Gorham 'Sample' Sterling Silver Massive Waiter, designed and executed for the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, 1893
Designed and executed expressly for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, this exceptional waiter, or tray, features some of the finest chasing we have ever seen.
Bold female masks, most likely depicting Columbia, form the four corners. They are similar to both the Statue of Liberty and the sculptural centerpiece of the fair, the Statue of the Republic. Columbia, the female representation of the United States, is the feminine image of Christopher Columbus, whom the World's Columbian Exposition celebrated.
Hand chased dolphins issuing from shells create the handles. These wonderful dolphins, based on renaissance models, are incorporated into the design with the heads rising from the surface and foliate decoration flowing from their faces.
A mirror-like shaped interior enriches the dramatic decoration of the undulating border with scrolling edge. Fruits and flowers are set in stunning decoration of flowing foliage and ribbons. All this is beautifully chased on a shimmering hammered background that is a clear precursor to Gorham's Martelé line of silver begun only a few years later.
This tray was most likely designed by William Christmas Codman, Gorham's chief designer at the time. Also made for the Columbian Exposition, a stand for a ewer designed by Codman with very similar decoration is pictured in Gorham Silver by Charles Carpenter (pl. 215).
In order to fathom what it actually took to create such a masterpiece, one can look at the Gorham archives records. According to a report furnished by Samuel Hough, the #4699 Waiter took 125 hours to 'make', or form. Creating the decoration on the border (chasing) took 620 hours – over ten weeks precious time from one of Gorham's most talented chasers when the shop must have been under significant deadline pressure.
In this remarkable recent find in the Gorham Archives, we can see the tray being chased before the 1893 Columbian Exposition. This is not Frederick Jordan or Robert Bain, so the most likely chaser in the photo is David Wilmot, one of Gorham's most important chasers. Gorham Company Archives, John Hay Library, Brown University.
Gorham made a significant investment in this stunning waiter and the other pieces they brought to the fair. The factory cost of the waiter was $1200.00, which would have translated to a retail price between $2,000.00 and $2,400.00. This was a tremendous sum of money at the time – the first automobiles, introduced a few years later, cost only a few hundred dollars.
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.
Gorham's outstanding skill 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), 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)
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, 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.
Exposition pieces are rare and represent the highest level of quality, design and innovation that companies could produce. This beautiful tray is a work of art and a fine achievement by Gorham.
This remarkable waiter measures 30 inches across the handles by 23 inches wide and weighs 214 troy ounces. It is marked 'STERLING', the special order number '4699' and with Gorham's trademark and date code of 1893. It is interesting to note that it is also engraved 'COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION, CHICAGO, 1893'. It is in excellent condition with an unnoticeable monogram removal.
World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.
'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.' The Chicago Tribune, 3 October 1893, starting p. 5.
11. '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.
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