November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
The silverware pattern shown on the opposite page is neither the plainest nor the fanciest ever made by the Gorham Company of Rhode Island. Perhaps it is this balance between abundance and austerity that explains the overwhelming success of Chantilly. To date, Gorham has sold 1,800,000 pieces, making it the most popular pattern any company has ever produced. It is, in the words of the historian Charles H. Carpenter, Jr., “the silverware your grandmother and my grandmother owned.”
The Rhode Island silver business dates back to the 169Os. By 1831, when Jabez Gorham formed a partnership with Henry Webster to make coin-silver spoons, American silver was a wellestablished craft industry, with spoon makers in most leading cities and towns. Silver was an upper-class amenity at this point; a simple spoon might cost the equivalent of two days’ wages. Events of the next twenty years, however, conspired to create a true industry of American silver at affordable prices. In 1839 the British firm of Elkington developed silver plate and began exporting it to America; by the early 184Os American smiths were so threatened that they successfully lobbied Congress for tariff protection against British plate and sterling. In the 183Os and 184Os the domestic silver supply was scarce, and most wares were made from coin silver; after about 1850, with the acquisition of Western lands in the Mexican War, a vast supply of domestic silver became available.
Finally, and most significantly, in the early 185Os mechanization came to the silver industry. Coin-silver spoons had been made by hand. The process was slow, and elaborate decoration was too time-consuming to be practical. This was a matter of some concern to John Gorham, who took over the company from his father in 1848. He wanted to lower the cost per piece and open up the market, and he knew that mechanization was the only way. So in the spring and summer of 1852, he took a trip to Europe. One reason was to meet with fellow silversmiths. In the wake of the 184Os tariff bill, not all were happy to see him. “Called on Thomas Walstenhone at James Dixon & Sons,” he wrote in his diary for May 21. “Was treated very politely but couldn’t get in shop.” Another objective was to purchase a steam-powered drop press from the inventor and tool-maker James Nasmyth. The deal was consummated for about S170, delivered, and the new Gorham drop press arrived in Providence sometime in 1853 or 1854, making possible a mass success story like Chantilly.
The Gorham drop press was the silver industry’s first. It instantly rendered the handmaking of flatware obsolete, speeding up production and lowering costs to the point where a middle-class family might consider for the first time owning a large set of matched silver (Chantilly, for example, numbered 124 pieces). Between 1850 and 1859 the company’s sales increased from $29,000 to $397,000, making Gorham the largest maker of fine silverware in the world. In the years after the Civil War, Gorham would lead the way in merchandising silverware to a newly affluent middle class, consolidating its position under the direction of Edward Holbrook, an aggressive businessman with an eye for aesthetics. In 1891 Holbrook hired as his chief of design the distinguished British designer William Christmas Codman. Codman spent much of his first two years at Gorham preparing for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago. The pieces he designed for the exposition were large, florid works that looked back toward his Victorian roots. When the fair was over, Codman turned his attention to flatware, and on July 30, 1895, he received a design patent for a new pattern called Chantilly.
In this, unlike the exposition pieces, Codman clearly had an eye toward the future. One might argue that the mid189Os were the dividing point between two contradictory impulses: the elaborate Rococo Revival style, which had gone before, and the cleaner lines of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Moderne, yet to come. Chantilly comfortably reconciles the two. Its curves clearly derive from the courtly tradition of design descended from eighteenth-century France. Yet it is modern in its restraint.
Chantilly sold well from the start but took off in the 1920s, perhaps as a kind of reaction against the more austere forms of modernism. The pattern continues to be Gorham’s biggest seller today. Priced at about a dollar per piece when it first appeared, it currently lists at $300 for a four-piece setting. One New York retailer regularly sells the setting for $160, however, and recently advertised it for $125. Beneath the dignity of a classic silver product? Hardly. Vigorous discounting and aggressive advertising are right in the tradition of Chantilly—a silverware pattern that can legitimately be called downright democratic.