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Chasing Silver: The Story of Gorham - Image courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art
Image courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art

EPISODE TWO: 1878 - 1919

The Story of Gorham

The Gorham story unfolds chronologically, keeping historical events and company milestones in context of the era. Episodes highlight notable company leaders, designers and design styles.

Episode Summary

With John Gorham's ousting by the company board, a powerful, new leader in the form of Edward Holbrook emerges. Under Holbrook's leadership, Gorham enters its golden age.

After John Gorham’s ousting, the company must quickly reorganize. The board hires William Crins as the titular president, but it is the Company’s dynamic New York sales agent, Edward Holbrook, who ultimately takes Gorham to its greatest heights.

In this episode, the company journeys from a large workshop in the heart of Providence to a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant with more than a thousand employees. One of these employees, design director William Christmas Codman, helps establish Gorham as the world’s top maker of consumer silver wares. Codman’s spectacular silver, ivory and ebony writing desk and chair wins the grand prize in silversmithing at the 1904 World’s Fair.

It is during this period that Gorham ramps up its marketing efforts, using national and international expositions, print advertisements, and catalogs to promote its robust line of wares. The company also has showrooms in New York (1884) and London (1904), with a Birmingham, UK, factory established in 1909. 

During this era, Gorham promotes silver as a popular wedding gift with heirloom value. As Harpers Magazine wrote in 1910, “…there are few families among us so poor as not to have a few ounces of silver plate, and forlorn indeed must be the bride who does not receive upon her wedding day some articles made out of this beautiful metal.”

To shape and transport this beautiful metal more efficiently than ever before, Holbrook oversees the creation of a new, self-contained manufactory on 37 acres – complete with its own power plant, railway line and fire station – at 333 Adelaide Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island.

With the new factory come progressive levels of employee welfare. Holbrook instates shorter work hours, pension plans, a casino serving meals to workers, a bowling alley, and rooms for traveling salesmen to sleep at the facility. These measures help to keep workers unions from gaining traction. 

In 1914, when World War I breaks out in Europe, Holbrook adds an extension to the main factory to produce ammunition for the Serbian, French, and Russian armed forces.

When the US enters the war in 1917, Gorham builds a new plant in East Providence to produce grenades. The company’s employees, now mostly women, pack 100,000 grenades per day.

At this time, several organizations file complaints against Gorham, accusing them of discriminatory hiring practices. It is an accusation the company apparently does not refute, claiming that their white employees feel uncomfortable working alongside women of color.

During the war, Gorham enters into at least 24 contracts with the US military, but Holbrook knows that they must bolster their consumer sales in order to survive into the future. To help do this, Gorham launches a leaflet campaign urging the public to be patriotic by buying American-made products.

In 1919, two major events shake Gorham’s foundation: First, Holbrook dies without leaving a capable successor. Then, a few months later, the war ends, bringing the company’s war contracts to an abrupt halt.

With Gorham’s leadership in shambles and no new product lines on the horizon, the company’s future is dangerously uncertain.

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Chasing Silver: The Story of Gorham is made possible in part by ROSS-SIMONS.

Ross-Simons

Archival images courtesy of John Hay Library, Brown University, Gorham Company Records - Silver photography courtesy of RISD Museum, Providence, RI - Design drawings courtesy of Fleet Library at RISD