In 1942, Charleston Museum curator Milby Burton, the dean of South Carolina silver historians, published South Carolina Silver 1690-1860. His volume was understandably focused on Charleston for several reasons, the most important of which was that the city was the center of affluence and taste in Colonial America on the eve of the American Revolution and as such was an important center of silver sales. In 1991, Warren Ripley published an expanded edition of Burton’s pioneering work. Ripley was able to add much information on silversmiths outside the Lowcountry. In the introduction to his volume, Ripley charted silversmithing’s expansion in the first half of the 19th century into such “villages” as Camden, Columbia, Cheraw, Newberry, Winnsboro, and York. He found at least one silversmith in a majority of the county seats in 1860.
The old adage “Follow the money” is applicable in tracing the history of South Carolina silver. Ripley showed that from 1801 to 1819, Charleston had 76 silversmiths while the rest of the state only had three. However, with the wealth created from short-staple upland cotton from 1821 to 1830, there were 48 Charleston silversmiths compared to the rest of the state’s 25. Then, from 1841 to 1850, Charleston’s 40 was almost equaled by the rest of South Carolina’s 32. In the decade spanning 1851 to 1860, the real eye-opening statistic shows Charleston’s 30 silversmiths eclipsed by the rest of the state’s 76 as wealth spread across the state.
The increase in the number of Columbia silversmiths reflected a booming town. In 1860, Columbia had the largest number of silversmiths outside the port city. Nine were located in Columbia with shops primarily on Richardson (Main) Street. That year, Charleston still had four times as many as Columbia at 39, but there were a total of 67 outside both Columbia and Charleston. Even such distant outposts as Greenville, Anderson, Spartanburg, and Pendleton had silversmiths who sold silver, jewelry, and clocks.
Before the 1850s, Columbia had noteworthy silversmiths, including Benjamin Rawls, Abraham Lipman, William Gregg, Edward Young, and James Peckham, but these earliest smiths had either died or moved by that decade. Rawls was Columbia’s earliest known smith, working from before 1816 to 1850. He made clocks, created silver and gold work, repaired locks, and was a part-time blacksmith. He lived on Taylor Street until his house was destroyed by soldiers in 1865. He died the following year at age 94. Lipman was the second silversmith (1822-1830); and William Gregg was third (1824-1834) before his move to Charleston. Edward Young (died 1847) was the son of Camden’s famous silversmith Alexander Young, who was perhaps the finest and most prolific of the state’s silversmiths outside of Charleston. Edward moved to Columbia to expand the family business.
Perhaps Columbia’s most important firm up to 1857 was John Veal, Sr., working from 1827 to 1857. His son, J. Veal, Jr., opened a shop in 1860 but that closed soon after during the Civil War.
In 1860, the city’s two purveyors of silver were Thomas W. Radcliffe and William Glaze. Radcliffe, working from 1848 to 1870, had been an apprentice of William Gregg. He joined with William Glaze as Glaze and Radcliffe, then with James Guignard to form Radcliffe and Guignard. His son, Thomas W. Radcliffe, Jr., was also listed in 1860. The Radcliffes’ business was continued after the war until 1896, when it was succeeded by today’s Sylvan Brothers. From 1838 to 1882, William Glaze produced a large amount of silver but also made and sold jewelry, swords, firearms, and clocks. He became most famous at Palmetto Armory.
One of the more interesting stories about a Columbia silversmith concerned George Bruns, who worked in the city from around 1858 to 1914. He was born in Hanover of modern-day Germany, came first to Charleston at age 16 in 1855, and then moved to Columbia. He joined the Confederate Army and was wounded at Gettysburg. He had his leg amputated in the field while lying on an overturned wagon, attended by Simon Baruch, Bernard Baruch’s father. Bruns was on Main Street during the burning of Columbia and, owing to his missing leg, was unable to reach his house in time to save it. After losing everything he owned, he began again and worked in the town until 1914. He died in 1920 at age 81.
Other silversmiths in the city in 1860 were Joseph Cooper (1843-60); Edward Egg (1860-80); Thomas Mood, son of the celebrated Charleston silversmith Peter Mood; and Gerhard Diercks (1855-65), to whom Bruns was apprenticed when he came to town. Turning up silver hallmarked by any of these five would be cause to celebrate. An elegant ladle by Cooper is on display in the South Carolina State Museum, but his silver is very scarce.
In his introduction to South Carolina Silver, Burton detailed the causes why Carolina silver is less abundant. He wrote, “The greatest single cause for the disappearance of old silver pieces was war, from which South Carolina has twice suffered disastrously. During the Revolution, the British army completely overran the State looting all the plantations in a most systematic manner.” They shipped the silver in large rice barrels to England. The silver was valued at 300,000 pounds sterling, many millions in today’s currency. Ripley added, “Every now and then a piece made in South Carolina turns up in England and may have been part of the loot.”
