Daniel Henchman Takes this Method to inform his Customers in Town and Country, That he still continues to carry on the Gold and Silversmith’s Business at his Shop opposite the Old Brick Meeting House in Cornhill, where he makes with his own Hands all kinds of large and small Plate Work, in the genteelest Taste and Newest Fashion … equal in goodness and cheaper than any they can import from London.
Advertisement, The Boston Evening Post, 1773 
In the new towns and young cities of America, a second stream of design consciousness emerged as the citizens sought to prove their cultural equality with the Old World. Wealth was understood in America as the only avenue by which one could achieve a degree of elegance equivalent to that ensured for the European aristocrats and nobles by inheritance and primogeniture. The rapid accumulation of wealth enabled the Americans to buy the best England had to offer or to commission work in the style of the moment by émigré and native artisans in America. Thus, the urban buildings and furnishings of the colonies took on the familiar or fashionable styles that were prevalent in England and Europe. The newcomer to a colonial town was confronted with a mixture of Dutch-style townhouses, English-style public buildings, and French furnishings that enhanced the quality of urban living in the New World, graced the social behavior of its citizens, memorialized their historic events, and flaunted a growing American affluence that presumed to be on a par with the best on the other side of the Atlantic.
The greatest distinction in the drive for cultural status among the newly rich of America went to those who were able to display the latest styles from abroad. No colonial gentleman and no artisan seeking patronage wanted to be left behind in the fashion race. Even those who declared publicly that America had no time for such frivolities steeped themselves privately in English and continental fashions. No less a patriot than Benjamin Franklin wrote to his wife from Europe advising her to follow the latest fashions in home furnishings. Later, while George Washington was in the field against the British, workmen were busily renovating his home at Mount Vernon using English style books for reference. There is an interesting paradox in the fact that the colonial style of furnishings that today is considered a near-sacred standard of permanent excellence was, in its own day, readily discarded as soon as a fresher style could be unloaded at the dock. The paradox is compounded all the more by the fact that, as much as Americans today may compete for the latest fallout of high technology, even more do they hold tight to their collective (or assumed) colonial heritage.
Some critics of American culture have maintained that, because the émigrés had renounced their national origins, they became culturally impotent and therefore unable “to produce a culture in which the arts could flourish.” (, vi) It has been suggested that the fine arts were reserved for the exclusive pleasure of the upper classes, who were obliged to display or distribute from time to time some small portion of their treasure as aesthetic alms to the lower classes. John Fiske proposed that Americans should accept the theory of the “transit of civilization”—that their culture had to come from abroad, and that they needed to develop “carriers” to bring the fine arts to America. Fiske contended that there was a “cultural lag” whereby an aesthetic fashion that emerged abroad would not become popular in America for some years after it had reached its zenith elsewhere, and that the length of the “lag” was determined by the clarity of the style, the cultural vigor of the movement, and the means of transport. During the colonial period, it was presumed that 20–30 years would lapse before a new European fashion would gain a foothold in America. Peaceful and prosperous times obviously quickened the flow, and, conversely, it seems that the greatest advances of original design in America have been made when the inflow of foreign cultural influence has been constrained by political and economic circumstances.
In the beginning the colonial Americans were content to reproduce the treasures that had been carried over from Europe. Not only implements but also pieces of furniture, pottery, glass, iron, copper, and brass products, pewter and silver wares, and fabrics of all kinds were used as patterns for duplication. However, as time went on, such products became dated in fashion and the wealthier patrons began to seek out and commission those craftsmen who could assure them that they were knowledgeable of the newer styles from abroad and competent in their manufacture. In this context, the advantage lay with those artisans who had emigrated the most recently, bringing with them samples and templates and patterns from which they could reproduce objects in the latest fashion. Journeymen artisans in the crowded shops abroad realized that their knowledge and experience would be welcomed in America and that they would be free, away from Old World guild practices, to set up their own businesses. Moreover, they were certain that young apprentices would be readily available to help them in return for being taught their craft.
