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John Gorham Mechanizes Silverware Production

He made Providence the industry leader

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John Gorham (1820-1898) pioneered the transformation of silverware production from handcraft to mechanized operations in the mid-1850s.  The Gorham silver firm – located in Providence, Rhode Island – became the industry leader by the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Gorham Silverware

The Gorham silverware business began in 1831 in Providence with Jabez Gorham (1792-1869) — John’s father — and his partner, Henry Webster. They added coin silver spoons to an array of gold jewelry products that Gorham had been producing since 1813.  They foresaw that these lightweight silver spoons would soon replace pewter.  By 1841 Gorham had sold his jewelry trade and acquired the Webster silver business. He also agreed to a partnership with his son John.  Their small shop, peddlers and trips to cities and towns served as distribution channels for their silverware (mainly spoons). They also sold  custom-made silver goods (e.g., thimbles, tongs and combs).

As sales grew, they borrowed money for a new building and a steam engine to replace a horse-drawn source of power. Nervous about repayment of the large debt, Jabez sold his share of the business to John in 1848, as the new building neared completion.

Gorham silverware in the Milwaukee Museum

John Gorham knew that handmade production of spoons hindered further growth.  One worker in an 11-hour day made only about a dozen spoons.  Thus, mechanization was the key for increasing future standardized output.

In 1852 Gorham went to England where he ordered a steam-drop press from James Nasmyth, based on his invention of the steam hammer.  This device formed spoons in a mechanized blow that eliminated hand labor.

Diagram of Nasmyth’s steam hammer

Other labor-saving devices Gorham used in his firm were roller dies, which directly pressed pattern designs on silver blanks, and polishing wheels.  These mechanized operations, coinciding with growing consumer demand for all kinds of standardized silverware and hollowware  (concave containers for food and liquids) greatly enhanced his business. Meanwhile, European-employed designers continued to create intricate patterns for his wares.  Among the more successful patterns was  “Medallion,” which  appeared in 1864.

A Gorham spoon for an ice bowl. Note the polar bear.

Gorham Silverware Hits $1 Million

Growth of the company surged from 1850 to 1870.  In 1850 the firm had fourteen employees and revenue of $29,000; by 1870 it had about 400 workers and sales of about $1 million.  Although Gorham hired European designers, most of his employees were American production workers employed in mechanized operations, tool making, and varied processes. Starting in 1865, the firm began producing electroplated items, applying silver on a cheaper metal object.  Beyond mechanization, further efficiencies came from coordinated supervision of the firm, detailed inventory of every part and finished product and voluminous data about the company’s designs.

The Gorham manufacturing plant in Providence

Thus, by 1870 the Gorham Manufacturing Company (having incorporated in 1865) had become the leading silverware company in the U.S.

Some notable commissions resulted from its high-quality work.  In 1859, Mary Todd Lincoln bought a silver tea set and flatware for use in the White House,  known later as the “Josephine” pattern.  More impressive was the 816-piece service bought by Henry and Elvira Furber, between 1873 and 1879. It served 24 people, and was the largest single commission ever received by the company.

Narragansett Berry Spoon by Gorham

Over time Gorham marketed his wares through sales outlets across the country, backed by substantial advertising.  In addition, he showed displays of his products in the 1850s at the Rhode Island State Fair, the 1873 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition and the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.  At this venue, he displayed several pieces including “Hiawatha Boat” (bought by President Grant’s wife, Julia), a huge object called the “Century Vase” and the “Neptune Epergne” (table centerpiece) from the Furber commission.

Gorham trademark for Fine brand Certain Named Silverware

Panic

Despite the fortuitous commission from Furber, the Panic of 1873 adversely affected both the company and John Gorham.  After sales reached $1,024,000 in 1872, they dropped to $521,000 in 1878.  Meanwhile, Gorham declared bankruptcy in 1875, from murky financial transactions unconnected with his firm. He was forced to retire in 1878.  The company managed to recover and prospered up until World War II, but declined thereafter.  In 1967 Textron became the first of several owners.


Images: Silver bowl detail CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043557. Gorham silverware in the Milwaukee Museum By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63468527.

Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Siena College near Albany, N.Y.

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