Gorham’s ‘white gold’ flatware

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

September 2009 | Elephant ivory has long been coveted for its inherent beauty, natural resilience, and its capability of being finely carved. Homer mentions it often, in the Old Testament one hears of Solomon’s throne of ivory, and Roman senators also sat on seats of ivory.1 So highly prized as to be dubbed “white gold,” ivory’s special qualities make it ideal for use as handles for cutlery, and carved ivory handles on knives and forks were popular in northern Europe from the early Middle Ages. Although flatware with ivory handles was imported into the United States from Europe during colonial times and thereafter, no such domestically produced wares are known until the mid-nineteenth century.

When one thinks of nineteenth-century American ivory-handled flatware, usually the first examples to come to mind are the ornately decorated silver-gilt pieces with fancifully carved ivory handles made by the Whiting Manufacturing Company of New York. Of these, a few are individually numbered odd pieces such as tea balls and tea strainers. But some twenty-eight serving and “fancy” place pieces, although decorated differently, share the same stamped number, 2888, and together make up the not-full-line pattern called Ivory (see Fig. 3). 3 Tiffany and Company, also of New York, made ivory-handled flatware in a limited range of piece types and models that did not constitute a single pattern: eating knives, chafing-dish forks and spoons, cheese scoops, and cutlery for eating and carving game and meat.4 In Providence, Rhode Island, the Gorham Manufacturing Company produced a wide range of flatware with ivory handles, also not comprising a single pattern and usually designated individually or as small sets by different model numbers. The great variety of piece types and models notwithstanding, Gorham’s ivory-handled flatware was apparently produced in small quantities, is rare on today’s antiques market, and is not well known. Here we will examine a number of important examples that document Gorham’s production. In addition, by using X-rays in selected pieces we have discovered the innovative ways the firm joined the handles to the functional ends, methods that are not apparent from external examination.

Figure 3 illustrates the earliest example of an ivory-handled dining implement by Gorham that we have encountered—a coin silver berry scoop intended for serving fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and the like. We have found no information about this or anything similar to it in the Gorham Company archives,5 but it can be confidently dated to about 1865, in part because Gorham switched from the coin standard to the sterling standard in 1868,6 and in part because the medallion featuring the portrait of a classical helmeted warrior is similar to one in Gorham’s Medallion pattern, patented in 1864.7 The construction of the scoop is quite unusual. The die-stamped bowl, of average gauge (thickness) and decorated with engraved anthemia, is soldered to a downward “rat-tailed” extension of the stem, which appears to be cast and is of very thick gauge (see Fig. 3a). An X-ray shows that a narrow rodlike extension of the stem runs all the way through the centrally drilled, turned ivory handle, and is capped at the terminal with a silver ball finial.

One of the earliest sterling flatware pieces with ivory handles documented in the Gorham archives (see the table on p. 76) is a sugar sifter (model no. 155) 8 introduced in 1875 (Figs. 6a, 6b). Its ivory handle, akin to those in silver in the firm’s Angelo pattern,9 is joined by a silver pin to a long tubular silver stem and thence to a boss soldered to the indented top of the bowl. (In the vocabulary of flatware, boss can refer to either an ornamental knob, the conventional definition, or to the flared or bulbous base of a silver-handled stem, the flattened end of which is soldered to the functional end, as here.) The hand-pierced gilt bowl is of a shape we have not encountered on any other example of Gorham flatware; in addition, the sifter may represent Gorham’s first use on a flatware bowl of classically inspired friezelike decoration, here featuring winged cherubs riding dolphins and gamboling baby mermen.10 Sugar sifters were used to sprinkle granulated or powdered sugar on fresh berries, pies, cakes, and so forth.

The archival costing record for number 155makes no mention of the ivory handle or of its Angelo styling. However, these features are included in the heading of cost book entries dated May 27, 1876: “Ivory Handle Cutlery. Angelo Style Handle.” The entries specify that the following piece types were offered in this category: meat carver, meat fork, game carver, game fork, fluted steel, table knife, and dessert knife, but so far we have not found any of them. The same heading with the same piece types appears again on June 26, 1878, and on December 26, 1878.11 Then in April 1885 we find cost book entries for “No. 55 Ivory Handle Cutlery” and in May 1885 for “No. 45 Ivory Handle Cutlery,” again specifying the same piece types. The new model designations suggest new handle shapes, but there are no labeled archival photographs or catalogue illustrations that reveal what they looked like; nor have we come across ivory-handled specimens stamped with the model numbers 45 or 55.