For the most part the colonial craftsman did not consider himself to be a designer, but rather the instrument by which the desires of his patrons could be satisfied. To show his familiarity with the most recent styles, he imported examples that could be displayed to attract business and could also be copied. And he sought out and purchased special tools and patterns, or made his own from such samples as he could lay his hands on, that enabled him to work in the latest continental or English style. However, the artisan often found it necessary to modify a design—not only to suit a client’s whim, but sometimes because of inadequate tools or limited talents. And the scarcity of labor in the colonies made it necessary to husband carefully the amount of energy that was put into a product by simplifying its form and ornamentation or by developing tools and methods that would demand less time. As a result, the products of the colonial craftsmen often achieved a taut refinement of form and a restraint of ornament that placed them above and beyond the extravagant originals. This attention of the colonial craftsman to labor-saving forms and procedures helped to refine the principle of economy of means as another of the basic principles of American industrial design.
It was expected in the colonies that a gentleman would be knowledgeable in culture and fashion as well as in science and philosophy. It was his obligation to see to the quality of his environment and to direct the character of the products made to his order by artisans. Educated men were presumed to know and understand architectural style and structure because they were often called upon to determine the forms of public buildings (as well as their own residences). Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, was designed in 1711 by the governor of the colony, Alexander Spotswood, and Thomas Jefferson took a particular interest in the subject (“Architecture is my delight”) and found time from a full career to design the main buildings of the University of Virginia as well as his own home, Monticello.
The basic design sources for Jefferson and the other gentleman architects of the colonies were the popular books of architectural drawings and illustrations of the time, which provided both gentlemen and builders with a ready reference to English and continental styles. Jefferson is known to have had at least five books on Andrea Palladio, who made extensive measurements of ancient Roman buildings and published their basic proportions as early as 1570. Palladio’s flawless sense of proportion and sympathy for the classical style exerted a profound influence on Western architecture well into the nineteenth century, and Jefferson undoubtedly based Monticello on his work. The émigré Peter Harrison certainly followed the pattern book Andrea Palladio’s Architecture (London: Edward Hoppus, 1735) in designing the facade of the handsome Redwood Library built in 1750 in Newport, Rhode Island. Harrison’s main occupation at the time was in business in Newport and as a collector of customs at New Haven, Connecticut. However, he is sometimes identified as the first American architect because he was the first person on record known to have been paid a fee by a patron to design a structure to be erected by a builder. Harrison was paid 45 pounds for his plan for Christ Church Episcopalian (Cambridge, Massachusetts) in 1761. Before this he had designed King’s Chapel in Boston, for which he had been promised payment that was never made. It is believed that Harrison drew ideas for this church from the best-known architectural pattern book of the time, A Book of Architecture, by James Gibbs (second edition: London, 1739).
It is known that others, like Samuel Mclntire, an architect-builder and carver of Salem, Massachusetts, depended upon Batty and Thomas Langley’s The City and Country Builders and Workman’s Treasury of Design (London, 1740). And Robert Smith, who had served as the master carpenter for Nassau Hall at Princeton University, designed and built Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, taking his concept from Palladio Londinensis (London: William Salman, 1734). Other pattern books on architectural style, such as those by William Halfpenny and Isaac Ware, undoubtedly found ready acceptance in the colonies. They not only provided the builder with aesthetic and structural guidance, but also stressed that a building should suit its function.
The pattern books had a strong effect on several aspects of design in the colonies. Any citizen could use them to take up a trade, or at least to duplicate a building or an object. Although they did not stimulate originality as much as imitation, considerable ingenuity was often required to modify the designs illustrated to accommodate the available talents, tools, and materials. Moreover, the general aesthetic consistency from pattern book to pattern book nurtured homogeneity in buildings, furniture, furnishings, and the other accessory arts. And the fact that the design drawings were reproduced in books of engravings and sold in quantity suggests that the origin of design as a profession in its own right, separate from that of the artisan, may have been stimulated by these pattern books. At the very least, they enhanced the artist-designer’s reputation and earning power.