For silver in South Carolina, including Columbia, the greatest loss occurred in 1865 with the advance of Gen. William T. Sherman’s army through the state. Burton and Ripley both quote a letter from Lt. Thomas J. Myers, of Boston, Massachusetts, written to his wife on 26 February 1865 in which he described the theft of valuables in Columbia. Myers wrote, “Unrestricted license to burn and plunder was the order of the day. The chivalry have been stripped of most of their valuables. Gold watches, silver pitchers, cups, spoons, forks, etc. etc. etc. are as common in camp as blackberries.” Myers noted the specific theft of “an old silver milk pitcher” from Mr. DeSaussure of Columbia, who “was made to fork out liberally.” He told his wife that he had “at least a quart of jewelry for you and all the girls — some No. 1 diamond pins and valuables of every description, down to ladies’ pocket handkerchiefs.”
Myers also detailed the methods of dividing up the loot. The items were pooled. The choice one-fifth went to the commander-in-chief, one-fifth to the corps commander, one-fifth to the field officers, and two-fifths to the company. Myers was particularly interested in jewelry because he could hide it on his person and not pool it. He wished “all the jewelry this army has could be carried to Massachusetts. It would deck her out in glorious style; but, alas! It will be scattered all over the North.” Of the commander who had the choice of the first one-fifth, he wrote, “General Sherman has gold and silver enough to start a bank.”
Ripley wrote, “The rather large number of South Carolina pieces I have found in the hands of Northern dealers purchased in the North leads me to believe that Lt. Thomas Myers knew precisely of what he wrote.” Ripley wondered just how much South Carolina silver survives today as “Northern family heirlooms, after arriving in the North via some Yankee soldier’s knapsack.”
Ripley also found that another loss of Columbia silver came from 1979 to 1980, when the price of silver soared. Some pieces were the object of burglaries while even owners of unsuspected rare silver sold it to be melted down for bullion. Unfortunately, the practice of silver melting continues today.
The relative scarcity of Columbia-made silver due to the city’s history makes the items even more precious. In a 2002 interview, Charlotte Crabtree, vice president of the South Carolina Silver Society, noted, “In South Carolina, we respect our heritage; and family silver is a part of that heritage.” Heirloom silver, she continued, “is connection to the past. It evokes memories relating to a particular Christmas dinner or the celebration of the birth of a child. It’s a footnote to those major events in people’s lives. This is more the case in the South, and even more so in South Carolina.”
Dawn Corley, a popular speaker on antique silver, in a 2016 interview, declared of Southern silver, “Its silky feel, timeless beauty, and the soothing way it warms to the human touch are almost magical.” Adding an unquantifiable value are “the stories of the people who made and used each item.” Dawn’s ancestor is the Colonial Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie. Among her most treasured items is a coffee pot made by Petrie in the mid-1700s that has been passed down through the generations in her family, and her great-grandmother gave it to her.
Harry Stork, another famous lecturer on silver, always advises owners to use their silver. “I use mine every day,” he declares. “Use gives the silver a deep glow. Tarnish to black can be removed, but the silver will remain clouded.”
Charlotte shares, “About 50 percent say, ‘I just look at it’ but people are entertaining more at home, connecting more on an emotional level with family. People are saying, ‘Why should I wait for special occasions? Let’s pull it out and use it.’”
Experts offer this emphatic advice on silver care: Use it, but never put it in a dishwasher. Harry says, “Some of the soap adheres and gets baked in.” Dishwashing dulls silver, and brightening usually requires professional buffing. Wash the silver by hand in warm soapy water and dry it with a soft cloth. Acidic foods like eggs, mayonnaise, vinegar, and shrimp will stain and pit unless washed immediately. Experts agree that silver should never be wrapped in plastic or put in plastic bags owing to harmful chemicals in the plastic. Trapped moisture leads to pitting. Silver should be stored in white, acid-free cloth, and preferably tarnish-free bags.
If one does not have a Columbia silver tradition, it is never too late to begin one. Despite loss, Columbia silver still comes up for auction. Following Ripley’s lead, one might profitably search Northern dealers to bring home some of the large amounts of Columbia silver. This area has the greatest potential for collectors today.
These silver pieces are thus more than beautiful artifacts. They are survivors of history and should be properly venerated as reminders of cultural excellence. When it was made, it was used in the everyday life of the society. From fish knives, pastry servers, wine strainers, sugar-sifters, ladles, trays, butter knives and bowls, to tea services, sugar-tongs, julep cups, goblets, marrow-scoops, berry-scoops, and rice spoons, the pieces were utilitarian. This kind of wealth was not hoarded in banks or stocks and bonds but rather was used and enjoyed for practical purposes. The items were also not just for display; silver was art in daily life, on the sideboard and on the table.
Refinement is living with art casually but respectfully so that its familiarity becomes ingrained. The casual elegance of finely crafted silver gives its users the habit of being at ease with well-made, fine things. When art becomes impressed by the passage of time and gathers the associations and stories of generations of family, the result is that it becomes doubly the daily fabric of high culture. Refinement for the traditional Southerner was, and is, not a matter of mere per capita income. Using artfully crafted Columbia silver is a much more significant measure.