Figure 5 illustrates a fish serving set (no. 2), from a series introduced in 1882. The scimitar-shaped knife blade and the bowl of the four-tined fork are decorated with an etched panel in the Japanese taste showing a carp amid aquatic foliage. In its later etched work, Gorham usually used engraving to complete fine details within an etched design, but in this set even the fine details are etched. The mirror-image ivory handles are carved in a spiral design, with the grooves accentuated by light staining. An X-ray confirms that a broad, thin, round-tipped tang extends into a central channel for one-third of the handle length; a silver pin fixes it to the handle. The knife, like many other serving knives of the nineteenth century, does not have a sharpened cutting edge. With its companion fork, it would have been used to deftly skin, bone, and apportion a whole large baked or poached fish in full view of the diners—part of the spectacle of formal Victorian dining.

In 1884 and 1885 Gorham introduced a series of salad sets (nos. 6, 7, 9–13), each of which was remarkable in that the functional ends as well as the handles were made of ivory. We are not aware of all-ivory salad sets by any other American manufacturer. Archival photographs show that some of the implements were carved from a single piece of ivory and featured Japanese style floral imagery in white against a colored (stained) background, but most were of two-piece construction; that is, the handles and functional ends were carved separately and then connected by a silver ferrule, as in number 12(see Figs. 4, 4a). There the handle has an embedded threaded silver rod that protrudes through the loose ferrule and screws into the functional end. In some pairs the handles were identical and in others mirror images of each other. Fancy salad sets such as these were created to toss and serve seafood or lettuce salads in the dining room—again, part of the drama of formal Victorian dining.

Figure 8 shows a Gorham ice cream slicer (no. 433) introduced in 1888 that recalls the form and decoration of late Georgian English fish knives/slices.12 Its long scimitar-shaped silver blade has an off-center panel of hand-piercing that is outstanding—one of the best examples we have ever seen on American flatware. The ivory handle is elliptical in cross section and appears externally to be held to the blade only by a tight undecorated ferrule. However, an X-ray reveals a nail-like tang extending into a central channel for half the length of the handle. The perfectly flat blade was designed to cut and serve brick or molded ice cream, whereas so-called ice cream knives, with some degree of dishing, were intended for serving bulk ice cream.

Gorham’s records substantiate a flurry of ivory-handled flatware production beginning in 1890 and involving a variety of piece types. These included, for example, the berry spoon (no. 505) shown on the right in Figure 2, alongside the berry spoon in Whiting’s Ivory. The two are clearly related in style, suggesting that one company copied the concept from the other, and, indeed, in the 1890s the two firms were fiercely competitive. (Gorham purchased Whiting in 1905 but the latter operated independently until 1924.13) However, it is impossible to determine for sure which was made first. Gorham introduced the number 505berry spoon in 1890; and the patent application for Ivory, designed by Charles Osborne (1847–1920), was filed on December 26 of that year, so it too may have been made as early as 1890.14

In 1890 Gorham also introduced six bonbon “scoops” (Gorham’s term, although the slightly dished pieces look more like bonbon spoons or almond shakers) numbered 510, 515, 520,525, 530, 535. Each had a small uniquely shaped gilt bowl entirely occupied by a different elaborate hand-pierced rococo design and a differently shaped carved ivory handle pinned to a tubular extension from the bowl (see Fig. 7).

In 1892 came two fish sets, numbers 606(Fig. 1) and 607(Fig. 10), each comprised of a matching knife and fork. Both are ornamented with extraordinary hand-piercing, and on both sets the fanciful ivory handles are carved in mirror image. On 606 the handlesare pinned to a conical extension of the functional ends formed by the fusion of a small second sheet of silver on the back (see Fig. 9). On 607the handles are pinned to a die-stamped ferrule that connects to a tubular stem and stepped boss, the latter soldered to the topside of the functional end (Fig. 10a) in a manner similar to the handle-blade junction on many British fish or cake trowels (as serving knives in trowel shapes are known).15 Also in 1892 Gorham produced a splendid berry spoon with an ivory handle (no. 615), its most unusual feature being the join between the handle and bowl (Figs. 11, 11a): the handle is pinned to a stem boss in the form of a stylized dolphin (a variation of the stylized fish bosses seen on some English fish trowels),16 and the boss is soldered to the underside of the bowl. We have not seen this type of dolphin stem boss on any other American flatware; nor have we seen any type of boss attached to the underside of any other flatware piece of American manufacture.