The earliest furniture and furnishings in America were undoubtedly those few treasured pieces that the émigrés had been able to stow aboard the small ships that brought them from the Old World. Although few authenticated pieces survive, there is an unbroken line of European and primarily English influence in American furniture. The Elder Brewster armchair, whose origins go back to Romanesque styles, serves as a good example of the “stick” type of chair that was used in the colonies in the mid-seventeenth century. This type of chair was constructed of turned oak and ash spindles jointed with the least possible effort; although ungainly in form and of questionable comfort, it was perfectly suited to the simple tools of the turners and joiners of its day. The earliest American tables and cabinets were influenced by the Flemish style of the sixteenth century as adapted to English tastes in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Although their form was perhaps as heavy and clumsy as that of the original products, the decorative details were not cut so deeply into the wood as they were on the English and Dutch prototypes.
In the middle of the seventeenth century, after the restoration of the monarchy in England, a rich baroque style appeared as a reaction to the restraints of the Commonwealth. This “William and Mary” style, based on combined Italian and Dutch influences, was introduced to the colonies in 1700 when the new Royal Governor brought over pieces that exhibited cunning forms and richly patterned surfaces and showed the influence of Sir Christopher Wren.
John Gloag has aptly described the eighteenth century in Europe as the “magnificent century” of architecture and furniture design. “The character of magnificence,” he writes, “varied with the country; in France, as society steadily advanced toward dissolution, it became frantic; in the etiquette-ridden states of Germany, oppressive; in Austria and Italy, gay; in England, restrained but consistently gracious.” (, 164)
Although Anne was queen of England for only twelve years (1702–1714), her name has been given to the era’s most important style of furnishings. This more graceful fashion combined elements from France and the Netherlands into products in which form was considered to be more important than ornament. It was at this time that the cabriole leg was introduced from France. This graceful appendage, with its interlocked curves adapted from Greek and Roman sources, was fundamental to the Queen Anne style and predicted the rococo. It has persisted well into the twentieth century as a symbol of refinement, not only on furniture but also on manufactured appliances such as chafing dishes, stoves, and refrigerators. The Queen Anne style of furnishings did not appear in the colonies until after Anne’s death; however, it persisted through the reigns of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1750).
In 1700 about half of the furniture being sold in the colonies was domestic in origin, much of it manufactured by émigré jointers and cabinetmakers. However, by the time of the Revolution urban craftsmen had taken over the trade that had once offered the best market for English manufacturers. Craftsmen from Boston, Salem, Portsmouth, Newport, and New York all joined this lucrative craft, but it was the furnituremakers of Philadelphia who developed the highest-quality colonial American furniture in the expensive pieces they produced for their clientele of wealthy merchants and traders. The period between 1725 and 1750 may easily be considered the prime period of furniture design and manufacture in the colonies, as a unique style was beginning to emerge that combined the clear expression of Queen Anne with the comparatively spare elegance and restrained ornament of colonial craftsmen.
The European peasant tradition of “stick” chair-making found ready acceptance in America in two forms apart from the Brewster type. The ladderback chair, which appeared as early as the eleventh century in Europe, consisted essentially of a structure of straight or turned members fitted with a woven rush seat. The “Windsor chair,” which probably originated in the latter half of the seventeenth century, employed turned spindles that were socketed into a solid wood seat shaped to fit the body. John Gloag claims that the Windsor chair, “by anticipating the technique of mass-production,” is “the only article that has survived the industrial revolution unmarred.” (, 156) And, although Gloag regards the Windsor as “the national chair of England as the rocker is the national chair of America,” it should be pointed out that in England the Windsors were known originally as “wheelright’s” furniture and considered to be suitable only for provincial use, whereas in America they were immediately popular when they first appeared in 1725 and came to be widely used in private homes at every social level as well as in taverns, inns, and public buildings. A set of Windsor chairs used by the signers of the Declaration of Independence is preserved in Independence Hall in Philadelphia as a treasured national artifact. The Windsor was durable, well suited in shape and proportion to the human body, and eminently preferred by Americans on the move since it could be knocked down for shipping. Soon it was being manufactured throughout the colonies, and with increased competition the shape, proportions, and dimensions were refined until they achieved that happy harmony of form and fitness that makes for ultimate beauty in man-made utilitarian products.
