines images of the chase on the small (and apparently unique) group of eight pieces of Boston rococo-style silver made in the 1740s and 1750s. Her analysis of the narrative scenes on these pieces—images of the military conflicts of the day, of aristocratic hunting scenes and pastoral landscapes, and also of tales of courtship and sexual pursuit—draws upon popular songs, poetry, and other texts to tease out their meaning to people of the eighteenth century. As with Edward Nygren’s analysis of the iconography of Edward Winslow’s sugar boxes, published in 1971, Kane’s look at silver (and related textiles) casts Bostonians in a somewhat surprising light. As she notes in reference to a teapot by William Simpkins, its narrative scenes suggest “a close association between the sports of the day and the sports of the night.” Chased decoration, apparently, is not necessarily chaste.

The next two papers focus largely on both the manifest and latent functions of early objects. Madeline Siefke Estill discusses one of the smallest forms of hollowware—colonial silver tobacco, snuff, and patch boxes. A refinement of her master’s thesis in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware, this essay examines the specific forms of etiquette, social interaction, and even posture associated with these small precious objects. Using essays, sermons, poems, diaries, and other written sources, as well as the engraved decoration on the boxes themselves, Estill, like Kane, places her objects firmly within the genteel world of the eighteenth century and helps us understand, in context, such customs as patching, snuff-taking, and smoking. Some boxes were intended as love tokens and, like the teapots and creampots with narrative scenes, were an important part of courtship rituals.

In the concluding paper of this section, Gerald W. R. Ward inventories and examines the small group of silver chocolate pots made in Boston in the early eighteenth century by John Coney, Edward Winslow, Peter Oliver, and Edward Webb, as well as two later examples by Zachariah Brigden. The drinking of chocolate—an exotic beverage at the time, served hot—is often regarded as a somewhat “corrupt” practice associated with Spain, Italy, and other Catholic countries. Again, these silver vessels—like those examined by Kane and Estill—open a window on life in provincial and colonial Boston that reveals more of an interest in luxury and frippery than one might expect in the world of Samuel Sewall and his immediate descendants.

Much early American silver is associated with the Congregational churches of New England, and this material has fascinated and concerned scholars since the exhibition and catalogue of American Church Silver at the MFA in 1911 and the publication of E. Alfred Jones’s monumental Old Silver of American Churches two years later. At the conference, Jayne Stokes of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, presented a thorough report on her ongoing work (to be published elsewhere) in updating the Rhode Island section of Jones. Mark A. Peterson, then teaching at Harvard and now at the University of Iowa, also looked at communion silver, Puritanism, and gentility in early New England. His presentation, not repeated here, is published in expanded form in the William and Mary Quarterly in April 2001.

In her essay, Karen Parsons looks at church silver in a specific context—examining the motivations and meanings behind the gift by Elizabeth Porter Phelps of silver to her church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the 1810s. While the gift may have been meant to reaffirm Phelps’s status in the community, Parsons argues convincingly that her action also reflected a much more complex theological situation involving religious principles, the specific life of the congregation at the time of the gift (including the recent death of their minister), and other factors. Her paper is thus a strong reminder that individual acts of presentation need to be understood with the full circumstances of their time and place, including both public life and the more difficult to discern, but no less essential, world of private and spiritual beliefs and behaviors.

Barbara McLean Ward, author of “‘In a Feasting Posture’: Communion Vessels and Community Values in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century New England,” published in Winterthur Portfolio in 1988, continues her analysis of the forms and functions of church silver by expanding her investigation into the federal period. In particular, she seeks to understand why communion vessels—so diverse prior to 1800—become more uniform in due early decades of the nineteenth century. She shows how, after the Revolution, many New England Congregational churches traded in their assemblages of communion vessels for sets of cups similar to those in use in Anglican and Episcopal churches. While older cups, tankards, caudle cups, and beakers may have remained on view to remind congregations of their past, these new cups of uniform size and shape signaled a more egalitarian relationship between congregants, and emphasized the dominant churches’ desire—even as they faced disestablishment—to portray the church and community as one entity by adopting an inclusive model for the practice of communion.

