The Gorham Manufacturing Company.– The vantage ground of art is as wide as the field of thought. Its theory or practice enters into all the complications of life, and obedience to, or even regard for, its laws shows the possession, not only of a higher education, but also of the highest appreciation of all that comprises man's enjoyment and well-being.
Art is aristocratic, but not exclusive. It stands forth in the sculptor's model, and in the painter's masterpiece, and, also, in the handiwork of the artisan, whether he fashion drain-pipe or royal jewel. When these plantations were new the highest in art – in nature – was present to cheer and lead up. As time went on, and something more than a support of existence was the product of labor, cunning workmen began to copy what was so lavishly strewn around them. Gothic art, rude as it was, began to grow ; the forest arch entered into the construction of buildings and the bough's line of beauty appeared on door-posts and lintels, and the leaf and the fruit had representation on table ware of unpolished clay.
As the colony increased and its wealth mounted up, there was a reaching out for something beyond itself. The spirit of the times was in advance of the possibilities of the colonists. They did not long for the flesh-pots of Old England, but when surplus silver began to accumulate, the treasures of the mother country found their way thither. Very paltry in value those relics may have been, but their possession indicated wealth, as wealth was then regarded, and what is more important, their acquisition signified the appreciation of qualities not included in intrinsic value or usefulness. At first the oaken settle, the "pewter" ware, and the wooden trenches were sufficient. Later, better things were made at home, and in the welcome ships came silver spoons, brass warming-pans, sugar bowls, silver candlesticks, curiously wrought salt-cellars, and pieces of furniture of carved mahogany. These were so highly prized that they were included in inventories of property, and this estimation in good part was based upon the fact that they were, for that time, indeed, for all time, products of art, – that they possessed a quality which attracted, lifted up, made better, educated.
It may be claimed that this has little relation to what is technically recognized as art, but if this desire for the beautiful does not show the presence of art, it at least indicates the possession of the art idea, which is art's builder. The artificers of any time are always in advance of the idea, and lead it on and up to a standard more perfect. This has been going on for two hundred and fifty years on our own soil, and the result is to-day that we may boast of the highest attainment in art, and of the highest type of purveyors to the art idea, or to art itself. Thus the Gorham Manufacturing Company stands to-day, in its relation to the people, where the ambitious, though comparatively rude artificer stood in the earlier days of the commonwealth – in the position of educator and leader to greater refinement and more exact culture in the arts. Its growth and the fame of its productions have been a source of pride at home and of wide commendation abroad. Its rise is due to the energy and care in building, characteristic of the founders, and their gifts of mind, or their adaptability to the mastering of the mechanic arts which they sought to control. One man may make a spoon, and another man may make a spoon. Both are spoons in one sense, but they are wholly at variance except in name, and while one is considered a valuable acquisition, independent of its coin value, the other is only bullion. It is simply a matter of taste, – that indefinable, yet essential quality, that ministers to the senses, – educated and refined. It may be said, in truth, that the Gorham Manufacturing Company owes a good share of its popularity to the exercise, on the part of its builders, of taste in the aesthetic sense, – of that nicety of discrimination not introduced into, but born with, the soul.
Another acknowledged factor, possibly the foundation of all, is the company's library. It is varied and extensive, abounding in works of art pertaining to sculpture, painting, architecture, and kindred subjects. The object of the designer who studies is not to copy. Originality,– another factor,– must be the outcome at any cost, and as he looks upon the engraving, or reads its history, he catches the spirit and enthusiasm of its maker, and copies not what the artist or sculptor has painted or chiseled, but that which, unexpressed, remained in his mind. Taking up the ideas unexpressed, which must have been present to produce what is before the designer, he, the designer, gives them expression in another and different channel.
The operations of the company are not confined to the manufacture of gold and silver ware, but has extended to include work in other metals, the memorial in bronze to Senator Anthony being a late production.
Jabez Gorham, the founder, was born in Providence, Feb. 18, 1792. He served an apprenticeship of seven years, to a jeweler, and on reaching his majority entered into partnership with Christopher Burr, William Hadmen, George G. Clark, and Henry G. Mumford. About five years afterwards these business relations terminated, and Mr. Gorham continued the business alone, and at the place occupied by the firm, on the corner of North Main and Steeple streets.
