The Japanesque silver of the Whiting Manufacturing Company

Abigail Nova

Abigail Nova Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2011 |

The 1870s and 1880s were some of the most innovative and exciting decades in the history of the American silver industry. Postwar prosperity, the discovery of silver in the American West, and innovations in manufacturing created an ideal environment for the design and fashioning of original objects. Among the most prolific and successful silver companies in the period was the Whiting Manufacturing Company, best known today for the beautifully designed and executed Japanese-inspired silver it made between 1874 and 1890. While Tiffany and Company and the Gorham Manufacturing Company were larger, more established manufacturers, Whiting’s designers were particularly original in appropriating Japanese and naturalistic motifs drawn from Japanese prints, pottery, metalwork, and textiles-as well as from Euro­pean print sources.

While the firm is widely recognized as a major American silver manu­facturer, remarkably little is known about its designers, except for its founding partner and first chief designer, William Dean Whiting (1815-1891), who retired in 1880. My research has established that Edwin Davis French, a noted bookplate designer, was an important Whiting designer for many years,1 and I have uncovered evidence that Charles Osborne, a well-known designer for Tiffany, was also designing for Whiting in the 1880s. In addition, and of particular interest to collectors, my research revealed a method for dating Whiting silver made between 1880 and 1894.

William Dean Whiting was a silversmith who began his career as an apprentice to his uncle John Tifft at the Attleboro, Massachusetts, jewelry-manufacturing firm Draper and Tifft. With his uncle’s financial back­ing, he and his cousin Albert Crandall Tifft formed Tifft and Whiting in 1840, which produced such items as gold hearts, crosses, and rings. By the 1850s they employed 150 workers and had ex­panded production to include sterling silver goods such as cups, flatware, and combs.2 In need of a wholesale sales presence, Whiting established an office in New York, where he appears in the 1853-1854 city directories as a jeweler. The firm underwent several subsequent expansions3 but was liquidated in 1866 due to debts. Whiting and several partners then founded the Whit­ing Manufacturing Company later that year.4 By the early 1870s the firm had a steam-powered, belt-driven factory in Attleboro employing highly specialized workers, such as die makers, turners, chasers, and engravers.5 This early adop­tion of a factory model allowed for increased production, with the result that by 1893 Whiting was the third largest silver-manufacturing firm in the United States.6

After a fire destroyed the Attleboro factory in September 1875, the firm moved to New York City, combining its manufacturing operations and of­fices into one building at 692-694 Broadway at Fourth Street.7 Of the approximately two hundred employees in Attleboro, some forty to eighty (forty families) relocated with the firm.8

One of these was Edwin French, a designer and head of the engraving department at Whiting from 1869 to 1894.9 After French retired in 1894, he focused on designing and engraving bookplates (see Figs. 4, 6). Indeed, his success as a bookplate engraver at the end of his career (he designed more than 350 between 1894 and 1906), has largely eclipsed his long and successful career at Whiting. While no specific pieces of silver have previously been attributed to him, there is a striking relation­ship between his bookplate designs and motifs found on Whiting silver. The vase in Figure 3, for example, can be attributed to him because the lilies on it are remarkably similar to those in a bookplate of about 1893 (Fig. 4). The match safe in Figure 5 can likewise be attributed to French based on the similarity of the clover to those on the bookplate in Figure 6.

Another previously under-recognized Whiting designer is Charles Osborne, best known for his inventive designs for Tiffany and Company, but who began his career at Whiting in 1871. It has been widely assumed that after he left Whiting in 1878 Osborne worked exclusively for Tiffany, but my research revealed that he continued to design for Whiting in 1882 and 1883 and quite possibly afterwards. A number of Whiting objects from the early 1880s have obvious Osborne character­istics, notably pearling and seaweed motifs (see Fig. 9).10 One of his most accomplished designs for the firm in this period was the Goelet Schoo­ner Prize (Fig. 7), dating from 1883, several years after he supposedly left the firm.11 Osborne’s papers indicate that he was commissioned to make a number of medals unconnected with Tiffany, supporting the credibility of his designing for Whiting while employed by Tiffany.12