While all the papers in this volume are concerned with issues of social context to some degree, the next three essays are primarily devoted to the world of craftsman and patron. The section begins with an essay by Jonathan L. Fairbanks, the Katharine Lane Weems Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts. In this essay, based on a spirited presentation given at a meeting of the Colonial Society on the eve of the public conference, Fairbanks provides a “thick description” of two key objects created in the pivotal year 1768—John Singleton Copley’s famous portrait of Paul Revere and Revere’s own Sons of Liberty bowl. In so doing, he uncovers previously unnoticed political symbolism and sheds new light on the meaning of these two icons of Americana, proving how even the most familiar works can reveal new meaning when examined afresh.

Revere is also the central figure in Jeannine Falino’s statistical study of his patrons. Using Revere’s daybooks as well as the list of surviving objects recently compiled for the Yale-based study of colonial Massachusetts silversmiths and jewelers, Falino looks at issues of class and consumption in the acquisition of objects by the more than 750 people who patronized New England’s most prolific silversmith. The results reveal much about the day-to-day activities of a working craftsman and also place silversmithing and the use of silver objects firmly within the “consumer revolution” of the eighteenth centuries.

Janine E. Skerry of Colonial Williamsburg concludes this section with a look at the silver given to and used at Harvard College in the colonial period, placing them within the context, to a degree, of collegiate plate used in England and on the Continent. She looks at corporate plate, the archaic and often misunderstood custom of “fellow commoner” plate, and tutorial plate (silver given by grateful students to their teachers), and compiles the written record of these pieces utilizing Harvard’s extensive archives. The result is an in-depth study of well-documented pieces that tell us a great deal about New England silversmithing as well as college life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Fig. 1. Kathryn C. Buhler and Jonathan L. Fairbanks examine a John Coney punch bowl in 1972.

This section of the conference also included a fine presentation by Martha Wilson Hamilton on “New England Silversmiths in the Fur Trade.” Her excellent work on this little understood subject had just been published in greater depth in her book, Silver in the Fur Trade, 1680–1820 (1995) and thus is not repeated here.

Two very different essays conclude the volume. In the first, Edwin A. Churchill of the Maine State Museum provides an extensive and thorough look at silver on the Maine frontier. Although we usually think of silver objects as urban luxury goods, Churchill has found surprisingly abundant evidence of their use and importance in Maine, both economically and socially.

The last paper here is a detailed biographical sketch of Samuel Bartlett by David F. Wood of the Concord Museum. Bartlett was a Concord silversmith—but he was more than that, as Wood deftly shows in this study that illuminates much about Bartlett the man as well as changes in the worlds of craft and citizenship that were taking place in the early years of the new republic. Bartlett’s decision to leave his silversmith’s bench in favor of becoming a clerk is a strong reminder that we should not over-romanticize the lives of early artisans.

Silversmithing in New England changed a great deal in the decades after Samuel Bartlett’s death in 1821. Mechanization, the introduction and popularization of electroplating, and the concomitant growth of large companies such as the Gorham Manufacturing Company and the Meriden Britannia Company, changed silvermaking from a craft to an industry. Arthur Stone and members of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts revived the small shop tradition at the end of the nineteenth century, and today’s metalsmiths, often centered in academia, continue to produce silver and gold jewelry and, occasionally, hollowware. In recent years, these more modern products of the Victorian, arts and crafts, and contemporary world have attracted an increasing amount of attention, as indeed they should. Yet, as the eleven essays contained herein demonstrate, seventeenth and eighteenth-century New England silver is a fertile field of scholarly endeavor, and we are certain that it will remain so in the future.

Art of the Americas

Jeannine Falino

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture

Gerald W. R. Ward

Katharine Lane Weems Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture