PROVIDENCE — The story of the Gorham Manufacturing Company, once the largest silver company in the world, is a rags-to-riches roller coaster, filled with cunning innovation and artistry. The backdrop: a Gilded-Age American appetite for silver, spurred by steep tariffs, seemingly bottomless silver mines, and a nouveau-riche society intent on parading its bling.
In “Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970,” the RISD Museum shows off its unparalleled and glittering collection of works by the behemoth local manufacturer. More than 600 gleaming objects demonstrate the grit and drive of a company that carefully coupled evolving technology with individual craftsmanship. The show examines the appetites of the wealthy in the Gilded Age and reminds us how museums, which historically have prized and stewarded objects of privilege and power, can represent a narrow version of American society.
Elizabeth A. Williams, the museum’s curator of decorative art and design, takes a sweeping look at Gorham, from design trends and technical feats to the high-society figures who coveted the company’s most luxurious products and the company’s hierarchy of laborers, artisans, and designers. Her focus on the factory counterbalances the collection’s dazzling splendor.
As a poor and orphaned 14-year-old, Jabez Gorham was apprenticed to a silversmith. By 1831, he and a partner ran a Providence smithy. He did well, and with his son John formed J. Gorham & Son in 1841. Jabez balked when John recommended that they replace their horse, old Dick, with a 50-horsepower steam engine. In 1848, he sold his shares to John, who mechanized an old art and built an industrial titan.
By 1860, Gorham was making 13 times as much in sales as a decade before, and it was only getting started. John was as canny about marketing as he was about industry. Gorham was one of the first businesses to photograph and catalog its products. Salesmen traveled the country with pictures rather than hauling a weighty inventory.
Henry Jewett Furber, a self-made insurance magnate, and his wife, Elvira Irwin Furber, ardently collected Gorham silver. Between 1866 and 1880, they acquired a magnificent, over-the-top service. Eight-hundred-and-sixteen pieces served 24 people.
Pieces of the Furber service were shown at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. RISD displays elements of the Furber silver in a pavilion modeled on Gorham showcases at several world’s fairs. Expos were another canny marketing tool: Display show-stoppers, and watch the commissions roll in.
Imagine dining with the Furbers. There are forks for fish, melons, pickles, dessert, dinner, oysters, salad, and carving. A dinner guest rehearsed in etiquette would know a fish fork from a fruit fork. The rest of us would be labeled rubes.
Intriguingly, the service careens from one style to another, reflecting shifts in design trends. A neoclassical candelabra is festooned with horses and chariots borrowed from a Parthenon frieze. Similarly, a fantastical and allegorical epergne, or ornamental server, made for the centennial exhibition, features a female figure embodying America — hair flowing, garland in hand — standing upon a globe, as exhortative as the national anthem.
Japan’s display at that same 1876 expo ignited an American obsession for the simple lines and natural motifs of Japanese design. Gorham jumped on the trend, and the Furbers acquired 260 new pieces, such as an assortment of gilded butter plates, far more serene than the patriotic epergne.
This fresh, naturalistic influence animates several bold objects here — a tureen roiling with waves and fish that recalls Hokusai, a fruit plate with flies crawling over flower petals, a craggy, glittering terrapin tureen in which to serve soup.
To 21st-century eyes, some of the objects in “Gorham Silver” are as wildly ostentatious as they are expertly crafted. Designer William Christmas Codman’s all-silver dressing table and stool made for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris is a showpiece, as much a declaration of the company’s creative pluck as of the Gilded Age’s riches. Such objects became parts of museum collections, and eventually defined an industry and the world it occupied.
But Gorham catered to anyone with money in the bank. The rich collected sterling silver, the middle class bought electroplated silver. This exhibition emphasizes the sterling, and the audacity of works on view — the intricacy of design and craftsmanship, the technical marvels, the sheer, shining value of it all — is jaw-dropping.
Silver may last, but glories are fleeting. John Gorham lost his fortune to bad investments and was ousted by Gorham in 1878. But the company kept on well into the 20th century. During wars, it put silver aside and manufactured arms.
In the 1920s, it hired Danish designer Erik Magnussen, who devised a modernist coffee service titled “Cubic.” Its faceted look referenced Cubism, calling to mind city planes and shadows. It was sleek, but nobody especially wanted to use it. Still, Gorham grew until the American passion for silver began to flag.
Another Providence business, Textron, bought Gorham in 1967, diversifying its products. Then Dansk International Design bought it, and over the years it has been swallowed by company after company. The brand remains. Gorham’s factory in south Providence is gone, but the waste it dumped into Mashapaug Pond has lingering effects. We know now that the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age exacted a price.
There’s a lesson here; it remains to be seen whether we have learned it.
GORHAM SILVER: DESIGNING BRILLIANCE 1850-1970
At RISD Museum, 20 North Main St., Providence, through Dec. 1. 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.org