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Recent scholarship has eschewed the fashion for broad, thematic exhibitions in favor of probing specific makers and more local examinations; the exhibition and publication Cincinnati Silver, 1788–1940 was an example of this trend. Cincinnati produced a treasure trove of decorative arts during the nineteenth century, and the silversmithing trade, established by 1795, was evidence of the city’s prowess. Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Amy Miller Dehan acutely situated Cincinnati’s role in the rising American silver industry of the nineteenth century. Dehan’s exhibition followed ten years of research, which prompted previously unknown makers, production methods, and distribution networks to surface.
The exhibition proposed that the history of the city is intertwined with that of silvermaking; in fact, one silversmith was already at work a year after Cincinnati’s founding in 1788. Before 1850, it was the largest center for silver, jewelry, watch- and clockmaking in the Midwest, and its reputation as a great luxury marketplace was cemented by the late nineteenth century. Cincinnati maintained this status because of its numerous retail centers, trade with American markets in the east and south, and the fortuitous timing of the tariff of 1842 (which placed a thirty-percent tax on imported silver).
On the whole, the exhibition was beautifully installed. There were wonderfully conceived areas incorporating furniture and silver to expand the viewers’ understanding of the social function of silver, which is critical for many contemporary museum visitors. For example, in a large, airy vitrine, Dehan installed a tea and coffee service made by Beggs and Smith atop a locally made 1830s mahogany card table (one that is deeply reminiscent of the high-style Boston cabinetmaking shop of Isaac Vose and Son, but also serves to remind the viewer of Cincinnati’s rich cabinetmaking industry). Presented alongside this case was the Beggs and Smith advertisement from an Ohio business directory, suggesting that the business of how and where one sold wares was important. In fact, there were several wonderful pieces of Cincinnati furniture enhanced with works of silver. Cincinnati’s grand 1860s sideboard by Mitchell and Rammelsberg Furniture Company was covered with a Duhme and Company tea service and several compotes, all of which luxuriated on the rich marble surface. Within the Arts and Crafts section, marvelous Robert Sturm hand-hammered compotes and platters were installed on top of a Cincinnati-made Shop of the Crafters sideboard. An extensive setting of Arts and Crafts silver flatware and tableware was displayed to evoke a dining table, and it was at this installation that I observed the most visitors spending time and discussing the art of dining during previous generations.
Beyond the significant firms highlighted, there were clever interludes, including a wonderful case with a New York stoneware jug with balloon imagery, a teaspoon made by silver merchant Richard Clayton, and a bandbox illustrating his historic balloon voyage in which he departed Cincinnati on April 8, 1935, and landed 350 miles away 9 hours later in Monroe County, Virginia. That Clayton was also a silversmith adds intrigue to his unconventional story. Further, an advertisement (reproduced alongside the three objects) illustrates one of the many balloon voyages Clayton attempted, inextricably linking these two endeavors in one graphic reminder.
Much of the central special exhibition gallery was devoted to Duhme and Company, Cincinnati’s most important silver firm. This fancy goods store was founded in 1843, and made its own silver and jewelry beginning in 1866. According to Dehan, Duhme posed a threat to Gorham Manufacturing Company as well as Tiffany and Company until the death of founder Herman G. Duhme in 1888; the firm continued under various iterations until 1928, but its most salient period was during the 1870s. The Duhme material was elegantly arranged to evoke a great nineteenth-century luxury goods store, with a store counter in the center of the space and wall cases glittering with an abundance of shiny material. The cases and architecture intentionally did not recreate Duhme’s shop, as illustrations of its interior were replicated on the walls of the exhibition. Instead, the architectural pillars with half-moon windows, suggesting large expanses of plate glass, added to the evocation of a nineteenth-century department store. Within this space, one could imagine well-dressed Victorian women languishing over the displays of ice cream spoons, tea service, and fish knives.
There were some innovative display techniques, including a handy magnifier mounted within a case so that visitors could inspect tokens made by Edward and David Kinsey. Also, although unfortunately not working the day I saw the exhibition, there was an interactive tablet on which one could virtually page through silversmith Samuel Best’s diary and account book (the primary document was installed in a nearby case.) There were several educational interventions, including an object lesson in spoons, the most frequently made form in early silver. Beyond explaining the transformation of spoon styles in the exhibition’s didactics, Dehan did a great job visually demonstrating the changes in style of spoons over the course of the nineteenth century. Finally, in the last gallery of the exhibition, viewers were educated via text and video in the system of marking silver, in the raising of silver, in the traditional materials and tools of the silversmith, and in the production of a spoon.
Although there were a few surprising elements in the show (the Duhme silver produced in the Japanese taste was wonderfully contextualized alongside Maria Longworth Storer’s ceramics and metalwork ventures as Cincinnati was a “hotbed for Japan mania”), as a curator of American material, I was left with the lasting impression of a lack of an innovative aesthetic impulse. Of course, the tureen from the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition of 1872 is extraordinary, but does it possess national significance? On the other hand, as a design historian, I am keenly aware of the importance of contextualizing local production within a national framework, and this beautifully installed, impeccably researched exhibition did so with aplomb. Although the exhibition closed on September 7, 2014, there is an excellent exhibition catalogue.
The publication documents Cincinnati silver and will become the definitive reference book on this topic. The short essays prior to the object entries successfully distill the history of American silver, with Cincinnati’s relevance interjected throughout the narrative. The book has a pleasing layout (for example, footnotes follow each section); great photography; a nice variety in the length of object entries; and most important to this reader, it is full of significant new information (for example, spoons with exaggerated fiddle handles with pointed shoulders became popular in the 1840s [and made until the 1890s] and were distinctively Cincinnati in shape). For fans of American silver and material culture, the catalogue is well worth the investment.
Demmer Curator of 20th and 21st Century Design, Milwaukee Art Museum
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