Glorious Gorham: Silversmith to the Nation

September 18, 2010 - February 6, 2011

Fierce polar bears mount dripping icebergs and mythic figures cavort on the extravagant silver masterpieces created by the Gorham Manufacturing Company. Glorious Gorham: Silversmith to the Nation, on view September 18 through February 6, 2011, showcases the design diversity and inventiveness of one of Americas most influential silver manufacturers.

Founded in 1831 in Providence, Rhode Island, Gorham Manufacturing grew from a small shop to a major producer and retailer. From simple flatware to elegant tea services to fashionable centerpieces, Gorham set a standard for craftsmanship and helped to elevate the American dinner table to an art form itself.

The Museums silver collection includes Gorham pieces that represent the complexity of a Victorian dining table. Advances in transportation made fruits and vegetables once considered exotic or those that had been available only seasonally, readily obtainable by the public. Firms like Gorham seized the opportunity to market specific silver pieces and utensils for these foods. A diner at a formal, late-19th century dinner might find a plethora of flatware laid out before him or herfrom an individual butter pat plate to a pastry fork to a cheese knive.

Concurrently, American entrepreneurs developed the technology to harvest, ship, and store ice, making it readily available to consumers. As a result, the use of ice at the table grew in popularity. Gorham again responded by marketing suitable tableware, ice bowls with matching tongs. The form of the bowlan iceberg with two polar bearsexpressed its use, reflected contemporary interest in Arctic exploration, and made a distinct fashion statement.

Design innovation was a hallmark of Gorham. At the end of the 19th century, the firm developed a specialty line of hand-wrought silver marked by the distinctive motifs of the Art Nouveau style. They termed the new line Martel, and its sinuous forms and naturalistic motifs proved exceptionally popular. A distinct mark on the Museums Martel water pitcher indicates that it was part of the Companys display at the Paris Exposition Universal in 1900, where Gorham unveiled the new line. The company kept meticulous production records (rare survivals) so that we know the Martel soup tureen in the Museums collection was a special order piece that took nearly 200 hours to produce.

The Museum of Arts Gorham collection includes pieces that date from 1854 to 1918, illustrating an expansive array of the firms production. All of these elaborately detailed objects demonstate Gorham Manufacturing Companys dominance of the American silver trade and the importance comsumers placed on fashionable luxury goods.

Suggested Reading

Available in the MWPAI Art Reference Library
Charles L. Venable
Silver in America 1840-1940A Century of Splendor
(1994, Dallas Museum of Art)

John Webster Keefe and Samuel J. Hough
Magnificent, Marvelous, Martel: American Art Nouveau

(2001, New Orleans Museum of Art)


Gorham Manufacturing Company
Providence, Rhode Island (active 1831-present)
Soup Tureen, 1900, silver, 9 3/8 x 14 3/4 x 10 in
Museum Purchase, 2005.2.a-b


New York State Council on the Arts with the support of
Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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