The Gold Standard
In Colonial New England, the objects that would adorn one’s home said much about the person and their social standing. When a family would entertain, they would proudly display their unique possessions – – furniture from France and England, imported tableware of Wedgwood china and crystal, and various works of art. Paintings might depict a particular historical event or a famous ancestor whose exploits would spice the evening with rich conversation. When one entered an affluent home, one was certain to be surrounded with silver – – cutlery, plates, tankards, candle sticks …
Silver was a precious commodity. In eighteenth century America, limited access, high demand and a distrust of a fragile monetary system maintained commodities such as silver and gold at intoxicating heights and elevated the status of those owned or traded in the precious metals. Present day silver trades for nearly $ 20 an ounce and is steadily rising in value over the last year as a result of economic uncertainty. In 1775, silver traded for a present day equivalent of over $175 an ounce. Aristocracy and a rising middle class coveted the fine work of master silversmiths. Owning silver meant social and political affluence.
Historians and antique dealers such as UK silver trader Brian Douglas share how Britain established the silver hallmark to protect the public against fraud. The wardens of the London Assaye office were charged with ensuring purity of silver and its value. This oversight by the artisans and the government ensured a basis for quality. In 1400, the English passed a law to fix the purity of silver by stamping any object with at 925 parts silver to 1000 as Sterling. An even higher standard, “Britannia”, was established in the 1600s to distinguish purer silver, 958/1000 parts, from the Sterling that was often fashioned out of melted coins. The markings on any silver item allowed someone to determine year of manufacturing, content, maker and town of assay. This basis of ensuring quality established British silver products as a world standard.
The silversmith was a respected and influential individual. In England, smiths belonged to powerful guilds which controlled much of the manufacturing and distribution of silver products. The art of melting silver in a graphite crucible, forging the molten liquid into tallow greased molds and then shaping the malleable material against anvils and stakes to achieve the desired shape was a process requiring great patience and skill. When a wealthy citizen would petition a silver piece to be manufactured, the silversmith would have to take possession of quantities of silver and fashion the requested artwork. The ability to safely store large quantities of silver as well as ensure the quality of the work required that a successful smith be viewed as trustworthy beyond reproach. In Colonial America, silversmiths often moonlighted as ombudsmen to resolve community disputes. If neighbors were fighting over a property line, a smith might be co-opted to help resolve the issue. John Hull was perhaps the most widely known early American silversmith in Boston in the late 1600s. He was a pillar of society and a highly successful merchant.
A century later, Hull would be supplanted by another Boston silversmith who achieved similar business, social and community standing. He was the son of a French Huguenot silversmith. He apprenticed under his father and eventually built a thriving business in North End Boston. He served in the military in 1754 fighting the French in upstate New York and later married, fathering eight children. Over his lifetime, he outlived two wives, siring 16 children, eleven of which lived to adulthood. He quickly became established with the wealthy and the genteel of Boston for his neoclassical tea pots, tankards, cups, urns and sugar bowls. While some silversmiths created production lines where much of their output was created by apprentice workers, he insisted on creating every one of his pieces.
He was also a covert revolutionary. He was a Freemason and belonged to secret patriot societies. He was an expert rider and shuttled messages between patriot groups. In 1770, the tension was rising between British troops and colonists resulting in mob attacking British soldiers with five colonists killed by English troops defending themselves. In response, he produced an engraving which contributed to the groundswell of colonial propaganda igniting anger and anti-British sentiment. He secretly participated in the Boston Tea Party dumping hundreds of pounds of tax levied tea into Boston Harbor. He never revealed that he took part in the attack as it would have violated the sacred oath that he took to not disclose his participation in revolutionary activities. Other Tea party revolutionaries would admit their participation and be hailed as heroes. The understated Boston silversmith eschewed this sort of notoriety insisting to the day he died that he was not there – – although many would later identify him as a participant.
As a messenger for the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons Of Liberty, he was teamed with a young cobbler, John Dawes, to provide vital advance information on British activities in and around Boston. In 1774, the British blockaded Boston Harbor further heightening tensions. The silversmith rode to Philadelphia to convey the news to other members of the Sons of Liberty that Boston was under martial law. While many patriot leaders fled Boston, a few key business and medical professionals remained behind to spy on the British – among them, the local silversmith whose shop remained open for business and whose eyes studied every movement of the British.
On April 18th, the Sons of Liberty were acting on good authority that the British may be moving by land or by sea against the town of Concord, home to the Provincial Congress and a cache of local militia powder, shot and guns. The silversmith was on alert that evening and was later signaled by two lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church that the British had elected to move by sea in an effort to advance undercover. With Dawes and additional riders taking different routes to Concord, the Boston smith rang out a call for freedom and warned the colonial inhabitants along the great Boston Post road that war was marching toward them in the night. No one questioned his word. He was, after all, the most trusted man in the community, Paul Revere, the silversmith.
This story of Paul Revere was recounted to me by an antique dealer in New Orleans as my daughter and I held a simple sterling silver sugar urn with the inscription: “R”. The man who fashioned this exquisite piece was witness to the ”shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord. He survived the revolutionary war and started a successful copper business. He helped fashion a new country out of the most precious metals of all: courage and thirst for freedom. Revere’s silver work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and privately in the treasured inventory of select antique silver dealers and collectors. His designs embody simple, elegant curves and exude understated perfection. When asked, most dealers will cite Revere along with England’s Paul de Lamerie as the two most influential artisans of their time. Craftsman, community leader, father and Patriot, Revere was the gold standard in silver.
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere