Metalwork from the Index of American Design
This program presents selected examples of metalwork created in America between the early eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Produced by skilled craftsmen working in iron, tin, copper, brass, pewter, and silver, American metalwork ranges from the simple forms associated with folk tradition to the more sophisticated styles of a fine craft. Most of the objects you find here were created for the home. They exemplify the skill and artistry the American metalworker brought to his craft.
Iron is one of the most abundant minerals available. The strength and malleability of this metal make it suitable for a variety of useful objects. This door latch is made of wrought iron forged by a blacksmith. An important member of the early American community, the blacksmith produced farm tools and implements, household utensils, and other hardware. Iron bars were heated at the forge until they were malleable. Then, with swift strokes, the blacksmith hammered the hot iron into the desired shape. This door latch is just one example of the blacksmith's craft. Made by a Pennsylvania German, it is called a "Suffolk" latch, a style in which the upper and lower cusps, or plates, are joined by a central handle. The thumb-press extending through a hole in the upper cusp attaches to the locking mechanism on the back of the door. The cusps are formed in an arrowhead design and embellished with curved points. A desire for the elaboration of simple, everyday objects was common to the German population of Pennsylvania as an extension of their European design traditions.
Iron plantations, and later foundries, established great furnaces for casting iron products. The casting process included carving a wooden model of the object to be cast. The wooden pattern was then pressed into a bed of sand so that a relief of the form remained. Molten iron, poured into the sand mold and allowed to cool, resulted in the cast iron product. The stove plate shown here was produced in this manner. The five-plate, or jamb, stove was introduced by German immigrants in the late eighteenth century. It was cube-shaped with five sides, or plates, of cast iron and the sixth side opening into the wall. This stove plate is Pennsylvania German. Dated 1763, it was made at the furnace of George Stevenson whose name appears on its face. The flowers and heart are typical of Pennsylvania German decoration. An architectural motif of twisted columns and arches divides the space into areas which frame tulips and a heart.
Andirons came into use when formal fireplaces required decorative accessories, particularly in drawing rooms and in taverns. The earliest andirons were forged of wrought iron and decorated by simple scrolls or ogee curves, but by the mid-eighteenth century foundries were producing more elaborate cast iron varieties. The subject of this andiron, representing a "Marching Hessian," became popular in the 1780s after the American Revolution. Playing on patriotic sympathies, this andiron represented the Hessian soldier who fought for the British as a mercenary. Human figures on andirons were uncommon, and it is said that putting this figure to such menial use symbolized American resentment of the mercenary soldier. This andiron, cast from a sand mold, is in high relief. Polychrome paints were used to set off the details of the uniform and the facial expression.
Decorative ironwork was originally wrought at the forge. Used for gates, grilles, railings, and balconies, such ironwork represented the height of the blacksmith's craft. These decorative pieces first appeared in cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Baltimore. By the early nineteenth century, however, foundries were producing popular cast ironwork for other regions. This cast iron panel from a cemetery gate was made in the mid-nineteenth century. The ornate floral and arboreal motifs aretypical of Victorian decoration popular in that period. The lamb resting under a weeping willow tree was a common theme symbolic of grief and appropriate for the panel's use as a cemetery ornament.
Ironware cast at the foundry or wrought by a blacksmith was heavy and cumbersome. In contrast, the lightness of tinplate made it a popular metal for plain and decorative household utensils. Tinplate was made from thin sheets of iron coated with molten tin. This combination of metals is rustproof, with the strength and rigidity of iron but the malleability and lightness of tin. This tin cookie cutter was a common item made by Pennsylvania German tinsmiths. It may have been used by a housewife or by a gingerbread baker. The horse and rider pattern shown here was popular. Other common patterns were deer, stars, eagles, and the traditional gingerbread boy. The figure, which provided the cutting edge, was shaped of thin tin ribbons that were soldered to a flat base. Because cookie cutters were made by the local tinsmith or by amateur craftsmen, the simple but imaginative shapes display a true folk art quality.
Because England restricted the importation of raw tin into the colonies, tinware was scarce in America before the Revolution. By the nineteenth century, however, tin was plentiful and in great demand for a variety of household articles. Lighting devices were commonly made of tinplate. The lightness of the metal allowed sconces to be hung from the wall or chandeliers from the ceiling. The flexibility of the material allowed craftsmen to fashion decorative shapes. This chandelier, made in the 1830s, was constructed of sheet tin. The barrel-shaped body provides a central core from which six arms extend outward to terminate in candleholders. The S-curves of the arms serve to diffuse the light away from the center while providing a decorative aspect to the chandelier's form. Ribbed bands around the body of the chandelier and ribs extending along the arms suggest a linear pattern that is emphasized by the fluting of the candleholders. The simplicity of this linear pattern and the round forms of the central body and candleholders provide a unified and pleasing sound.
Because tin is unable to withstand hard use, most plain domestic articles have not survived. In contrast, decorated tinware, commonly presented as gifts and reserved for display, remains in relatively good condition. Some tinware was decorated by painting or by punching designs into the surface. Made about 1830, this Pennsylvania German coffeepot was made from flat sheets of tin hammered in separate sections over molds. The decoration was raised by dots punched in from the back creating an embossed effect. The punched sections were then shaped and soldered together. In the Pennsylvania German manner, a stylized floral and geometric pattern decorates the pot. The pot is finished with a reeded spout and a black wooden knob. The scroll handle, also of black wood, suggests forms associated with the handles of pewter and silver pots. However, in this case, the handle is crude and out of proportion to the body. Though the tinsmith copied styles prevalent in the finer metal crafts, his work was obviously more akin to that of the folk artist in simplicity of conception and execution.
Toleware is painted tinplate. Also called "japanned-ware," it originated in the Orient, spread to Europe, and then to America, where its height of popularity was reached in the nineteenth century. Because toleware was prized for its decoration, it was often presented as a wedding or birthday gift and reserved for display. Like this box, toleware was generally painted with a black asphaltum varnish that imitated lacquer. The decoration was executed with oil paint in bright yellow, greens, blues, and oranges. Fruits, flowers, and ornamental swirls provided common motifs. This document box was a type used for string money, jewels, and valuable papers. It was probably made in the early nineteenth century at Stevens Plains, Maine, a center for toleware manufacture in that period. The box is painted with asphaltum and decorated with a type of oil color associated Connecticut jappaners. The box has been attributed to Oliver Buckley, a japanner who was trained in Connecticut and settled in Stevens Plains. His designs usually feature a round spot of orange with brushstrokes overlaid. Leaf forms fill the areas between spots. The handle of the box is made of cast brass and is bolted to the lid with two round brass plates.
Teakettles were the most popular items made of copper. Domestic copperware was scarce during British colonial rule because the smelting of copper ore was restricted. But, as the number of facilities for the production of sheet copper increased, coppersmiths produced greater varieties of household utensils. This kettle, dated 1799, was made by shaping a copper sheet into a cylinder and then hammering the metal to the desired form. Although the design of copper teakettles was derived from European sources, the outward flare of the body is distinctly American. The curve of the handle, and domed lid, and the roundness of the kettle's body are in contrast with the sleek appearance of the gooseneck spout. Coppersmiths were skilled at their craft and often signed their works. The flat handle of the teakettle provided a convenient surface for the craftsman's mark. This kettle is unmarked but has been engraved instead with the names of its owners and their birth and death dates.
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc that was popular with early artisans for making a variety of household articles. Brass is hard yet malleable and will take a high polish. Because of the bright, golden beauty of this metal, articles such as andirons, candlesticks, and other accessories were made of brass for fine drawing rooms. This brass warming pan was used to warm cold bedsheets on a wintry night. Bedwarmers were a practical necessity in cold climates until modern heating systems came into existence. This bedwarmer was constructed with a hinged lid covering a pan several inches deep into which hot coals were usually placed. Holes perforated in the lid allowed smoke to escape. Wooden handles, often several feet long, were attached to eighteenth-century warming pans like this one. This pan was cast from a sand mold. The rims of the lid and the base were reinforced with wire to strengthen the edges and to provide a neat appearance. After the pan was cast, it was polished by hand to achieve a bright shine. The lid decoration was embossed, a process done by hammer and chisel. The pattern of wavy lines, the flowers, and the rooster lend a folk art quality to the design.
In a molten state brass can be cast into intricate shapes like this hinged patchbox cover. A patchbox is a container inlayed into the buttstock of a flintlock rifle that holds a greased cloth or other small piece of equipment. Flintlock rifles, developed by the Pennsylvania Germans, played an important role in the Revolutionary War. Also called Kentucky rifles, they were made famous by such backwoods heroes as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. This patchbox cover was probably made about 1810. Pennsylvania German gunsmiths displayed their love of fine decoration by including elaborate detail on their rifles. The scroll design of this patchbox cover reflects the ornate style fashionable during the "Golden Age" of Kentucky rifles, while the bird motif is in keeping with Pennsylvania German tradition.
In early America, weather vanes were a common sight atop churches, barns, and shops. Although many vanes were made of wood, craftsmen who worked in iron, copper, tin, and brass also produced weather vanes of outstanding design and conception, often combining several metals. This weather vane, representing the Angel Gabriel, originally graced the steeple of the Universalist Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The angel is a much less common weather vane subject than, for example, horses or roosters, and the image of Gabriel is rarer still. Although there are several known examples of the archangel blowing his horn, this version appears to be unique. Made in 1840 by the Gould and Hazlett Company of Boston, the angel has a flat body cut from sheet iron and gilded; the tubular horn was made of copper. The pieces were then fastened together with iron rivets. The work shows grace in the flowing contours of the angel's wings and robe, yet it is also crude, in the obvious, heavy bracing that supports the figure. The artist, Lucille Chabot, had to experiment to arrive at a technique that would "get the thing to glow...not to get it grainy." She achieved the desired effect by a "series of glazes, one color over another."
