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.