A silver spoon the size of a Great Dane immediately confronts anyone exiting the elevator on the third floor of the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum. It's mounted upright next to a sign announcing the title of the exhibit of which it is a part, Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970. Before table settings became ubiquitous around 1700, pre-modern Europeans carried around their own spoons (forks were not popularized in Europe, outside of Italy, until the 18th century). To distinguish themselves from serfs, the land-owning classes used silver spoons. The spoon was not merely a functional object, but also a cultural marker indicating refined taste and aesthetics.
Also on the wall of the RISD exhibit is a black-and-white photograph of a baby resting inside the ladle of the giant spoon. The idiom “born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth,” which refers to inherited wealth, takes on grotesque proportions if one follows the (perhaps unintentional) visual pun. The photo marks a natural evolution in the significance of the silver spoon: It moves beyond any pretense of functionality, now an uninterrupted symbol of wealth and excess.
The spoon and the photograph were both created by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, the subject of Designing Brilliance. The exhibit, which runs from May 3 to December 1, showcases the work of Gorham, once the largest silver company in the world. Founded in Providence in 1831, Gorham operated in the area for the next 150 years. Gorham’s history crucially intersects with the history of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its craftspeople sculpted some of the most iconic monuments of their time, including the statue of George Washington in the DC Capitol Rotunda and the Theodore Roosevelt that guards the Museum of Natural History in New York. Meanwhile, Gorham’s ornate silverware sets, the company’s bread and butter, both reflected and informed the evolving tastes of the country’s wealthy, continuing silver’s long affair with privilege and power. As a bellwether of American culture, Gorham continues to incite admiration and controversy centuries after its formation.
For Elizabeth Williams, the head curator of decorative arts at the RISD Museum, Gorham is deeply personal. Not only did she write her PhD dissertation on Gorham, but some of Gorham silver’s artifacts are family heirlooms. Soon after her 2013 arrival at RISD, where the largest public collection of Gorham silver is housed, Ms. Williams began planning the Gorham exhibit. The years of preparation are evident in the exhibit’s stunning collection of Gorham’s most impressive work, brought together from museums and private collections across the country. The 816-piece Furber service, a tableware set commissioned for the wealthy Furber family, epitomizes Gorham’s artistic and technical powers. For instance, the Furber epergne, or decorative centerpiece, displays Columbia, the personification of America, in a delicate silver gown. She stands atop a globe and holds a gilded wreath. Continuing the Neoclassical motif, a Greek Parthenon frieze wraps around the centerpiece’s base. The Furber service is just one of many pieces in the exhibit that highlight the beauty and detail of Gorham’s work.
Drawing from vast archives of photographs and ledgers in Brown’s John Hay Library and RISD’s Fleet Library, Designing Brilliance reconstructs the silversmiths’ original techniques. Displaying silver-making tools and projecting videos of how workers used them, the exhibit highlights the immense labor necessary to make even a simple object. Viewers are compelled to contrast the artisanship on display with the modern standardized, mechanized production process and nostalgically mourn for a mythologized bygone era.
But how much is there to be nostalgic for? In an attempt to uncover the unsavory history of Gorham, Providence artists Holly Ewald and Becci Davis organized a response exhibit, Unpolished Legacies, at UPP Arts. Self-serving class interests, environmental degradation, and monuments to slavery and imperialism are some of the issues prominently featured. Running from September 27 to October 8, the exhibit consisted of public conversations, performances, and an art gallery Downtown that complicated the romantic history of Gorham as presented by the RISD Museum. The Museum itself supplements Designing Brilliance with an audio tour that addresses Gorham’s controversial socio-political effects, but without physical presence in the exhibit, the recorded conversations, despite their insightful commentary, are but footnotes to the dominant narrative of the exhibited material. Unpolished Legacies makes the case that in glorifying Gorham’s aesthetic and technical accomplishments, Designing Brilliance de-historicizes Gorham, removing art from its essential context.
Decorative silver has a history of weaponizing aesthetics for political ends—namely, in the service of class interests. The beautiful pieces on display in Designing Brilliance fall neatly into this legacy by reinforcing class divisions. Like the silver spoons of feudal Europe, Gorham’s sterling silver products (sterling silver is an alloy containing 92.5% silver by weight) allowed the wealthy to conspicuously project their status. A digital illustration of a serving of nachos superimposed onto an ornate silver dish, displayed in Unpolished Legacies, makes viewers feel uneasy because it defies expectations. Silver is fancy, while nachos are unrefined. The juxtaposition of the nachos and silver exposes the elitist posturing that enabled Gorham’s rise. In this light, to eat off of what remains a monetary standard seems as obscene as Scrooge McDuck blowing his nose into a twenty-dollar bill.
In an attempt to associate themselves with the rich, and distance themselves from the working class, middle-class Americans also purchased silver. Gorham did not become the world’s largest silver manufacturer by selling sterling silver, but by making silver plate. Silver plate is a pedestrian metal coated with a fine layer of silver, which is much cheaper than sterling silver. Gorham leveraged class division in order to produce its masterpieces.