Made in the late nineteenth century, this weather vane represents a contemporaneous fire engine. By combining brass, copper, zinc, and iron, the craftsman created a functional yet decorative object. The boiler of the engine is made of brass, while the other engine parts, the men's bodies, and the horses are copper. The heads of the firemen are zinc; the supporting bars are iron painted black. This weather vane may have topped a firehouse. Compared with the simple, stylized forms common in the folk art tradition, the attention to detail marks this fire engine as an unusually fine piece. The craftsman who executed such a work had to be skilled in shaping the metal as well as sensitive to the elements of design.
From the seventeenth century to the nineteenth centuries, pewter was popular among middle class Americans for tableware and serving pieces, because it was more refined than wood and less costly than fine china. Pewter is an alloy of tin with varying combinations of copper, brass, lead, antimony, and bismuth. Because English law restricted the importation of raw tin into the colonies, pewterware was imported as a finished product. Colonial pewterers obtained their material by melting down worn-out pewter and recasting it into new forms. Brass molds, made by the pewterer himself, were most often used. After the piece was cast, it was skimmed on a lathe to make it smooth. The various components of a pewter object, such as the body, the foot, and the handle, were cast separately and soldered together. This pewter flagon was made in the early nineteenth century by the Boardman brothers. The Boardmans were a family with a tradition of pewtering, having inherited from their uncle, Samuel Boardman Danforth, many of the molds from which they cast their wares. This flagon is derived from Danforth styles. It was designed from a modified basin foot -- that is, the bottom of the piece was cast from a basin mold, inverted, and soldered to the body of the vessel. The handle is a double-C scroll, while the lid is a flattened dome. Though not all flagons were made with spouts, the Boardmans included one here. Flagons were originally used in homes to bring beer and cider to the table, but later ones, such as this, were often found in churches as part of the communion service.
This coffeepot was made by Eben Smith, a pewterer and brazier from Beverly, Massachusetts. Beverly was a center of Britannia production in the mid-nineteenth century, and this piece may be of that alloy. Britannia is a type of pewter that contains a high percentage of tin with antimony added for hardness. It became popular in the nineteenth century because its shiny surface resembled silver and its hardness provided durability. Britannia was either cast like pewter or rolled into sheets and fashioned over wooden forms. Objects made of Britannia are usually thinner and lighter than those made of regular pewter. This coffeepot was designed in a modified lighthouse form with a domed lid topped by a small wooden knob. The S-shaped spout and scroll handle provide a boldness of form associated with Britannia ware. Encircling the body of this pot are rounded bands that were common on Britannia ware, because they served to strengthen the thin walls. The floral medallion on the side suggests the bright cut ornament often used for decoration by silversmiths.
In early America, silversmithing was practiced primarily in the urban centers of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, where social and intellectual connections with England were strongest. English silver provided the standard in quality and fashion, reflected by American silver work. Craftsmen obtained their material most often by melting down old coins or silverware. From flat silver sheets, the craftsmen hammered the metal into the desired shape. After the piece was formed, the surface was smoothed by beating it lightly with a special hammer. By the mid-eighteenth century, thumbpieces, finials, and handles were cast in silver and soldered onto the body. This piece is a spout cup made by the Boston silversmith John Edwards in the early eighteenth century. He is identified by the small mark on the neck of the cup, which he used to sign his products. Spout cups were used for drinking by small children, the sick, and the elderly. The design of this one is simple but refined, unlike more elaborate forms common in that period. The cup is set on a foot ring and has a flat strap handle and a slender, curving spout. Incised bands around the neck of the cup are repeated around the base and on the handle, serving to further emphasize the restraint and elegance of this piece.
Michael Fenga (artist), American, active c. 1935, Isaac Hutton (object maker), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (object owner), Silver Teapot, c. 1938 graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.14175
After the Revolution, the design of silver and of most other decorative arts assumed a classical style. Craftsmen created elegant designs based on interplays of graceful curves and smooth straight lines. A corresponding refinement was seen in surface decoration. This silver teapot, made in the late eighteenth century by Isaac Hutton in Albany, New York, reflects the new classicism. Notice that the oval body is shaped into serpentine curves that form vertical panels. The theme is continued in the straight, tapering spout, which is oval in cross section. Further emphasizing the classical design are an urn finial atop the bell-shaped lid and the foliate shield medallion that decorates the side. Typical of New York teapots during this period are the bright-cut bands of floral swags that encircle the top and bottom of the piece. This bright-cut form of engraving, achieved by using a small gouge to chip-carve the decoration, was also used at the base of the lid. The shape of the wooden scroll handle relates to the undulating surface of the pot. The wooden handle protected the user when the pot was filled with hot tea.
More Index of American Design Features