Cincinnati Silver: 1788 – 1865

August 15th, 2014  |  Published in Summer 2014

Cincinnati Art Museum June 14- Sept 7, 2014

It was a dark and mysterious gallery, relieved only by spotlighted display cases of historic silver. Shining back at visitors with the liquid reflections of fine silver, a story of a mighty city’s beginning unfolded via the items its leading citizens chose to ornament their tables and their lives.

One could not help but succumb to an aura of drama in the presence of such luxurious design. Shown with the earliest pieces in the hallway from the rotunda balcony, the exhibit progresses through a description of Cincinnati’s early growth as aesthetic acquisitions became more desirable to the city’s substantial population.

There is a well-written book accompanying this display: Cincinnati Silver: 1788 – 1940 by curator Amy Dehan, which brings this important trade to life. Cincinnati was, at one time, the third largest producer of jewelry in the country, and the story of how it grew into a world-recognized silver industry makes it the visible success story now at CAM. The trade, itself, went from hand-forged shapes to steam-powered drop-press manufacturing while the city the city grew from about 10,000 people in 1820 to 450,000 in 1940.

The first silver known in the newly formed city of 1789 was from a business established by Celadon Symmes, none of which survived the rough and tumble environment of the early settlement. As wealthy citizens increased, so did the demand for beautiful silver, as noted in the proportions of population to silversmiths over the years . Many familiar family names appear as the original source of the museum acquisitions.

It has been a while since individual salt dishes were a part of formal dinner settings. Four gleaming examples, originally equipped with glass dishes to fit inside and tiny spoons are almost as rare as the household help which at one time would polish silver in their spare moments. Even more intriguing are the elegant fish serving pieces. While all of these seem to be embossed and decorated more highly than other serving implements, they are all among the most graceful and artistic in design. Of interest are the appropriate sea-dwelling references on handles and knives, many of which have large scimitar surfaces begging for engraving. Spiral handles on ladles and tablespoons seemed, also, to have had a real moment in dining table history.

There are so many methods of rendering silver design, that it’s history dating back to several ancient cultures has gone through the usual series of fads and style several times. Most notable in this instance is a true plethora of blossoms and swags, sometimes just a bit over-the-top. Silver lends itself to manipulation. It melts easily, molds through a variety of methods, and accepts soldered birds, insects, classical faces, etc. well. In fact, most of the curlicued legs on huge tureens and coffee pots are manufactured elsewhere and attached later. Repousse is popular. Designs are worked from the inside , usually quite complicated, but bearing a look which declares it’s hand-made beginnings.

In the hallway by the entrance, there are examples of fine hand-hammered pieces, the original way of working silver. It’s advantage is catching light through the entire surface and it’s production is accomplished without the use of modern machinery. The early silversmith businesses were small and home to both the owner and often his apprentices. Small pieces were more were preferred as well as more practical. They would have been made mostly of coin silver in a time when silver coins were composed of 90% silver. just about the time that source ran out, the Comstock Lode was discovered, and silver became an affordable metal, and the U.S. became the largest producer of silver in the world.

Duhme and Co, along with many other silver retailers, were located Around Main Street, Fourth and Fifth Streets , others were in Over-the Rhine and the West End. These sales areas offer an insight as to how small the city was in the late 1800’s.

Duhme & Co. has contributed especially eye-catching designs shown in the museum, mostly in Renaissance and neo-classic references. The one surprise piece of utter

Spartan design is a sterling silver railroad spike. It was commissioned of the company to commemorate the laying of the last rail in the Southern Railway which runs between Cincinnati and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Around the same time, Cincinnati Industrial Expositions were held regularly, generating publicity and promotion of the local businesses. Between the fast rail connections and communication ease with other markets, business was booming.

Two big fashion trends affected some of the work seen here. The effects of Japanese art which made an impact on pottery, painters, and anyone involved in creativity in the early 1900’s was echoed to some degree in silver of the day, often simply integrated into the standard curves and sculptures, making it barely noticeable. The other formidable splash in preferences was the American Arts and Crafts Movement, which relied heavily on this less expensive metal, and moved the Art Academy of Cincinnati began teaching metal working,

Cincinnati’s great silver centers began to fall one by one as the end of the century approached, bringing one of Cincinnati’s many claims to the nation’s history to an end, but curiously predicting the approach of another. Much of the last years of Cincinnati silver introduced machinery and machinery sources which eventually gave the city an edge on industrialization.

Don’t miss: an asparagus fork, a pickle jar complete with a bird taking flight from its silver lid, the bachelor’s tea set, a Turkish coffee pot, and a case of normal sized presentation cups, each wonderfully original.

The story behind “Cincinnati Silver” only illuminates its gleaming fantasies even more. Last in the show is a table of beautiful modern silver setting. Starkly allowing the silver to declare it’s own beauty in shape instead of surface design, Robert Sturm’s creation brings the past into a new recognition of silver as art.

By: Fran Watson

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