While the Queen Anne style was developing its richer beauty in the colonies, the English, following the lead of what had been done in architecture, began to publish books of engraved plates of furniture designs. The first, A Universal System of Household Furniture (Ince and Mayhew, 1748), contained, according to the preface, “above 300 designs in the most elegant taste, both useful and ornamental.” (, 191) Although there is no positive evidence that this book was known and used in America, there is no doubt that the series of furniture style books that followed were avidly studied there by urban craftsmen and their clients.
The most important English book on furniture design was undoubtedly Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman’s and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754). Chippendale’s 200 plates of furniture designs established a new style by combining Chinese, French, neo-Gothic, and Palladian elements into an elaborate English rococo fashion that swept away the more reserved Queen Anne style. Despite criticism from some members of his profession, Chippendale’s style was supported by Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, which praised its serpentine lines as the epitome of beauty. The English rococo style became as popular in the colonies as it was in England, and although no copies of the Chippendale book survive today in the collections of colonial books at least 29 copies are known to have been in the colonies prior to the Revolution, including one mentioned in the records of Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia.
Thomas Chippendale’s success as a conceiver and publisher of designs suggests that he, more than any other artisan-designer of his era, was a forerunner of the contemporary industrial designer. Although he was a competent craftsman, he elected to combine his talents with practical business methods and a sense of aesthetic direction in order to develop and market concepts that would meet the desires of his clients.
The style that Chippendale created was copied by others, such as Thomas Manwaring, whose Cabinet and Chairmaker’s Real Friend and Companion (London, 1765) was also used as a source book by émigré and native cabinetmakers in America. Some, like Samuel Mickle of Philadelphia, kept notebooks in which they recorded their own adaptation of Chippendale’s designs. The finest furniture in Philadelphia came in the decade just before the Revolution from the workshops of Randolf, Savery, Gostelove, Affleck, and other cabinetmakers who produced original concepts of furniture (such as the highboy) by recombining elements from Chippendale. However, by this time, feelings were running against English fashions and ideas, and American artisans took pains to convince their clients that their products were not imported but “made in America”—a fact that was just as good for business as it was for politics. Thus, the flow of English influence was set aside, at least publicly, until the end of the War of Independence, when the cultural influx from England to her late colonies began again as strongly as ever.
Colonial silversmiths (although they were called goldsmiths in their day, the title of silversmiths is more appropriate since they worked primarily in that white metal) had access to the various architectural and furniture styie books through their patrons. The primary design sources for their products, however, were actual pieces of continental and English silver, or at least patterns, drawings, and templates taken from the originals. For ornamentation, they either duplicated originals or borrowed freely from allegorical figures in prints or from cipher books known to be in the colonies at the time.
The silver of the colonies is interesting not only because of its high quality but also because of its important role in the economy of the colonies and its close association with outstanding events and personalities. There were goldsmiths in the company of the first ship sailing to Virginia in 1608, sent not to practice their craft so much as to search for precious metals in the New World. That they found none was confirmed by Captain John Smith. As other sources of wealth were developed, the practice of silversmithing was delayed until later in the seventeenth century. Until then, such silver as appeared in the colonies was brought from Europe in personal treasures (as has been confirmed by wills and inventories).
The first silversmiths known to have practiced in the colonies were Hull and Sanderson. John Hull (1624–1683) came to America when he was 11 years old after some training in the craft in England. When the General Court of Massachusetts established a mint in Boston in 1652, he was appointed master of the mint and selected another London-trained silversmith, Robert Sanderson (1608–1693), as his partner. Together they coined the first colonial shillings, originally with a willow tree imprint, then an oak, and finally a pine. Hull became immensely wealthy because he was permitted to keep one out of every twenty shillings for his service—undoubtedly the earliest and most remunerative form of a royalty contract in America. Hull and Sanderson also made the first known silver in the colonies by converting coin into plate. They affixed their mark to it for identification, rather than attempting to follow the more complicated system of English hallmarking. For over a century this practice of transforming coinage into silverware proved to be the most effective way of conserving wealth and making it readily identifiable and redeemable. The colonists’ mistrust of paper currency because it lacked fixed value created a demand for silver as a dependable form of currency. Silversmiths “established the mode of ‘investing’ their silver coin and that of their clients in the form of porringers, tankards and the like, for both immediate use and future security.” (, 4) Thus, because of their knowledge of the value of the coinage of the various nations and their ability to assay, melt, and fabricate the precious metals, they served (at least symbolically) as bankers, often achieving prestigious political and social positions as a result. Next to the clergy they were the most respected professionals in the colonies.
