Stories in Silver

Rare and beautiful silver forms share the social history of their users and their makers. Visit “A Handsome Cupboard of Plate,” an exhibit open now at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.


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Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Museum objects are packed with information. Every part that your eye touches is telling you something about its maker, its owner, its origin, its use, and so much more. This is exemplified especially in the case of the Cahn Collection, a temporary installation of silver featuring the objects from the private collection of Paul and Elissa Cahn. Our guest today is Janine Skerry, Curator of Metals, who has put together this exhibit, or has helped to put together the installation that we are featuring here.

Janine, welcome, thank you for being here.

Janine Skerry: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Harmony: Tell us a little bit more about this exhibit. How can we describe it?

Janine: The exhibit actually originated at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and has traveled around the country. We are the fourth and final venue for it. It is the private collection of Paul and Elissa Cahn. They are from St. Louis and it is one of actually two major silver collections that the Cahns have formed over the years. Their first collection was English silver, and they did a wonderful exhibit on that a number of years ago, but now this is their American silver and we are so lucky to have it at Colonial Williamsburg. It’s a fabulous collection of materials that show the breadth and range of silversmithing in the colonial period from about 1690 to just around 1800.

Harmony: The main thing we want people to do is come and see this exhibit, so where can they find it? This is at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg?

Janine: Yes it is. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg in the DeWitt Wallace  Decorative Arts Museum, the Geiser Gallery, and it is going to be with us until May 25 of 2015.

Harmony: And so if you’re hearing this podcast now, it is open presently and you should hustle on down here and see it.

Janine: Yes.

Harmony: So when we talk about the Cahn Collection, we’re looking at silver in the 18th century and we can kind of think about silver differently than we do today. Just historically and culturally, silver is currency and it’s prestige. How is silver a part of the 18th century that it is maybe not seen as much today?

Janine: Well actually the title of the exhibit is a good springboard for discussing the exhibit. The exhibit is formally called “A Handsome Cupboard of Plate,” and the first thing to know is that the word “plate” did not mean electroplated or imitation silver. It meant sterling during the colonial period and that comes from English precedent.

The phrase “A handsome cupboard of plate” actually comes from a letter written by a Virginian named William Fitzhugh in 1688. He was writing to his factor, or personal shopper, back in England and he was ordering some silver. And he explained why he was ordering it and why he felt it was appropriate to make this order at this point in time.

He basically had reached a level of prosperity, economic prosperity, where he thought it was the right time to buy silver and what he wrote was:

“For now my building’s finished and my plantation’s well settled and being sufficiently stored with goods of all sorts, I esteem it as well politic as reputable to furnish myself with an handsome cupboard of plate, which gives me the present use and credit, is a sure friend in a dead lift without much loss, or is a certain portion for child after my decease.”

What he’s saying is, it’s time to start buying silver and to furnish a very showy sideboard in my principle room with these pieces of silver because it gives me the present use. They are functional, useful pieces. It gives me the present credit, which means it lets my neighbors know that I’m a man of substance.

It’s a sure friend in a dead lift without much loss. Silver is like a phoenix. It can be born again and again. You can invest in fine furniture, but when fashions or functions change, you can’t make too many alterations without winding up with kindling. But with silver, it can always be turned in for its weight value, its monetary value and it can even in fact be melted down and remade into objects that are more stylish or more functionally useful.

And then finally, he says, “It’s a certain portion for a child after my decease.” Silver is held in such high esteem during the colonial period that it is often one of the few household possessions that is singled out in a will with specific details saying, “I leave to my son, I leave to my daughter my silver bowl, my plate, my tea pot, my spoons.” Because it is considered a very important legacy, not only of money, but of family history and prestige.

Harmony: That just gives you the whole story there. There’s really no analog in modern times so something that would serve all of those functions.

Janine: No. it’s a remarkable material, it really is special and I think we’ve lost touch with that today, so this exhibit is an opportunity to sort of reconnect with a very, very meaningful part of our past that doesn’t carry as much import or as much readability in modern society as it did in the past.

Harmony: Some of the examples that you’ve selected for the collection, what are some of the forms that you’ve chosen, and what do they tell us about their colonial use and the colonial era?

Janine: Well you know they’re wonderful. Silver is a wonderful example of how fashion and function change over time so we range from communal drinking vessels, which are really a foreign idea. The notion of passing a large, two-handled cup or bowl from hand to hand and everyone drinking out of it seems a little frat boy right now, but in the 18th century it was very genteel, very proper, very elegant behavior to do this. I sometimes joke and say they hadn’t invented bacteria yet, but in fact it was not a case of every man gets his own cup. So having tankards or bowls or two-handled cups that you passed around was not only acceptable, it was stylish.

As times change and as a greater sense of personal self is established, the idea that each person receives their own vessel becomes more and more prevalent and so this exhibit takes you through everything from those communal drinking vessels to individual drinking vessels. That’s just one example of how social norms change and they are reflected in the objects.

Harmony: That’s fascinating. They’re historical documents.