The wave of industrialization that propelled the Western world out of feudalism and into the modern capitalist order has left irrevocable environmental damage, much of which is only now being reckoned with. In 1897 Gorham relocated from downtown Providence, a few blocks from the RISD Museum, to Elmwood, a neighborhood on Providence’s south side. The sprawling new factory sat on the edge of Mashapaug Pond, the city’s largest natural body of water. For almost a century, Gorham disposed of harmful chemicals in the pond. Cleaners, solvents, and heavy metals polluted the air, water, and soil in the neighborhood. Local officials were quick to voice their worries. In 1905, city park commissioners cautioned the Rhode Island General Assembly, “It is essential to the health of the neighborhood that they be not polluted by dumping or the crowding of buildings on [Mashapaug’s] shores.” Despite such concerns, Gorham continued to pollute until the ratification of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which prohibited the dumping of industrial waste directly into waterways.
The Gorham factory devastated wildlife and endangered locals. Al Campbell, interviewed for the Reservoir Triangle oral history project in 2011, lived in the neighborhood for the first 25 years of his life. He recalls, “We knew that Gorham Manufacturing was putting some of the chemicals out [in the pond]. Word was you just don’t go swimming out there and you don’t drink the water.” Whenever one of his friends acted strangely, they used to joke that it was because they drank the Mashapaug Pond water.
Textron, an industrial conglomerate based in Providence, purchased Gorham in 1967. Soon after, volatile silver prices and declining demand for luxury silverware forced Gorham to shut down much of its operation. By the 1990s, the Elmwood factory closed. While Gorham’s physical presence vanished, its toxic legacy remains. Despite awareness of environmental dangers, the city of Providence opened the Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School on the former Gorham site in 2006. Even with an air filtration system, students at Alvarez High, who are predominantly low-income students of color, continue to bear the brunt of Gorham’s mismanagement. Land around the school is so contaminated with heavy metals that athletes at Alvarez must bus to Mount Pleasant High School for practice.
Since ten thousand years before Alvarez High or the Gorham factory were built, the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe have lived in the areas surrounding the Mashapaug Pond. During King Philip’s War, from 1675 to 1676, the Mashapaug Nahaganset people were massacred and their population was decimated. For centuries afterward, members of the tribe resided in West Elmwood, one of the first racially integrated areas of the city—until ‘urban renewal’ came, the city bulldozed the area, and communities of color, including Indigenous people, were forced to leave, again. Mashapaug Pond is a sacred space for the Mashapaug Nahaganset. The tribe continues to conduct ceremonies around the pond. Indigenous peoples have been at the vanguard of calling for the pond's protection. In an act of public protest, the Mashapaug Nahaganset tribe sued the state of Rhode Island, the city of Providence, and the city of Cranston in international court for environmental racism based on mismanagement of the pond.
The recent efforts of Indigenous people paralleled work of local artists and community organizers to clean up Mashapaug Pond. Over a decade ago, the State Council for the Arts commissioned Holley Ewald, the same one who organized Unpolished Legacies, to design signs around the pond to prevent residents from fishing. Ewald transformed the project into an exercise in community building by going into local schools and asking students to design their own signage, provoking broader conversations on environmental protection. Inspired to expand the dialogue, Ewald founded the Urban Pond Procession (UPP), an annual parade to celebrate Mashapaug Pond featuring brass bands, life-size puppets, costumes, and plenty of signs. Alongside the increased community activism and awareness, efforts were underway to clean the pond. Textron was left holding the bag, so to speak, for Gorham’s negligence, and funded ground remediation and dredging of the most contaminated areas of the pond. Through combined corporate, governmental, and community partnership, Mashapaug Pond is slowly being restored.
Unpolished Legacies, unlike Designing Brilliance, brings to the fore Gorham’s troubling environmental impact. Particularly notable were a set of video projections of paper made from cornstarch dissolving into Mashapaug Pond. The papers contained quotations from promotional material from Designing Brilliance, such as “Placing silver before the public.” In small print on the bottom were a list of chemicals dumped into the pond. In Unpolished Legacies’ most explicit critique, Designing Brilliance stood charged with complicity in whitewashing Gorham’s destructive history.
Although corporations like Gorham often bill themselves as morally neutral historical actors—providing a good for a cost, uninterested in politics and ideology—throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Gorham became highly implicated in debates on the legacies of slavery and American imperialism.
On April 26, 2019, Georgia state governor Brian Kemp signed into law a bill strengthening existing protections for Confederate statues. The law prevents local communities from removing monuments at their discretion. State senator Jeff Mullis, who wrote the bill, was born and raised in Chickamauga, Georgia, in the shadow of four Gorham-made monuments memorializing the four divisions of the Confederate military. One can only speculate on the influence of those statues from Mullis’ childhood on his political development and latter sympathies for the so-called ‘lost cause’.
