Since at least the 1920s and likely much earlier, collectors of early Kentucky antiques have loved the work of the state’s early silversmiths. Kentucky silver is beautiful and less perplexing than furniture. Kentucky furniture, with some exceptions, is often mute–pieces can’t be tied to specific cabinetmakers. Silver, though, was typically marked by its maker.
That said, though, I’ve always wondered how much Kentucky silver was truly made in Kentucky. Certainly most of it came out of workshops in the state. For pieces bearing the marks of Kentucky jewelers, though, the situation can be less clear. Often they were retailing the work of others, some of it produced locally, no doubt. Some, though, came from other places. Here are a few examples from the Speed Art Museum’s collection:
The pitcher and goblets, among my favorite examples of “sort of” Kentucky silver, were presented around 1850 to John Dobyns by “the farmers of Mason County.” Dobyns was a prominent merchant and entrepreneur. Both the pitcher and goblets bear the mark “E. & D. KINSEY” for Edward and David Kinsey of Cincinnati.
The Kinsey brothers wholesaled a great deal of silver in Kentucky through retailers in the state, so one isn’t surprised to see their mark on a piece associated with Kentucky. But the story here is more complicated. The pitcher is identical to one retailed around the same time by Tiffany and Company in New York City and was no doubt made in New York City. So here we have “sort of” Kentucky silver times two: made in New York City, acquired wholesale by the Kinseys, marked by them, and presented to a Kentuckian.
This pitcher, presented as an agricultural fair premium (prize) in 1859, bears the mark of John Akin, a jeweler who operated in Danville in Boyle County, Kentucky. Many of the hollowware pieces with Akin’s mark, though, also bear the mark of Peter Krider, a Philadelphia silversmith whose firm produced silver in fairly substantial quantities. Philadelphia merchants had strong business ties to Kentucky. The Lexington silversmith Asa Blanchard, for example, traded with Hildeburn and Woolworth in Philadelphia.
I’ll end with a set of flatware acquired in 2009. It’s a dessert service made by Wood and Hughes of New York City around 1865 but retailed by Kitts and Werne of Louisville. Census records list John Kitts as a watchmaker and Joseph Werne as a jeweler. (This was one of many partnerships Kitts formed during his career.)
Here are the markings on the knife blade:
So are there less obvious examples out there of silver made elsewhere but marked and retailed in Kentucky during the nineteenth century? No doubt, pointing out the need for more research not just on individual artisans, but on the broader trade in silver. Get to work!
There’s nothing sweeter in Kentucky furniture than sugar furniture–that is, pieces like sugar chests, sugar boxes, and, yes, even sugar desks. Made in the state between the 1790s and the early 1850s, sugar furniture has enticed collectors for decades. Long-time collectors Bob and Norma Noe recently gave The Speed Art Museum a magnificent sugar desk made between 1810 and 1840, surely in the north-central part of the state (more on its geographic origins below).
Though small in size (it measures 31-5/8 h. x 29-1/4 w. x 13-7/8 in. d.), the desk’s visual presence is huge. A grid of figured veneers decorates its facade, an unusual feature among surviving Kentucky pieces. An inlaid star on the skirt below adds to its elegance.
The bulbous profile of the skirt along with the desk’s spidery, curved legs associate it with a group of furniture made in the Mason-Fleming-Nicholas County area. Mason County sits along the Ohio River and served as a major entry point for goods and migrants headed into the central Bluegrass region and its capital, Lexington.
Marianne Ramsey and Diane Wachs, in their landmark study, The Tuttle Muddle (2000), associate the furniture group with the cabinetmakers Gerrard Calvert, Peter Tuttle, and John Foxworthy. The three men, ultimately related through marriage, came to Kentucky from Prince William County, Virginia. Like so many others, they probably arrived via the Ohio.
Sugar also came to Kentucky off of the Ohio, arriving from the Caribbean and Louisiana via New Orleans. It was a costly commodity in early nineteenth-century Kentucky. Specialized, equally expensive pieces of furniture like this desk provided secure storage for the sugar.
The desk also reinforced sugar’s value as a status symbol. By itself, refined sugar was visually mundane–it usually was sold in cones wrapped in blue paper. Placing the sugar in a fine piece of furniture, though, proclaimed its importance. It also added a ritual dimension when the sugar was used: it had to be removed from its princely storage; bits were cut off and used to sweeten the social consumption of tea, coffee, and other drinks; and then the sugar disappeared again into the desk.
To see more Kentucky sugar furniture and related objects, visit the Kentucky Online Arts Resource and use the search term, “sugar.”
Well, we will be in the days and weeks ahead. As a counterpart to our site, The Kentucky Online Arts Resource (KOAR), look here for behind-the-scenes info on what we’re doing: sometimes research updates, sometimes news on site additions and improvements, sometimes our general thoughts on Kentucky’s artistic heritage. Who knows what we’ll come up with…
KOAR is a project of The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, the state’s oldest and largest art museum.