Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
In the City Museum’s Silver Collection you’ll find objects made, owned, or sold in the city of New York, such as domestic and presentation hollowware, flatware, and costume accessories. The oldest objects are two standing salt vessels made in 1623 and the most recent is a Tiffany & Co. Pavoda baby spoon designed by Elsa Peretti in 1997. Presentation pieces given as gifts for a variety of occasions, including events related to religious ceremony, education, sports, rites of passage such as marriage, politics, and military action, represent one of the strongest areas of the collection. While the presentation of objects made of precious metals is not unique to this city, New York’s city government, civic organizations, and volunteer groups all offered prolific occasions on which to give these impressive gifts.
An example of one of these presentation pieces relates to the Interborough Rapid Transit Subway: a tray depicting subway station interiors, subway tunnel construction, a map of the subway line, and the proposed extensions into Bronx and Brooklyn. (You can see images of the completed City Hall station on our collections portal here.)
In the same vein is a tankard presented to New York City volunteer fireman Jameson Cox for completion of his service as first foreman to Engine Company No. 26 in 1823. What makes this tankard unique is its reuse as a presentation piece. The tankard was originally made in 1757 by silversmith William Grundy of London, active 1738 to 1779, and possibly received later by a craftsman as partial payment for newly made silver. This craftsman then held the tankard in stock rather than melting it down, adding the spout and handle at a later date. At the time of the presentation, the tankard form was no longer fashionable. Silversmiths in New York City produced tankards into the second decade of the nineteenth century, replacing this form of fermented beverage container with open cans and mugs. Despite its lack of popularity and stunted production, the tankard continued to be used as a presentation piece. This characteristic is seen again in a tankard made ca.1745-1755 and later presented in 1864.
The tankard form was a staple of silversmith Jacob Hurd’s workshop in the 1730s and 1740s and the one below is another example of repurposing objects for presentation. The original owner’s initials have been removed from the handle and possibly a monogram within the reserve as well. In April 1864, Lester Wallack was presented with this tankard by his friends on the Dramatic Committee in thanks for his service during the Metropolitan Fair, organized to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission.
Alterations to existing silver objects were a standard part of the trade, but the repurposing of objects as presentation pieces was not as common. In some instances the original inscription was left intact. A cup presented first to Benjamin Drake, M.D. in 1842, later presented to Edward Skidmore in 1881, is one example of this rare attribute. Both inscriptions from the separate gifts remain, but there is no other known connection between the two men.
The presentation of objects related to municipal purposes is just one small category in the larger genre of presentation pieces, but one that was particularly popular in New York City. The Silver Collection of the Museum of the City of New York contains many more pieces similar to the ones mentioned above as well as objects vastly different in style, scale, and significance.
This important work is taking place thanks to generous grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Louis & Virginia Clemente Foundation, and Henry Luce Foundation. These grants allow the Museum to conserve, digitize, and update the cataloging for the entirety of the Silver Collection, eventually making approximately 2,600 objects accessible to the public via the Museum’s online Collections Portal. These objects are now being professionally photographed in the Museum’s state of the art onsite digital lab. As the digitization project progresses, I continue to discover treasures within the collection, so stay tuned for the next post on the City Museum’s vast Silver Collection!