American Silver Sugar Urn and Cover
Joseph Richardson, Jr., and Nathaniel Richardson carried on the family silversmithing business established by their grandfather Francis Richardson (1681–1729) in Philadelphia before 1701. Their father, Joseph Richardson (1711–1784), continued the business until his retirement in 1777, when he passed it on to his sons. Nathaniel never married and continued to live most of his life with his brother Joseph. In 1790 Nathaniel changed occupations and worked as an ironmonger and hardware merchant until his death. Joseph Richardson, Jr., married Ruth Hoskins in 1780 and continued as a silversmith until 1801, when he decided to devote himself entirely to his duties as the second assayer of the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Although they were talented and successful silversmiths in one of the oldest firms in Philadelphia, Joseph, Jr., and Nathaniel found it advantageous to import English silver, jewelry, and plated silver to supplement their stock.1For more on the Richardson family, see Fales Joseph Richardson and Family, 3–47,153–63. They also jobbed out work to other Philadelphia silversmiths and employed the services of several engravers. The engraver James Trenchard did work for the Richardson brothers during the 1780s and is probably responsible for the large “JJS” initials on this sugar dish, whose beautiful embellishments indicate the hand of an engraving specialist.2A recent machine engraving on the foot records the family history: “James Smith & Jemima Russell, Married February 5 1787./ Mary Russell Smith, 1853 Emma Allen Merritt 1863/ Morris Hill Merritt 1913/ E.A./ 1863./ Sarah Ellen Richardson Married Nov. 10, 1928 Morris Hill Merritt.”
The urn-shaped covered sugar basin was one of the most popular forms to emerge in the neoclassical style. Characterized by a mirror-smooth, “tight skin” surface, purity of line, and perfect proportions, this form was given its ultimate refinement by Philadelphia silversmiths between 1785 and 1800.The elegant verticality of Philadelphia sugar basins belies their substantial size and weight. Ornamentation was especially minimized in Philadelphia Federal silver, possibly in reaction to the florid decoration often encountered on pre-Revolutionary rococo silver of that city.3By the 1790s the pineapple finial was supplanted with an urn-form finial, which echoed the body of the vessel in miniature and exaggerated the vertical thrust.
In this particularly fine covered sugar basin, the Richardsons have emphasized the restraint and delicacy of neoclassicism. Through imported goods—the makers specifically asked for pierced salt dishes and pierced-rim waiters in ordering silver from England during the early and mid-1780s—they may have been inspired to add a similarly pierced border to their tea equipment. They were among the first Philadelphia silversmiths to do so.4See Fales Joseph Richardson and Family. The pierced gallery is a regional feature exclusive to silver made in Philadelphia and its sphere of influence.
Jennifer F. Goldsborough
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.