June 03, 2020 3 min read

Acid-etched decoration on silver became popular around 1880 and did not go out of fashion until well into the 20th century. This decoration was popular sometimes as a fancy monogram or inscription, sometimes as all-over decoration. It is in this decoration that we most commonly see the work of female employees at Gorham today. Some of these are important commissioned pieces; some are souvenir spoons with acid-etched bowls.

A woman decorating a 2020 model vase with floral decoration.  Photo courtesy Porvidence Public Library
A woman decorating a 2020 model vase with floral decoration.  Photo courtesy Providence Public Library.

The Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, RI, employed women in several departments and took pride in their achievements, publishing a book Women's Work at The Gorham Manufacturing Company about 1892. In this book, one can find a description of many of the jobs women did, including decorating acid-etched silver - work similar to painting.  (See an example of the 2020 model vase seen above here.)

One of the more exciting aspects of the images in the book is that each of the workbenches includes a bouquet of fresh flowers. Female employees, like their male counterparts, were allowed a modicum of design independence, sometimes creating "original designs." The best painters used "delicate and careful work" along with "good judgment." These individual floral displays provided design inspiration to these female artists.

Decorating spoons at Gorham.  Photo courtesy Porvidence Public Library
Decorating spoons at Gorham.  Photo courtesy Providence Public Library.

In the book, the authors describe the process of decorating with acid-etching.  Women do the decorating, but not the work of bathing the pieces in the electro-acid process. This work is very similar to the creation of deposit work on pottery and glass and related to the creation of entire electroformed pieces. The authors' description is better than one we could write, so we quote them:

The process which invariably interests and excites the curiosity of visitors is that technically known as Etching.  In the work women undoubtedly succeed best when they possess some knowledge of drawing and painting, and who acquire considerable artistic skill by constant practice.  A piece of silver to be etched has the design lightly drawn upon it.  It may be a scene, portrait or inscription either quite original with the designer, or copied from a picture.  Then with regular artists brushes, a heavy “resist” varnish that is non-conductive of electricity, is painted upon the design, as shown best in Plates I. and I I I.  Delicate and careful work is necessary - the outline must be sharp, and the symmetry of design must not be marred by blurs or coarse strokes.  Good judgment, too, must decide the consistency of the varnish and how heavily to be applied.

The article is then immersed in an acid bath, and subjected the action of electricity, which eats away the surface portions not protected by the varnish.  The varnish is then removed, and the design appears more or less in relief, as the process has been carried on a longer or shorter time.  Should it be desired to produce the same effect in intaglio, it is only needed to cover the whole cup, except engraving, with protective, and removal of silver is made from the design so as to leave it as deeply engraved as may be called for.  In many instances the design will require three or four etchings to attain different depths or reliefs.  The process must then be repeated again and again, each successive time protecting by the varnish the portion last etched.

In this way, most wonderful results are attained. Effects of foreground, middle distance, and background, are readily produced, and vistas of perspective, artistic and perfect, adorn the curving surface of the article.

During this period, the use of electricity in silversmithing was new and experimental. In his diaries, Charles Grosjean discusses how Tiffany & Co. experimented with different strengths of current to achieve different results. Both Gorham and Tiffany experiment with electroforming pieces as well. At the same time, Tiffany developed a photographic method to create acid-etched decoration, whereas Gorham developed a manual system.

Decorated by women at Gorham.  Photo courtesy Providence Public Library.
Decorated by women at Gorham.  Photo courtesy Providence Public Library.

As is evident in Gorham's description, the amount of work involved in the process can be extensive. At Gorham, these pieces are the work of many hands - some female - and underappreciated today. In these pieces, we can see the work of pioneering female artists working during a time of major social changes.