American silver shines in exhibit at Nelson-Atkins museum

Updated: 2013-08-19T00:34:45Z


The Kansas City Star

Now on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the exhibit “Early American Silver From the Cahn Collection” features more than 60 tankards, teapots, trays and other finely crafted silver objects from the renowned collection of St. Louis businessman Paul Cahn and his wife, Elissa Cahn.

The objects are displayed in cases in four areas in the museum, including the Bloch Building, where Catherine Futter, the museum’s senior curator of architecture, design and decorative arts, has added works by two contemporary Kansas City silversmiths.

Futter recently talked about works in the Cahn collection and her strategic addition to the show of the contemporary examples and several English pieces owned by the Nelson.

Why did you decide to do this exhibition?

The show is really to encourage people to use their silver. It is not beneficial to have your silver in a plastic bag in the closet. By using it, you appreciate its beauty and craftsmanship and function. It gets a nice warmth from use. Hand wash it gently in soapy water so it gets a lustrous patina. If we stop treating silver as though it’s only a special-occasion material, it becomes part of our lives.

Also, the Nelson doesn’t have any early American silver. This is a way to complement the collection.

Cahn focused on American silver?

He also collected 18th-century English silver, but he likes the clean lines on American silver. He collected multiple pieces (tankards, sauceboats, porringers, a coffee pot) by Myer Myers, a Jewish silversmith who worked in New York and Connecticut. He was known for very simple forms.

Besides the simplicity, are there other differences between American and English silver?

(Early) American silver is coin silver, not sterling. Sterling is 925 parts per 1,000; coins are 950 parts per 1,000. In American silver, you can see a maker’s mark, but it doesn’t have a year or hallmark mark that would tell the city, the year and the silver content.

You have some wonderful pieces by Paul Revere in the Bloch cases.

He was a great patriot, known in his time as an engraver. He had a big silver workshop. His innovation was sheet silver. Before, there were no steel rollers, and silversmiths would have to hammer a disk of silver into a sheet. With sheet silver, the process is less labor-intensive.

The Revere tea service was made from sheet silver and reflects the taste for neoclassicism. The fluted design alludes to fluted columns. Before, silversmiths created baroque and rococo designs, but they turned to neoclassicism to express the ideals of the new republic.

You can also see the influence of neoclassicism in a pair of sauceboats by Joseph and Nathaniel Richardson. They came in pairs so you could exchange a cool sauce for a hot one at the table. The beaded design around the rim is called pearl work.

The display in the Bloch Building cases includes several objects identified as “waiters.” What’s a waiter?

Waiters are trays with feet. They functioned as trivets and trays. It’s the origin of the term waiters for restaurant servers.

The contemporary silver really adds some flair.

Silver is not an old-fashioned material. It still has relevance. Robyn Nichols created this “Morning Glory Compote, Creamer and Sugar Bowl” using 18th-century techniques that haven’t changed. She uses wire and sheet metal and hand hammering.

Erica Voetsch is a young artist who uses silver to make fascinators — jewelry that frames your face — using the same tools as the 18th century. The works in the Bloch Building cases allow you to contrast the solidity of 18th-century forms with the lightness and airiness of contemporary work. Style changes over time.

You’ve installed a lot of additional material in the American galleries, including the show’s earliest piece.

It’s a two-handled cup called “The Tufts Cup,” made around 1690 by Jeremiah Dummer. It’s made of hammered silver and was used for caudle, a thick hot drink made with alcohol, eggs and sometimes bread. And Cahn liked to collect things valued by families, like this 18th-century Joseph Richardson Sr. “Tea Canister.” It’s engraved with the names of nine generations of women in the Peel family.

And you have additional works by Myer Myers up here.

He made these tankards to look like barrels. The banded decoration was inspired by the thin metal or wooden hoops that hold barrels together. You can see a similar design in the set of four drinking vessels made by Joseph Lownes of Philadelphia. When these were made, people drank beer for breakfast. Water could convey disease, and fermented drinks were considered safer.

Tell me about the shoe buckles and pipe lighter in this case with the Myers tankards.

Cahn also collected gentleman’s accoutrements, and we’ve put them here so you can see the shoe buckles in Gilbert Stuart’s painting of “The Right Honorable John Foster.”

People can also see works in the European galleries, including what must be the exhibit’s most elaborate piece. It reminds me of a carousel.

Thomas Pitts made this epergne, which would be put in the center of a dining table and hold sweetmeats and candies, and there would be fruit or cake in the center. It’s an English piece that is a highlight of the Nelson’s Folgers Coffee Silver Collection. The epergne is in the rococo style and has a pagaoda roof with bells that jingle and a pineapple on the top. Imagine this with candlelight. Silversmiths always thought about candlelight.

The colonialists brought high-style tradition with them from England to show they had some status. They didn’t want to be hicks in Boston and Philadelphia.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to

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