Times & Places

The American Silver Industry, 1840-1925

In the second half of the 19th century, American silver manufacturers became regarded as among the best in the world. This marked a surprising shift in international recognition, as most American silverware produced before the 1840s was made in small shops for a local market, usually imitating fashionable European styles.

Several factors -- political, technological, and social -- prompted the growth of the American silver industry after 1840. Die stamping, an earlier innovation in the creation of flatware banks, helped manufacturers significantly increase their production and place greater emphasis on decoration to distinguish their wares from their competitors. Importantly, the Tariff of 1842, which greatly increased the tax on imported silverware, reduced foreign competition and set the stage for the growth of major new American firms, including Tiffany and Co. and the Gorham Manufacturing Company. With the opening of new American silver mines, raw silver became less expensive, helping fuel the creation of more kinds of serving pieces to meet the demands of fashionable society.

Through the publicity generated by international expositions, American silver manufacturers became world famous. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the first fair to exhibit a significant number of American silver manufacturers' products to an international audience. Throughout the rest of the century, awards at other world's fairs and the resplendent silver objects arrayed on the dining tables of the new wealthy elite would affirm the excellence of American manufacturers as the most creative in technique, style, and magnificence.

After 1900, a shift toward smaller, easier to manage homes and less extravagant entertaining prompted a decline in the industry. A new emphasis on hand labor and restrained decoration encouraged many smaller workshops to turn away from the elaborately chased and engraved surfaces of the previous decades. Instead, they created simple forms with stylized ornament, suggesting traditions of the pre-industrial era as well as the modernity of the new century.

Excerpt from

Kevin Tucker, Gallery text, Arts of the Americas.