Gorham's 'white gold' flatware

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.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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