October 23, 2017

Michael Gibney, John Gorham and steam power in America -

Some know that Michael Gibney was the first American silversmith to register a design patent for a flatware pattern, design patent number 26.  The name of this pattern today is unknown.  His second patent for a pattern, number 59, was called 'Tuscan'.

Gibney sold most of his silver through retailers and jewelers of the period, so much of his silver is only marked with a 'Patent 18XX' mark.

Charles Carpenter, in Gorham Silver, notes that John Gorham and Michael Gibney had an unsatisfactory relationship.  However, he does not go into the interesting details.  

John Gorham, in his history of the Gorham Manufacturing Company in the Gorham Archives, talks about his efforts to expand the business into flatware beyond spoon work.

Gorham says their first effort to make 'ornamented' spoon and fork work was in the 'English Threaded' (fiddle thread) and 'Prince Albert' patterns in partnership with Gibney.  The forks and spoons were hammered out in Providence, sent to Gibney in New York to have the patterns applied - 'he passed them through his rolls' - and then returned.  

Gorham's notes in his manuscript say the flatware, when returned 'in very rough condition...required more labor to finish them than the entire making with our own rolls and tools when purchased.'  John Gorham was so unsatisfied with Gibney's work that he bought his own rolling presses to do the work in house! 

1847 was an important year for Gorham - he mentions that sales had increased to about $25,000.00 per year and employment had reached about '25 hands'. There is the expansion into 'ornamented' flatware and the failed relationship with Gibney. 

Most importantly he notes:

for a year or more...my thoughts had been particularly turning upon the disadvantage under which we were working in trying to make silver ware with jewelers tools and inadequate power of one horse.

Yes, they had one horse in the basement powering the entire 'factory' with belts, pulleys and shafts running through the building at 12 Steeple Street.  

I've worked with horses and I can think of many more disadvantages to having a horse in the basement than just inadequate power!  That John Gorham only complains about power tells us just how much times have changed.

John Gorham's expansionist vision was being frustrated at every turn.  His relationship with Gibney was particularly unprofitable.  Over the next five years, Gorham would build a new four story factory and import a steam engine from England to power it.

It is always fun to speculate about timelines that never happen. If Gorham and Gibney had had a good profitable relationship, would Gorham have never felt the need for steam power? Would Gorham have never become the company it did or would John Gorham's drive have created something similar anyway?


Subscribe to our Newsletter