Diplomatic Reception Rooms

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Materials Spotlight: Silver & Other Metals

By: The Office of Fine Arts and  |  November 9, 2021

Objects, ornaments, and fixtures made of metal play a rich and colorful role in the furnishings of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. In this setting, they are elevated to the realm of decorative arts. But in the late colonial era and early decades of the American Republic (1750–1825), many were mundane objects, used every day in homes throughout America. Before electricity and artificial lighting, metal objects were themselves points of light—shining accents in dim spaces. Drawer handles, fireplace andirons, and candlesticks were kept as clean and polished as possible to glisten even as they served commonplace purposes.  Brass sconces, mounted on the wall, threw candlelight back into the room, to be reflected in mirrors. In the homes of the wealthy the sparkle of silver in wall cupboards caught the eye.

Library bookcase
A federal inlaid mahogany library bookcase attributed to John and Thomas Seymour displays silver objects in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

These metal objects reveal much about 18th-century America — about economics and trade, design influences and technology, and priorities and preferences. From the very beginning, colonists understood the importance of metals and mined them. Geology suggested that raw metals were readily available. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts reported in 1648, “Mr. Endecott hath found a copper mine on this own ground. Mr. Leader hath tried it.” Americans sent samples of copper and iron ores to England during the 17th century, kindling interest and spurring capital investment from abroad. In southeastern Pennsylvania, where lumps of iron mixed with red clay lay about on the ground, Welsh and German settlers, who were experienced in open mining, established blast furnaces as early as 1710. England’s navy needed good iron for ships’ cannon and firearms, chains, anchors, and fastenings of all kinds, and England’s people needed iron for household and agricultural items. The government, believing that colonies should be sources of raw materials, encouraged American mining but, in the eighteenth century, passed laws and taxes that prohibited Americans from refining metals and manufacturing goods made of metal. These profitable activities were to be carried out only in England, and metal products shipped back to the colonies for purchase. This system of closed and restricted trade seemed to the colonists to be punitive, as they had the capital and technological expertise to manufacture their own finished metal products.

Nevertheless, almost all the metal objects the colonists used were produced in England. English factories at Birmingham and Soho made every conceivable kind of metal fitting for everything from horse harnesses to elaborate nameplates for coffins. House hardware, sewing equipment, fancy hinges, handles and casters for furniture, and tools for every trade were but a few of the products that colonists could not make but had to import from England. Cases of brass and pewter from Birmingham and big iron pots from the Coalbrookdale Foundry made fine ballast for shops whose upper cargo of woolens and silks probably brought more profit.


Catalogues gave Americans access to metal products from Birmingham. These engraved “mail-order” booklets were very precise as to measurement and detail; those who placed orders got exactly what they saw pictured, although months would go by before the orders arrived. Colonists could also purchase routine items like hinges and locks from shopkeepers who imported them from England and kept them in stock. Decorative drawer pulls that had gone out of fashion in London were also shipped to the colonies, explaining why so much English hardware is not quite as stylish as the American-made furniture it adorns.

For lighting devices, brass and iron had long been the most practical and common material. Strong and fireproof and designed with heavy, stable, flaring bases, candleholders could be cast in multiples with interchangeable parts or wrought individually. American estate inventories suggest that English-made brass candlesticks were imported by the case. A dozen or more would have been essential in a household of four to eight rooms. They were gathered from bedrooms in the morning and polished and refitted with candles before being placed on a special table at the foot of the stairs, ready for use at night.

But Americans could have made their own brass candlesticks. Woodworkers could have prepared the patterns, and there was also enough technological skill in the coastal colonies to operate brass foundries. But brass, an alloy, or mixture, of zinc and copper, was scarce in early America. Copper was available, but the zinc had to be imported, and England fiercely guarded its monopoly from competitors, protecting its trade in finished products. Thus pre-Revolutionary American-made brass objects are rare. Those that exist were made by melting down old brass and throwing other metals into the pot. Color, as a result, varies greatly. A rosy hue, for example, indicates extra copper in the mix.

Some metal objects were, however, produced in the colonies. Clockworks were frequently imported but were easily damaged during shipment. Thus even rural communities supported at least one clockmaker. American-made clocks followed English design, but often were special commissions and included unique mechanical features or extra ornamentation.  

Silver was also a special case. Refined silver circulated in the colonies as coinage and was thus available to American silversmiths to melt down and make into decorative and useful objects. Silver is strong and malleable and therefore practical; it is also shiny and handsome, and valuable. For the wealthy, silver was an investment that could easily be converted to cash. Pure silver is too soft to hold its shape, so to give it hardness, copper is added. For fine silver objects, the formula is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. This is known as “sterling silver.”  For coins, the percentage of copper was higher—10 percent, mixed with 90 percent silver. This is known as “coin silver.” For custom orders, patrons often supplied the silversmith with old silver or coins to melt down. For example, during the Revolutionary War, when George Washington ordered sixteen “camp cups,” he gave the silversmith sixteen silver dollars to make them with.

Thus silversmiths had to be able to verify the weight and purity of metal content. They tested purity by matching colors of scratched surfaces and by displacement. Because they worked with what was the main medium of exchange, they also became assayers—experts who verified the value of coins in an official capacity. Most coins suffered from “clipping,” meaning that the edges had been filed, or worse, actually cut, so that the weight did not correspond with stated value.

Camp Cups
These silver camp cups made by Joseph Anthony Jr. in Philadelphia ca. 1785 belonged to Major Winthrop Sargent.

Silversmiths were therefore at the heart of colonial society and commerce. They were highly regarded and active in their communities. Even small towns had at least one silversmith, who might also repair watches, make jewelry, and work in gold. Silversmiths practiced their craft individually or in shops, and were more or less successful depending on their technical expertise and artistry. But silver goods were priced by weight and corresponding value, not by form. A patron who did not supply his own silver was charged for ounces of silver, with an added fee for the silversmith’s “fashioning.” Not until the 1840s, when coinage was plentiful and refined silver readily available, were objects made of silver worth more than the weight of the silver in them. Nevertheless, eighteenth-century American silversmiths were proud of the silver objects they made, and they stamped their products with their own mark, usually initials enclosed in a geometric shape.

Industrialization, the founding of the United States Mint, and the circulation of official coinage changed the way silver was valued and handled as well as the central role of silversmiths in society and commerce. Silver objects became valued for their fashioning as well as for their silver content. Thus the sauce boats, tankards, and other 18th-century goods made of this elegant material became heirlooms to be handed down through the generations.

Before the Revolution, it had been in Britain’s interest to encourage raw mining in early America while forbidding manufacturing. But the British did not take into consideration the extraordinarily mixed populations in some of the colonies, immigrants who brought with them skills learned in the late Renaissance guild traditions. Americans were perfectly capable of doing not only the mining but the smelting, casting, and finishing of all metals, not just the fashioning of silver, and they were adept at developing new technologies to supply their own markets. That they were forbidden by British law from doing so eroded their loyalty to the British Empire and contributed to the growing movement for independence. Silversmiths were often patriots; Paul Revere is only the most famous example.

After independence, American metalworking of all types flourished, and the fine pieces of silver, often engraved, in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms testify to a growing prosperity. At the same, shops of individual silversmiths doing custom work declined, replaced by larger-scale enterprises using labor-saving devices to produce multiple copies of fine silver goods sold in shops and jewelry stores.


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