In an interview with the College Hill Independent, Becci Davis, also from Georgia, argued that monuments are “an investment with a community for their future selves.” In erecting a monument, Davis continues, the present tells the future “this is what we believe in, this is important enough to remember, and we charge you with remembering it and holding those values close.” Regardless of their artistic merit, public monuments are inherently political, dense with meaning and reverberating with echoes from the past.
As part of its bronze division, Gorham commissioned numerous statues for the Confederate cause. Davis’ artwork in Unpolished Legacies, including a zine on the Chickamauga statues, draws from her experience in Georgia to criticize Gorham’s complicity in the project of valorizing the Confederacy for a new generation of Southerners. Some argue that Gorham should not be retroactively punished using contemporary standards for behavior that was normal for the time; not only did many other prominent metalworking firms construct similar statues, but Gorham, in addition to their Confederate statues, also produced just as many works commemorating Union troops. In response to such positions, Davis first made it clear that “just because you stand on both sides doesn’t mean you are neutral. You’re still choosing to support both sides rather than choosing to support no sides.” Furthermore, Davis clarified that the purpose of her artwork is not to vainly grandstand. No one can change the past, she admits. Instead, she views her art as an educational tool. She wants to provoke her audience into asking: “What can we learn from this particular situation with Gorham that can help us create bigger, better, strong community and culture moving forward?”
The Confederate monuments are not the only controversial statues produced by Gorham. Locally, the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Square on Elmwood Avenue has elicited strong reactions from the community. The monument is a bronze cast of a sterling silver statue created by Gorham for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, an international celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the ‘New World’. The statue was designed by none other than Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. Since the fair, public opinion of Columbus has turned sour as more of the American public, albeit much too late, has begun to reckon with Columbus’ murderous legacy as a harbinger of European settler-colonialism and Native American genocide. In 2010 the statue was vandalized, covered in red paint to represent the bloodshed that followed Columbus’ wake. Since then, the statue has been desecrated in four similar acts of vandalism—the most recent occurred this past October on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This ritualized act of resistance transforms the public’s relationship with the statue. Through repetition, the onlooker’s association between Columbus and massacre grows, whether the statue is currently covered in red paint or not.
Gorham’s ties to imperialism extend past the retrospective glorification of Columbus and into contemporaneous American politics. At the turn of the century—coinciding with Gorham’s heyday—the United States significantly increased its overseas footprint. The Spanish-American War of 1898 marks a turning point in American foreign policy. The war actualized the previously unrealized implication of the Monroe Doctrine: the Western Hemisphere is a sphere of United States influence. While the United States entered into war ostensibly to assist the Cuban movement for independence from Spain, it ended the war as an imperial power with overseas colonies. The US victory over Spain resulted in temporary control over Cuba and ownership of the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. Subsequently, the US put down revolts in the Philippines in the Philippine-American War. Riding the wave of patriotism and American exceptionalism, Gorham took commissions to create monuments commemorating soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars—wars of American colonialism. One such statue is prominently featured in Providence’s Kennedy Plaza. Below the bronze cast of a soldier is an insignia featuring a woman presenting herself to two soldiers. Around the image are names of the territories captured during the war. Prominently displayed in broad daylight, though hardly noticed, stands an artifact to America’s rape of its neighbors, a startling unification of imperialism and the patriarchy.
Though a detailed history lesson in American colonialism lies beyond the scope of Designing Brilliance, the exhibit should provide context if it is to present monuments of that lineage. It does not. Among the most prominent pieces in the exhibit is a trophy to Admiral George Dewey, the celebrated Navy officer who led American victory at the Battle of Manila during the Spanish-American War. The placard next to the trophy recalls an astounding instance of the general public’s collaboration in American colonialism: At the behest of the New York Journal, readers sent 70,000 dimes to Gorham, which were then melted down to make the trophy. Instead of offering a critical perspective, the exhibit applauds the concerted effort, perpetuating a dangerous blind patriotism that dooms us to repeat our mistakes.
At risk of sounding grandiose, the story of Gorham represents the best and worst of American industrialism. There is no dispute that the objects produced by Gorham are wonders to behold, beautifully designed and expertly executed. Nor should one discount the hundreds of hours of love and attention that workers poured into their wares. Nevertheless, to ignore the negative aspects of Gorham—elitism, pollution, monuments to oppression—is to be complicit in them. With growing awareness of the United States’ often brutal history, art museums across the country must enter a new minefield of questions: Is a purely aesthetic focus careless? Is there an obligation to offer political context and commentary alongside the art? What, in the first place, is the relationship between the ‘aesthetic’ and ‘political’? I hesitate to offer solutions to any of these questions. I can only caution readers to be constantly vigilant for the Unpolished Legacies that hide all around us, demanding to be uncovered.
BILAL MEMON B’22 is on the 19th-century industrial beat.