In 1892 too Gorham launched another series of all-ivory salad spoon and fork sets (nos. 674–679). The 679set is illustrated in Figure 13 (left). Like the number 12 salad setillustrated in Figure 4, each component is constructed in two pieces, but here they are pinned to a larger and fancier parcel-gilt ferrule. The carving of the mirror-image handles and the functional ends is also more ornate. Other sets in this series were of similar construction, but some had even more fancifully carved openwork handles. Our illustrated set was made in 1893, as indicated by its stamped date symbol for that year.17

Hollow-handled table knives were not offered in many nineteenth-century full-line silver flatware patterns, and so knives with ivory, bone, or mother-of-pearl handles not matching the rest of the flatware service were used. Gorham was still producing ivory-handled table knives (see Fig. 12), medium knives, dessert knives, and fruit knives as late as 1894. An X-ray of our illustrated example reveals a narrow pointed tang extending into a central channel for 40 percent of the length of the handle; to assure that the join does not slip, a narrow metal band looped through the tip of the tang and twisted continues for another 40 percent of the handle length (Fig. 12a).

The chafing dish had a resurgence in the United States in the last few years of the nineteenth century.18 Chafing-dish suppers became fashionable, and young women took classes to learn how to prepare such dishes as lobster and mushrooms, sweetbreads and green peas, potatoes with cream, salmon and chicken à la reine, and frog’s legs with cream.19 Gorham published a small book of chafing-dish recipes, Good Things from a Chafing Dish (1890) by Thomas J. Murrey, which included terrapin à la Maryland and green turtle steak, that it gave away on request (a copy is in the Gorham archives). The company also sponsored a cookbook for sale, One Hundred Recipes for the Chafing Dish by H. M. Kinsley, illustrated with engravings of its chafing dishes and chafing implements.20 Gorham made chafing dishes in sterling with ivory handles, in silver and bronze or bronze and copper with ivory handles, and in silverplate with ebony handles. And there were chafing-dish spoons and forks in either sterling or silverplate with ivory or ebony handles. A sterling chafing-dish fork (no. 810) and spoon (no. H810) with pinned matching ivory handles is illustrated in Figure 13 (right).21 For these implements there was good reason besides aesthetic considerations to have heat-resistant nonmetallic handles: all-metal handles would get too hot to touch if left in the heated chafing dish. Gorham also produced another sterling chafing-dish implement—a skimmer—which has a machine-pierced, slightly dished round “blade” and a fragile narrow ivory handle pinned into a tubular silver stem (Fig. 13, center).

The source for Gorham’s hand-carved ivory is unknown. It is tempting to speculate that it came from nearby Ivoryton in the Connecticut River valley, an area famous for its machine-made ivory wares such as piano keys and billiard balls.22 However, there is no confirmation that hand-carved products came from this source. Most items made from elephant ivory were relatively expensive, but their cost in terms of animal and human misery was much higher, a fact of which most nineteenth-century consumers were probably unaware. The number of elephants dying from natural causes was grossly insufficient to meet the huge demand for ivory, so hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. In the nineteenth century few Asian elephants were hunted because their tusks were small and their ivory was brittle and tended to yellow with age. Tusks of the African elephant were large, but those from West Africa were hard and difficult to carve. The source of choice was the East African elephant because its softer tusks were easier to carve and polish.23

As the elephant population dwindled near the coast, it became necessary to penetrate deeper and deeper into East Africa. For the long trek to bring the heavy tusks back to port, it was not practical to use beasts of burden because of their marked susceptibility to nagana (the animal equivalent of African sleeping sickness), which was endemic in the area;24 human porters were used instead, most of them slaves. Some of the slaves that made it to the coast were then put to work in agricultural pursuits, such as the growing of cloves on Zanzibar, but most were boarded on ships and sold in the United States and elsewhere.25

Of course, the percentage of total ivory consumption represented by ivory or ivory-handled flatware was small as compared to piano keys, billiard balls, and the like, and ivory-handled flatware went out of fashionsoon after the turn of the nineteenth century.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Samuel J. Hough in the preparation of this article. Collectors with other examples of Gorham’s nineteenth-century ivory or ivory-handled flatware are invited to communicate with any of the authors (e-mail addresses given on the next page). Additional illustrations of Gorham nineteenth-century ivory-handled flatware can be found online under the title of this article at
www.fabulousflatware.com.