After the move to New York, Whiting tapped into the developing taste for Japanese-inspired motifs among urban Americans, who, increasingly cut off from the natural world, were mesmerized by the vision of nature found in Japanese art and design and clamored for objects that evoked it. The sources for Whiting’s Japanese-inspired designs were complex and diverse. In addition to Japanese art and objects, designers used European prints, photographs, and sketches of fruit and ferns, and scientific illustrations of fish and seaweed as the basis for their designs.13 They had ample opportunity to see Japanese works firsthand in New York: Tiffany retailed Asian deco­rative objects as early as 1837; John La Farge exhib­ited Japanese prints in the 1860s; there were two dozen Japanese import firms in New York City (well-known import house A. A. Vantine was not far from Whiting’s design studio).

Illustrated art periodicals such as Decorator and Furnisher, Art Amateur, Appleton’s Art Journal, and Art Interchange all promoted Japanese art, as did American magazines with wider circula­tions, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Scribner’s Month­ly, and the Atlantic Monthly. Whiting had a substantial design library (part of which survives at the Rhode Island School of Design Special Collections Library) that included George Aud­sley’s 1883 four-volume Ornamental Arts of Japan. Interestingly, the illustration of Japanese knife handles ornamented with insects, flowers, and fish (Fig. 10) is missing from its copy, which may indicate it was removed to be used in the design studio-a common practice.

The most original of Whiting’s designs were water pitchers and bowls encrusted with seashells

Whiting’s Japanese-inspired silver did more than just appropriate a Far Eastern design vocabulary. At its best, this silver absorbed the essence of the Japanese aesthetic in intimate, harmonious, and original decorative works that were distinctly American and responded to the American fascination with nature. The most original-and commercially successful, judging by the large numbers that survive-of Whiting’s designs were the water pitchers and bowls encrusted with seashells made between 1880 and 1890 (see Figs. 8, 11, 12). The forms are not Japanese and the seashells were from American beaches. However, the objects are clearly informed by a distinctly Japanese-inspired sense of the natural world.

Notably, while the two pitchers in Figures 11 and 12 are similar, they are not identical, reflecting the fact that two different chasers executed the decoration. While it is likely that William Dean Whiting both designed and chased work, it is unlikely that later designers at Whiting, and other large industrialized firms, actually produced or ornamented the objects they designed. Instead, highly specialized chasers were responsible for the deco­ration. Mostly unidentified today, they are perhaps the most important and most overlooked members of the nineteenth-century silver industry. My research uncovered the names of five chasers who worked for Whiting in the 1870s and 1880s.14 One of these, Lewis W. Goerck, was the foreman of the chasing department from 1871 until his death in 188815 and was responsible for the vase in Figure 3, which he signed, making it one of the very few pieces that have thus far been tied to a specific chaser.

In sum, as evident in the works illustrated here, from the 1870s into the 1890s Whiting’s talented designers and chasers created some of the period’s most alluring pieces of American silver. They transformed such utilitarian forms as pitchers, bowls, flatware, and cof­feepots into works of art that captured the naturalism of Japanese design in a totally American way.

Dating Whiting Silver

In my archival research at Brown University’s John Hay Library, I found that, beginning about 1880, every piece of hollowware Whiting produced was stamped with a sequential number, essentially a design number, allowing the designs and objects to be systematically tracked.16 While the numbering probably began around 1880, the surviving ledgers begin in 1883 at number 1000 and end in 1894 with number 4740. Each entry is accom­panied by a small ink drawing of the form and decoration, which allowed me to match and date many Whiting objects-and will help collectors date their pieces more precisely. However, questions still remain because I dis­covered that when a design was manufactured with different decora­tive schemes, the objects were marked with a number-letter combination-with the letters running sequentially A through Z, each apparently indicat­ing an alternative ornamental scheme. For example, the water pitchers in Figures 11 and 12 are both stamped “1225 Y,” with the Y indicating that the decoration was one of at least twenty-five schemes available on such pitchers, but the date of each scheme has not been determined.

