Gorham Gilt Silver and Cut Glass Figural Vase, 1893, made for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago
A stunning and rare example of Gorham's work from 1893, this large vase consists of a hand-blown piece of clear glass hand-engraved and incised with classical bellflower swags, swirling foliate designs, florets, stars, etc. This amazing piece of glass is fitted into a sterling pedestal base with two handles which connect to the circular collar with a beaded rim.
The unusual pedestal base incorporates scroll decoration amongst wavy borders to create a lovely foot. Stunning female masks, most likely representing Columbia, are cast and applied at the sides underneath the handles. Flowing from the back of their hair and connecting each other are three-dimensional classical laurel wreaths realistically cast with leaf and berry motifs. Adding to the striking appearance of the vase is the overall gilding to the sterling silver.
The Gorham vase masks are very similar to both the Statue of Liberty and Statue of the Republic. Exposition pieces are quite rare and representative of the highest level of quality, design and innovation companies produced at the time. Columbia, the female representation of the United States, is actually the feminine of Christopher Columbus, for whom the World's Columbian Exposition was named.
According to a report by Samuel Hough, an independent researcher working with the Gorham Archives, the 'S1040 Vase' costing slip 'indicates that it was completed 13 April, 1893, in time to be included in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago'. Gorham won many awards at the fair, including the award for gilt silver like this vase.
A prevalent theme throughout the fair was beaux-arts classicism. This inspired the classical architecture and the many representations of the Republic including the famous 'Statue of the Republic' statue (aka Golden Lady or Columbia), a towering 65 foot high statue on a 40 foot high base of a gold gilt female figure with outstretched arms holding a globe, an eagle and a lance, her head adorned with a laurel wreath.
In a private conversation, Jane Spillman, curator at the Corning Museum of Glass, said that she believed this glass was made by Hoare. Hoare was an extremely fine Corning, NY, glass firm who was making exhibition glass for both Tiffany and Gorham during the period. It is interesting that while Hoare made glass for both firms, Gorham won the prize for silver mounted cut glass - for pieces such as this.
Gorham's display at the World's Columbian Exposition. Gorham Company Archives, John Hay Library, Brown University.
Gorham's outstanding skill at casting was on display for all to see at the Columbian World's Fair – their life sized statue of Columbus was one of the most talked about pieces of silver at the fair. Made from 30,000 ounces of silver (one full ton)1, it was a technical and artistic triumph. The statue dominated the Gorham display. As the New York Times noted about silver at the Columbian Exposition, '…America unquestionably takes first rank, 'and felt specifically of, 'The Gorham Company as representative of this high development in silversmithing.'(1)
During the 19th century, international expositions, or world's fairs, became the most prestigious marketing avenue for luxury retailers. Companies would invest exceptional resources to create their displays. These expositions became the equivalent of selling to royalty during an earlier era: only the very best would do. The publicity surrounding the fair could make, or break, a firm's reputation.
Many of the objects on show were prohibitively expensive to all except the very wealthiest clients. Companies took significant financial risk making these masterpieces. Gorham's Nautilus Centerpiece made for the Columbian Exposition did not sell until 1921, 28 years later.(2)
The 1893 Columbian World's Fair was truly spectacular. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus finding the new world, an entire city was built on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. It covered 686 acres and included 300 specially constructed buildings.(3)
The Grand Court of Honor at the World's Columbian Fair 1893
Chicago architect Daniel Burnham managed the physical construction and maintenance of the facilities. A committee of leading architects involved with the fair including Burnham, Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt, Louis Sullivan (assisted by a young Frank Lloyd Wright), Frederic Law Olmstead and others chose the theme of classicism to be the signature of the architecture at the fair. Built as a temporary facility, the buildings were constructed in composite materials meant to resemble white marble. The huge park became known as 'The White City.'
During the six months it was open in 1893 there were 27.5 million visitors(4) to the fair, a particularly amazing number in light of the fact that the US census counted 63 million Americans in 1890. Considering that it occurred during a severe economic contraction made it an even greater success.
So successful was the Exposition that it began a massive classical revival at the turn of the century. The most lasting example can be seen today in Washington, D.C. where many federal buildings were built after the fair in the classical style – a permanent 'white city'. (In fact, Burnham worked in Washington, D.C., too: Union Station is his 1903 design. New York's 'Flat Iron Building', generally considered the first 'skyscraper', is also a Burnham design.)
The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building - Gorham's exhibit was at the center of this huge building.
The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, where Gorham's exhibit was center stage, was the largest building constructed to date. Three times the size of St. Peter's in Rome, it covered 31 acres with the roof rising 245 feet with no supporting columns in the center.(5) The central hall could 'comfortably' seat 50,000(6) and 150,000 people crowded in on opening day.(7) Gorham's exhibit, next to Tiffany's, was under the central dome where murals by J. Alden Weir displayed the 'Goldsmith's Art'.(8)
In the gold and silverware category, Gorham dominated the exposition. Winning 30 awards, they earned twice the number of prizes of their nearest competitor, Tiffany & Co. who won 15. Included in Gorham's awards were prizes for gilt silver, silver mounted cut glass and crystal, and 'artistic display of exhibit as a whole.'(9) The Royal Museum in Berlin purchased several objects from Gorham at the fair.(10)
The New York Times and other observers noticed Gorham's achievement at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Gorham designers, directed by William Codman and Antoine Heller, led a group of virtuoso artisans crafting an exhibit that impressed all. The French Government, in their report on the Columbian Exposition, compared Gorham to Tiffany and noted that Gorham, 'is able to produce artistic and decorative work, calling for the highest skilled and careful hand labor.'(11)
By all accounts, Gorham's exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition was a stunning success. Gorham had met the challenge of the international exhibition and it would be only a few years before they were generally acknowledged to be the leading silversmithing firm in the world. This unique vase of cut crystal with sterling mounts would have been a lovely addition to their display.
This beautiful sterling and glass vase is marked underneath with Gorham's trademark, 'STERLING/ S1040' and with the date mark of 1893. It measures 12 inches high by 6.5 inches across the handles and is in excellent antique condition.
'Silver At The World's Fair…', The New York Times, 20 September 1893, p. 5.
Charles L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: a Century of Splendor, (New York: Abrams, 1995), pp. 116-18.
John M. Blades and John Loring, Tiffany at the World's Columbian Exposition (Palm Beach: Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, 2006), p. 14.
Blades & Loring, p. 4
The Columbian Portfolio: Photographs of the World's Fair (Jones Brother Publishing Companies, 1893), unpaginated.
Blades & Loring, p. 14.
Derrick R. Cartwright, 'J Alden Weir's Allegorical figure of 'goldsmith's art' for the dome of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, 1892' in Bulletin – Museums of Art and Archaeology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989-1991), Volume 9, pp. 58-77.
'Silver At The World's Fair…', p. 5.
'Awards At The Fair. Exhibitors In Several Classes Favored With Medals.' in The Chicago Tribune, 3 October 1893, starting p. 5.
International Exposition of Chicago, 1893, Committee 24, Jewelry, Gold & Silverware, Report by the French Ministry of Commerce, as quoted in Charles Carpenter, Gorham Silver (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1982), p. 207.