Showing Off The Family Silver In Chester County

Posted: March 01, 1987

The silver exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society is the kind of show that will send people rummaging through a grandmother's sideboard or through safe deposit boxes to take another look at the family silver.

"We had a safe full of spoons - 540 of them - along with 550 other silver objects that needed cataloguing," said Ann Barton Brown, associate director of the historical society and curator of the show, explaining what prompted the exhibition. "Now we have catalogued the collection and can help people identify their silver."

An entire case in the exhibition, "Chester County Silver: Heirlooms Reflecting History," is devoted to the collection of the late Phoebe Phillips Prime. Her flatware ranges from early 17th-century Italian knives and forks to a 19th-century English folding spoon of Sheffield silver plate for traveling. It also includes some handsome 18th-century serving spoons, two kinds of strainer spoons, tiny coffee spoons and sugar shovels.

Prime, who lived in Chester County, wrote the catalogues for two landmark exhibitions of Philadelphia silver that were held by the Society of Colonial Dames in Philadelphia in 1929 and 1938. She bequeathed her library, notes and small items, mostly flatware, to the historical society. Her collection of holloware remained in her family, and her spoon collection went to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Other items in the exhibit, which will be on view through Aug. 16 at the historical society, include a case of souvenir spoons, among them spoons from the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Also on display are silver-plated spoons with profiles of presidents; the spoons were used as promotions by Philadelphia publisher Moses Annenberg to build the circulation of his newspapers earlier in this century. (Annenberg established the International Souvenir Spoon Co. and kept a percentage of the sale price of each spoon.)

There are some impressive examples of presentation water pitchers in the show. One is decorated with a view of a freight train about to enter a tunnel. It was made by Philadelphia jewelers Bailey and Kitchen for Wirts Robinson in honor of his work on the Philadelphia, Reading and Pottsville Railroad.

Another pitcher on display was commissioned by the Bank of Chester County

from Philadelphia silversmiths R. and W. Wilson in 1849 on the retirement of David Townsend, the bank's founder. Its decoration, in high relief, was taken

from botanical illustrations. Townsend also was a rose fancier, and the handle and foot of the pitcher are decorated with roses named for him.

Personal accessories - sewing tools, chatelaines (hooks and chains worn at the waist for suspending sewing tools), spectacles, snuff boxes, napkin rings, card cases, hair ornaments, shoe and knee buckles - provided much of the silversmith's livelihood. They make up most of the historical society's collection.

"People tend to sell tea services and tankards or keep them in the family and give smaller items to historical societies," Brown said. Nevertheless, the Chester County Historical Society has been the recipient of several handsome tea services and salvers (trays), most of them in the plain Quaker style.

An apple-shaped teapot with the initials "DM" was made by Philadelphia Quaker silversmith Joseph Richardson for Deborah Morris, a wealthy Quaker spinster who lived in Chester County. Richardson also made a large waiter (tray), with a pie crust edge and scroll feet, a gift from the Brinton family. Both are part of the exhibit.

The Brinton family also gave the society an urn-shaped teapot, plus creamer and sugar bowl. The helmet-shaped creamer is marked by Christian Wiltberger, a Philadelphia silversmith; the origin of the other pieces cannot be established.

Barbara Soltis of Radnor, who has spent the last four years studying the work of early Philadelphia silversmith John Bayly in preparation for a book, says sometimes the family silver is not always done by the same silversmith.

"I have seen one family's silver with each piece marked by a different maker," Soltis noted. Soltis recently discovered Bayly's mark "IB" on several previously unattributed pieces at the Yale Art Gallery and on a well- known sugar bowl with a bid finial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A spoon bearing his mark is part of the historical society exhibit.

The Chester County Historical Society, 225 North High St., West Chester, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 1 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $2; senior citizens, $1; students, 50 cents.

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