Within a year or two he removed to Steeple Street, to a smaller building, the nucleus around which gathered the various structures constituting the present manufactory. The jewelry business was carried on here until 1831, when silver spoons became a specialty. Until 1840, the product was spoons, chiefly, although thimbles, combs, and occasionally napkin rings and forks were made. The firm at this time was Gorham & Webster, and later it became Gorham, Webster & Price. An old print shows the little shop with these signs upon it: "Gorham, Webster & Price. Silver Spoons and Jewelry," and " Silver Thimble Manufactory." At this time the American House, afterwards known as the Earle House, occupied the southwest corner of North Main and Steeple streets. At the age of fifty, Jabez Gorham retired from business and was succeeded by his son, John Gorham. The father died on March 24, 1869.
John Gorham, born in Providence on Nov. 18, 1820, became first a partner in the business on the retirement of Mr. Webster, and, in 1847, the sole proprietor. In the meanwhile the industry had taken great strides in advance, not only in the extent of manufacture and in merit of product, but also in methods and facilities employed. In 1850 the manufacture of hollow ware was begun, and every variety of silverware for use or ornament. In February, this year, Gorham Thurber, cousin of John Gorham, became a partner, and the firm was known as Gorham & Thurber. Between this time and 1852, Lewis Dexter was admitted to partnership, and the firm name was changed to Gorham & Company.
In the meantime, Mr. Gorham went to Europe and visited the establishments of the chief silversmiths, and in a manufactory in London he worked three weeks by the side of a moulder skilled in his art, that he might acquire knowledge of the details of fine moulding. He also secured several artisans, adepts in their specialties, for service in the home manufactory. Mr. Gorham returned in 1852, and the result of his study and labor abroad was apparent at once. Its expansion and prosperity continued up to the beginning of the war of the Rebellion, at which time two hundred persons were employed. Mr. Dexter retired from the firm in 1861.
In May, 1863, the Gorham Manufacturing Company was incorporated. John Gorham was elected president; Gorham Thurber, treasurer; and J. F. P. Lawton, secretary. The capital was $300,000, and in May, 1872, was increased to $600,000, the limit being twice the amount. The capital at the present time, 1886, is $1,000,000, with a surplus.
In 1872 the number of persons employed was 450, and the manufactory had been increased to occupy all the area included between North Main, Steeple, Canal, and Friend streets, except a small building on the corner of North Main and Friend streets. In January, 1878, Mr. Gorham resigned the office of president, and was succeeded by William H. Crins, the other officers mentioned continuing to serve to the present time. George Wilkinson is superintendent of the works, and Edward Holbrook is the New York agent of the company. The number of employes at the present time is over seven hundred and fifty.
The manufactory is one of the wonders of the country if not of the world. It is a labyrinth of work-shops, forges, and furnaces. When its workmen and its countless appliances are in the fulltide of the day's work, the whole presents a picture,– a history of extraordinary interest. The equipment of the works is, in the highest sense, complete. Every labor-saving mechanical device known is employed, and the results of the latest researches, and discoveries in arts and methods akin, are kept pace with and introduced as soon as proved practicable. Steam is the great agent. Innumerable odd-shaped, odd-moving machines contribute to the general result–" machines for rolling, shearing, milling, punching, shaping, and embossing; ponderous dye-stamping machines, lathes, drills, and planing machines for wood and metal; foundries for casting iron, brass, silver, gold, and other metals; a blacksmith's shop; large rooms devoted to melting and refining furnaces, electro-plating and gilding, photographs, and metal spinning; rooms for artists, draughtsmen, engravers, chasers, embossers, die-cutters and die-hardeners, tool-makers, weighers, and packers, and case-makers in wood, morocco, and velvet." About twenty different trades are carried on, and to each boys are regularly apprenticed. Through all the mechanical complications and the various processes of manufacture the object in progress passes, as though regulated by clock work, so related, each to each, as to form a harmonious whole – a single machine, as it were, into which enters the raw material and out of which comes the perfected product.
Source: The Providence Plantations for Two Hundred and Fifty Years - Welcome Arnold Green - 1886