Five Questions With: Elizabeth Williams

Gorham Manufacturing Co. is the hub of a Providence walking tour offered by the Rhode Island Historical Society and the “Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970” exhibit at the RISD Museum, which is affiliated with the Rhode Island School of Design.

Elizabeth Williams, the museum’s David & Peggy Rockefeller curator of decorative arts and design, discusses how Gorham became the world’s largest silver company.


PBN: What do you emphasize during the tour about Gorham’s influence on the area?

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WILLIAMS: Between 1831 and the 1850s, Gorham grew significantly, expanding from a small workshop on Steeple Street to several multistory buildings and from 14 to nearly 200 employees. These changes can be credited to John Gorham, who joined his father’s business in 1841 and soon initiated seismic shifts in the traditions and scale of New England silver production. He realized the need for machinery and equipment with, in his words, “sufficient size and power for us to handle silver as though it were putty.”

John Gorham installed steam power in the manufactory in 1847. He then traveled to England in 1852 to order a steam-powered drop press designed to make silver wares. The arrival of this engineering endeavor in Providence not only marked Gorham as the first American silver company with a steam-powered drop press for the purpose of making silver wares, but also entrenched the enterprising nature of Gorham into the next century.

The company was built and grew upon the effective and profitable combination of systematic processes – both in terms of machinery and business – and original artistic talent.

PBN: Who worked at Gorham Manufacturing Co. back in the day?

WILLIAMS: Before the 1847 retirement of Jabez Gorham, who founded the company in 1831, spoons, forks and other small wares were produced by hand. Powered by a horse plodding in a circle in the basement, the workshop at 12 Steeple St. consisted of a first floor for manufacturing. … Working from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m. with one hour each for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the employees numbered about 14 men.

By 1860, there were about 150 men employed at the company, two stories had been added to the new building, and John Gorham had purchased the estate west of 12 Steeple St. from Jabez, occupying a considerable portion of it. A 156-page inventory ledger from 1862 meticulously lists the entire contents of more than 30 rooms filled with machinery, tools, dies, gas fittings and pipes, workbenches, stock materials and fixtures.

By 1875, approximately 450 Gorham employees occupied 69 rooms, and the manufactory had spread to the boundaries of North Main, Steeple, Canal, and Friend streets.

Although John Gorham hired skilled European silversmiths, the majority of his employees were Americans trained in specific silversmithing skills. An 1879 account of this division of labor notes at least 12 separate trades in which Gorham apprentices were trained.

PBN: What is a fact about the manufacturing company that you think many people don’t know?

WILLIAMS: The Gorham Manufacturing Co. made one of the largest American silver services. From 1866 to 1880, Henry Jewett and Elvira Irwin Furber purchased 816 works of Gorham silver, amassing what is now known as the Furber service. These 129 hollow-ware vessels and 687 pieces of flatware represent one of Gorham’s largest commissions.

Made to serve 24 people, the service is shown in the exhibition in its near entirety. After the Furbers’ deaths, the service was inherited by their middle son, who chose a simpler lifestyle and sold the service back to Gorham in 1949.

PBN: What is the most common reaction to the Gorham silver items at the RISD Museum among visitors?

WILLIAMS: The scale of some works in the exhibition, along with the number of hours it took Gorham employees to make them is astounding. The Martelé writing table and chair command as much attention now as when they debuted at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. They were conceived as showstoppers in a crowd of stunning objects made by Gorham’s competitors. More than 10,000 hours of labor, 47 pounds of silver and a panoply of exotic materials make up this unique set.

PBN: From a manufacturing/business standpoint, are there modern-day lessons to be learned from Gorham and its time in the city?

WILLIAMS: Throughout the Gorham Manufacturing Co.’s existence, the dual respect for what came before and what was possible for the future was the foundation for its development and dominance of the silver industry.

Its processes, ranging from administrative management and logistical organization to creative development and manufacturing methods, were recognized early on as bringing “the inheritance of an older and richer world to the quick and fertile genius of the new, and into that, comprehensive organization of all departments under one head, which gives a capital advantage to the American system of business.” The company was an American industrial leader, the epitome of the manufactory, a site where merchandise was produced for sale and for use through labor and machines.

What the word manufactory often obscures, however, is that it “is not an easy thing to make a design, which shall be at once delightful to the eye and convenient to the hand … no talent is rarer than this, and without it, all the mechanical skill, the perfect integrity, and the courageous enterprise of the company would not have sufficed to rear so vast … an establishment.”

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.

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