In general, silver plate was quicker than furniture to embrace changes in style because prototypes were more easily transported and colonial merchants were all too willing to accept as payment for their products silverware that carried the respected quality marks of the English Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.
The earliest colonial silver reflected the baroque Flemish forms that were popular in Europe and England. However, the American copies were sturdier and more reserved than the originals and often achieved an elegance of proportion and a form and dignity appropriate to their function. The silver of New Amsterdam (as New York was known until 1674, when it was ceded to England by the Treaty of Westminster) showed a particular preference for the beaker form for both secular and ecclesiastical purposes. The form was widely copied in the colonies, and a number of examples have been preserved because they passed into church collections as communion vessels.
In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, driving many of the French Protestants into exile, and when in 1687 he forbade the Huguenot artisans to practice their craft in France and ordered them to melt down their plate many emigrated to the colonies. Bartholomew Le Roux (1663–1713) in New York and Cezar Ghiselin (1670–1734) in Philadelphia were outstanding Huguenot silversmiths who rejected their French origins to work in the popular English styles of the colonies.
The lineage of American silversmiths, which began when John Hull (1624–1683) took on his first colonial apprentice, Jeremiah Dummer (1645–1718), continued without a break until the death of Paul Revere. Dummer’s work bridges the early American silver styles from the Restoration through the William and Mary baroque into the Queen Anne period. His best work was in the rich play of gadrooned and fluted surfaces against the plain surfaces of the baroque that John Marshall Phillips believed ushered in “the golden age of American silversmithing at a time when the centers of the craft had yet to celebrate their centenary.” (71, 61) Several of Dummer’s surviving cups appear to have been made serially, with apprentices finishing them to suit the wishes of one patron or another.
One of Dummer’s apprentices was his brother-in-law John Coney (1655–1722), generally considered the most sensitive of the colonial silversmiths. His masterpiece is undoubtedly the Monteith, which is now the prized centerpiece of the Garvan collection at Yale University. Its form, taken from an English prototype, illustrates the desire of the first generation of native-born New Englanders to offset their provincialism by acquiring fine, elaborate objects in the latest English style. In 1715, toward the end of his life, Coney took on the young Huguenot émigré, Apollos Rivoire (1702–1754), as his apprentice, and Rivoire was still with him in 1722 when Coney died. Rivoire subsequently trained his son Paul Revere (1735–1818) in the craft of silversmithing.
The William and Mary baroque style became so popular that many earlier pieces of silver plate were lost when they were melted down to be reshaped into the new form. Eventually so much sterling coinage had disappeared into the melting pot to become silverware that the British Crown found it necessary in 1697 to raise the percentage of silver used in plate from the Sterling Standard of 0.925 used for coinage to the Brittania Standard of 0.96, thus increasing the cost of the basic material. The new alloy was, moreover, too soft for the thin elaborate forms of the baroque, and so that style was slowly replaced by shapes that attempted to make up for their loss of ornament by refinement into more graceful lines and by the addition of stiffening bands and moldings. By 1720 the new style (to be known as Queen Anne) had established itself in the arts of luxury and the Brittania Standard was revoked.