Janine: They are, they are and because silver can be engraved…well first off it’s generally marked by the silversmith so we have an ability to identify the shop in which the pieces were made. Because it is so often engraved, we can trace the history of ownership very specifically for many of these objects. Not all, but a surprising proportion of them we know. In many instances – and this is especially true with the Cahn collection pieces – pieces were passed down from one generation to the next and names were added to them. So you can actually read this history of pride and family legacy as a child receives a certain portion in ensuing generations.

Harmony: These objects, these silver objects, tell us a great deal about their social history and their use, but they also reveal an equal amount about the smiths, the masters, who made them. What stories are seeing evidenced in this collection of the different makers and the different styles?

Janine: Well, it’s a fascinating story and it’s so rich. The collection has particular strength in the works and the works of silversmiths from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In Boston, you can see a very strong continuation of an English tradition. In many of the New York pieces you can begin to see or see very fully, especially in the earliest examples, objects which speak strongly of their Dutch heritage.

There is an example of a form called a brandywine bowl that is distinctively Dutch in its origins. This example was made in New York. It is new to the exhibit. Mr. Cahn acquired it at the beginning of 2014 and very graciously folded it into this exhibit so this is the first public venue of the piece. It’s a wonderful example of a very large, very ornate bowl that was made about 1690 by Cornelius Vander Burgh of New York and it’s the example of this brandy wine bowl which would have been filled up with raisins and brandy and passed among an assembly of women to celebrate the arrival, the safe birth of a child into their community.

It’s a Dutch ceremony called the kindermaal and people today are shocked. It’s a very big bowl. Shocked to think of this with brandy and raisins and these proper genteel ladies consuming the contents, but it’s a very sort of traditional ritual form of celebration and unique to the Dutch settlements in America that are found in the New York colonies. And then, of course, you go into pieces from Philadelphia, which also reflects a range of styles.

The pieces can also tell us sometimes about the interconnections between silversmiths. There are another recent example acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Cahn is a pair of sauceboats made by Paul Revere, perhaps the most, certainly the most famous of all American silversmiths, but it was made for the sister of a New York silversmith who had married and moved to Boston. She and her husband continued to patronize silversmiths, but they were patronizing silversmiths in Boston now.

Interestingly, the woman that they were made for was named Judith Meyer Moses and she was one of the sisters of Myer Meyers, a New York silversmith who is very strongly represented in the collection. Meyers is a fascinating story in and of himself both because of the success of his business and because of the unique opportunity that America presented to him.

Harmony: Tell us more about these opportunities that he was able to find in America.

Janine: Well, Myer Meyers was born in New York City. He was Jewish. His father was not a silversmith, but he was apprenticed to another silversmith, we believe in New York. There were two or three possible candidates, but no documentation survives. What’s fascinating is, he was able to register his mark at a freeman goldsmith – which is used synonymously with silversmith during the period&ndash in the City of New York in the mid-18th century and set up his own shop.

When he registered as a freeman goldsmith of New York he became the first Jewish master craftsman in the British Empire to attain that status. Jews were not allowed in London or in other British urban centers to become members of the guild halls which regulated whether or not they could become master craftsmen.

So Myer Meyers is a real success story of someone who was given the opportunity, thanks to his birth in America, to fully achieve his career ambitions. And in fact, he established what is believed to be probably the largest shop that operated in New York in the second half of the 18th century. He worked in the Baroque style, the Rococo style, the so-called Queen Anne style and the Neo-classical style so his careered spanned a very long time period.

His shop produced a huge number of objects. There were over 375 pieces that survived today; far more than any other New York shop. He briefly had a partnership with another craftsman named Halstead, Benjamin Halstead, and that’s the first record of a partnership that occurred among silversmiths in New York City.

Among the works that survived are some very…from Myer Meyers and from his brief partnership with Halstead are objects that are really sophisticated documents of technical expertise. Things that might appear simple to us today like waiters or salvers are actually very difficult to make, perfectly flat sheet silver with beautiful cast ornamental rims on them. He also made large, impressive and expensive forms like coffee pots. And he made a number of Jewish ritual objects such as rimonim, or torah bells that are virtually unknown by other silversmiths. He’s a real success story.

Harmony: As you’ve helped to curate this exhibit and stand it up here in Colonial Williamsburg what to you is the most important aspect of the story that it tells?

Janine: Well I think silver reveals so many assets of life in the colonial period. There’s the economic side of it, there is the social etiquette and use side of it, there are the personal family histories that are invested in these objects, and then there are the success stories of the craftsmen, as well as the fact that they are just beautiful to look at.

I love all of the decorative arts, but silver’s my favorite. I think people who come and see this exhibit will immediately be taken by the beauty of the installation. It has a very jewel box quality to it. You walk into the exhibit space and I notice I drop my voice, because it’s this sort of hushed atmosphere of really jewel-like beautiful objects. I hope people will come and see it because it is so beautiful and so special.

Harmony: And we want to take a moment to express our gratitude to Paul and Elissa Cahn who’ve been so generous in sharing these treasures that they have collected.

Janine: Indeed. I know that these are objects that they live with and enjoy and to give them up to us and the American public for a full year is really wonderful. I am so deeply indebted to them.

Harmony: Janine, thank you so much for being here today. I can’t wait to see the exhibit.

Janine: Thank you, welcome, and come back often.