1 W. E.Burghardt Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part which Africa Has Played in World History (Viking Press, New York, 1947), p. 69.
2 British Cutlery: An Illustrated History of Its Design, Evolution and Use, ed. Peter Brown (Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2001), p. 87. Numerous examples of ivory-handled flatware from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries are illustrated in this work.
3 William P. Hood Jr., John R. Olson, and Charles S. Curb, “Whiting’s Ivory Flatware,” Silver Magazine, vol.33 (January–February 2001), pp. 22–27; and William P. Hood Jr., Richard A. Kurtzman, John R. Olson, and Charles S. Curb, “Whiting’s Ivory Flatware Revisited,” ibid., vol.38 (January–February 2006), pp. 26–34.
4 William P. Hood Jr., with Roslyn Berlin and Edward Wawrynek, Tiffany Silver Flatware, 1845–1905: When Dining Was an Art (Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000), p. 255.
5 The Gorham Company archives are in Special Collections, John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Information extracted from the archives is reproduced in this article with permission of the Hay Library.
6 Charles H. Carpenter Jr., Gorham Silver, rev. ed. (Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1997), p. 73.
7 See D. Albert Soeffing, Silver Medallion Flatware (New Books, New York, 1988), pp. 50–51, 100–101.
8 Gorham’s model numbers were not necessarily chronological or sequential. Nor were they exclusive, and so might be reused for totally unrelated items.
9 Angelo is a silver-handledpattern that was introduced in April 1874 (flatware cost book 2, pp. 37–40, 57, Gorham archives).
10 Related friezelike decoration was used on Gorham’s silver-handled number 205sugar sifter and nut/berry spoon, introduced c. 1880–1884 (ibid., p. 73). For photographs see http://www.smpub.com/ubb/
Forum13/HTML/594.html (accessed January 7, 2008). Five other pieces shared the 205 model number (cake knife, ice cream knife, pie knife, punch ladle, and paper cutter), and they probably had similar decoration (we have not seen examples).
11 Flatware cost book 2, p. 29. Cost book entries itemize production costs, and these 1878 entries reflect different production costs at each of the new dates.
12 For English examples of such fish slices, see Benton Seymour Rabinovitch, Antique Silver Servers for the Dining Table (Joslin Hall Publishing, Concord, Mass., 1991), pp. 156–165.
13 Gorham acquired Whiting in 1905, moved it from New York to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1912, and closed the Bridgeport facility in 1924; Samuel J. Hough (who originally inventoried the Gorham archives) to William P. Hood Jr., e-mail, February 27, 2008.
14 The patent was granted on March 24, 1891 (design no. 20,636). Interestingly, the application describes and illustrates the functional end and handle base of only one piece—called in the text a “salad spoon,” although the design drawing for it (in one of the authors’ collection) is labeled a “berry spoon” (and the salad spoon has a completely different bowl). There is not even a hint in the application that the handle will be of ivory.
15 For numerous examples of British fish or cake trowels with bosses, see Rabinovitch, Antique Silver Servers for the Dining Table, chap. 3.
16 Ibid., p. 53, Fig. 20; p. 55, Fig. 26; p. 59, Fig. 28.
17 For Gorham’s datemarks, see Carpenter, Gorham Silver, pp. 230–231. Gorham stamped date letters or symbols routinely on silver hollowware, occasionally on not full-line flatware, and almost never on full-line flatware.
18 “Chafing Dish Cookery,” in Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999), pp. 154–l55.
19 “Students of the Chafing Dish. Brooklyn Women Learn How to Serve Delicious Meals,” New York Times, June 10, 1894.
20 H. M. Kinsley, One Hundred Recipes for the Chafing Dish, 2nd ed. (New York, 1894), reprinted with an introduction and suggested recipes by Louis Szathmáry (Creative Cookbooks, Amsterdam, 2001).
21 Gorham embarked on a new numbering system for its patterns and models in 1898. The new series was given the prefix “H.” Some designs were dropped, some added. In the case of 810 it was continued but as H810. The 810 chafing-dish spoon is one of the items illustrated in Kinsley, One Hundred Recipes for the Chafing Dish, p. 125.
22 See Don Malcarne, Edith DeForest, and Robbi Storms, Deep River and Ivoryton (Arcadia, Charleston, S. C., 2002).
23 Derek Wilson and Peter Ayerst, White Gold: The Story of African Ivory (Taplinger, New York, 1976), p. 19.
24 Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices, and Ivory in Zanzibar (James Curry, London, and Ohio University Press, Athens, 1987), p. 104.Nagana and African sleeping sickness are caused by trypanosomes (animal parasites, specifically protozoa of the genus Trypanosoma) transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly. It so happens that man is less susceptible to the disease than are cattle, horses, and camels.
25 For in-depth discussions of the interconnection between the ivory trade and the slave trade, see Edward A. Alpers, Ivory and Slaves: Changing Pattern of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975); and Wilson and Ayerst, White Gold.

WILLIAM P. HOOD JR. is a retired cardiologist and former university professor (Bhood2000@aol.com).

DALE E. BENNETT is a retired pathologist and former medical school professor (Drdaleb@aol.com).

RICHARD A. KURTZMAN is an antiques dealer (rak11@comcast.net).