The plainer Queen Anne forms of silver were most likely introduced to the colonies by the queen’s donation of ecclesiastical plate to the major Episcopalian churches there. The style had a particular appeal to the colonists because its simpler forms were seen as less aristocratic and thus in harmony with the ascetic restraint of the Puritans. Even so, the plain surfaces invited the enrichment of fine engraving. In this period the fashion was to use elaborate ciphers of interlaced initials that were popular in England. Sympson’s New Book of Cyphers (London, 1726) was known and used by colonial silversmiths such as Simeon Soumaine (1685–1750) of New York, and in John Singleton Copley’s portrait of the Boston silversmith and engraver Nathaniel Hurd (1729–1777) one may see illustrated Guillim’s Display of Heraldry, Hurd’s source of armorial devices.
By 1730, while the Queen Anne style still dominated American silver, a new mode was spreading rapidly across all of the decorative arts in England. It was an exuberant rococo that had originated in France out of Louis XIV forms and ornament. Asymmetrical decorations embodying scrolls, plants, and shells in cast, chased, engraved, and pierced techniques all but obscured the original shape of the product.
In the midst of this period the great Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot appeared. The first volume was published in 1751 and the last in 1772. The sections on furniture and silver displayed the extravagant forms of the French rococo, and must have been a strong influence on the work of Thomas Chippendale, on that of Paul de Lamerie (an exiled Huguenot master silversmith working in London), and through Lamerie and others of his countrymen on the silver of England and the colonies. Although the Encyclopedie illustrated the luxury of the rococo, it was in itself the first great effort to acknowledge and to gather into a single source all of the knowledge that was coming from the first stirrings on the continent of intellectual tolerance and rationale. By exalting the acquisition of scientific knowledge, Diderot, with the help of his collaborator D’Alembert, spread the democratic concept that government existed at the pleasure of and for the good of the people. In a way, the Encyclopedie presaged and may have accelerated the revolutions that were to come, first in the colonies and later in France. Most important, it signaled the dawning of the age of technology.
For a while, the common effort of the English and their colonials in the French and Indian Wars (1756–1763) drew the two closer together, and the lively trade that ensued encouraged the importation of much English silver in the new rococo style. Some colonial silversmiths became importers of plate; others resented the threat to their own livelihood.
The surviving letters, notebooks, and journals of colonial artisans occasionally include illustrations of products or product details, but these appear to be records of work done rather than original designs to be followed. One design book that escaped the attrition of time is that of the Annapolis silversmith William Faris (1728–1804), which is now in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. It contains drawings of various silver objects in the rococo style that were apparently traced from templates and patterns made either from the original pieces or purchased from another source. The records of Paul Revere, Jr. (1735–1818), now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, show tracings that were probably made from the original pieces as well as other rococo decorative patterns. Another useful source of information about the practice of colonial craftsmen is the written inventories that have been preserved. It was customary in early America when an artisan died for the court to appoint a committee including members of the deceased’s trade to make a detailed inventory with a realistic appraisal of his tools, materials, and uncompleted projects.
The most elaborate sample of the rococo style in the colonies is a kettle and stand made in Philadelphia by Joseph Richardson, Sr. (1711–1784). Despite its extravagance of form and ornament, however, it was only a modest interpretation of the unrestrained English and French work of the period. Another example of Philadelphia rococo of unusual historic interest is the inkstand or standish, fashioned by Philip Syng, Jr. (1703–1789), that was used by the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and again in 1787 by representatives of the colonies adopting the Constitution. It is now in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
In New England, the rococo influence manifested itself primarily in an elaboration of decorative detail rather than an exaggeration of form. It was also not uncommon for silversmiths to transpose the forms of Chinese porcelain (or English copies thereof) into silver objects. The “Sons of Liberty” bowl made by Paul Revere in 1768 is said to have followed a ceramic prototype. There is a porcelain bowl of this type in the British Museum upon which is painted a portrait of John Wilkes, the English member of Parliament who supported the right to self-government in the colonies. Certainly Paul Revere used the oriental ceramic pitcher form as reproduced in England as a source for his own silver pitchers.
Even before the American Revolution, a rediscovered classical style was sweeping Europe that was to furnish a stylistic base for the buildings and furnishings of the new republic. Once again American fashion was to fall into line behind European sources and to begin with them a backward spin through the Greek agora and the Roman forum, into Egypt and the bazaars of the Persians, seeking cultural justification.