The dates and accompanying production number are as follows.


1 The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 14 (James T. White, New York, 1910), p. 44. 2 Orra L. Stone, History of Massachusetts Industries: Their Inception, Growth and Success (S. J. Clarke Publishing, Boston, 1930), p. 279; George Ran­dall, “Rehoboth and Attleboro,” New England Magazine, vol. 11 (October 1894), pp. 235-241. 3 The firm became Whiting and Gooding (1855-1858), then Whiting, Fessenden and Cow­an (1858-1859), and Whiting, Cowen and Bowen (1864-1866). 4 Massachusetts, vol. 317, p. 300, subpage M, vol. 325, pp. 1026, 1086, R. G. Dun and Company Collection, Baker Li­brary Historical Collections, Harvard Business School, Bos­ton. 5 “Our Industries, The Whiting Manufacturing Com­pany,” Attleboro Chronicle, September 20, 1873. 6 Attleboro Chronicle, October 25, 1873; ibid, November 1, 1873. M. Ca­mille Krantz, International Exposition of Chicago, 1893 (Paris, 1894), cited in Charles Venable, Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas Museum of Art and H. N. Abrams, New York, 1995), p. 153. 7 From 1876 to 1904 the factory was at 692-694 Broadway. A wholesale showroom was located at 181 Broadway, 1865-1876; 31 UnionSquare, 1886-1893; and at 896 Broadway (18th Street), 1893-1910. Whiting operated independently until 1905, when, partially as a result of labor problems across the silver industry, it joined Gorham’s Silver­smiths Stock Company. Although owned by Gorham, Whit­ing maintained a factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 1910 to 1924, when Gorham moved its operations to Provi­dence. Gorham stopped using the Whiting trademark in 1926. See Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review, March 6, 1887, p. 2272; Metropolitan Museum of Art American Wing Silver Manufacturer Files; and Trow’s New York City directory, 1859-1924. 8 “A Big Fire,” Attleboro Chronicle, September 25, 1875. 9 Between 1881 and 1883, French returned to Attleboro and designed for the F. M. Whiting and Company (a firm started by William Whiting and his son after Whiting retired from Whiting Manufacturing Company). 10 For a more through discussion of Charles Osborne and his designs for Tiffany see John Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001), p. 154. 11 “The Goelet Schooner Yacht Prize,” Art Amateur, April 8, 1883, p. 99. 12 Osborne’s free­lance status at Tiffany is supported by a reference in a January 23, 1888, letter from Osborne to the management at Whiting, which notes that Whiting will transfer shares of its stock to Osborne (as part of his new employment contract with the firm) provided that Osborne can “secure his release from a cer­tain verbal understanding with Tiffany & Co.” Nos. 91×23.44, 91×23.40, 91×23.47, Osborne Papers, Joseph Downs Collec­tion, Winterthur Library. 13 While researching a Japanesque Tiffany and Company vase in the Metropolitan Museum I identified the source of its iconography as “Le Pêcheur Natu­raliste,” Magasin Pittoresque, January 1870, p. 340. 14 Freder­ick E. Bodman, John Fearn, Adolph Brunn, and Francis A. Gunner worked as chasers for Whiting. “The Cause of the Lock-Out,” New York Times, June 3, 1887; First Annual Report of the Board of Mediation and Arbitration of the State of New York (New York, 1888), pp. 561-673. 15 “Obituary,” New York Times, May 26, 1888. 16 I am grateful to Holly Snyder for her kind guidance in the use of the Whiting archival material in the John Hay Library at Brown University.


ABIGAIL NOVA, a design historian living in New York, was the 2010/2011 Tiffany and Company Foundation Curatorial Intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.