October 19: The Silver City’s Artful Silver Gets Gold-Star Reviews at the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition

 

Today in 1876, Connecticut found itself in the national spotlight through the artistic craftsmanship of the silver pieces produced by the Meriden Britannia Company of Meriden when the New York Times published a glowing write-up of the silver products the company exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Noting the “peculiar excellence” of the Silver City company’s highly detailed figural sculptures as well as its more approachable, high-quality sets of silverware, the Times concluded that “Everything appertaining to the work of the Meriden Britannia ware is admirable in design and very perfect and true in workmanship. …[Their] work abounds with fine outlines and conscientious work in all its details.”

The Times was hardly alone in its effusive praise of the Meriden Britannia Company’s display in Philadelphia. After their wares were viewed by scores of judges — and over eight million visitors to the Centennial Exposition — the Meriden Britannia Company was awarded First Place for plated metal wares. The central Connecticut-based manufacturer, which employed 800 workers in its Meriden factory complex, had made a name for itself in an extremely crowded field of domestic and international competitors by focusing on perfecting the art of intricately detailed silver-plate design (as opposed to working in sterling, as many British silver companies did). Meriden’s reputation as an international center for the manufacture of affordable, plated silver publicly earned it the nickname of “Silver City.”

Prominently placed at the center of the Britannia Company’s Centennial Exposition pavilion was a striking centerpiece featuring Native American motifs — a hugely popular design theme at the time of the Centennial, as both elite taste-makers and everyday citizens sought to celebrate the people, places, and symbols considered to be unique to the United States. (Ironically, less than two weeks before the nation’s centennial began on July 4th, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry had suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of Lakota Sioux at the Battle of Little Big Horn.)

In recent years, Meriden Britannia Company’s prize-winning Centennial centerpiece was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for over $32,000. The finest examples of silver craftsmanship, proudly produced in the “Silver City,” still captures the American imagination, today in Connecticut history.

This prize-winning Native American silver-plated centerpiece from the Meriden Britannia Company took first place at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. (Photo: Sotheby’s)

Further Reading

Important Americana: American silver-plated “Chief and Squaw” centerpiece, Meriden Britannia Company,” Sotheby’s

Meriden’s Silver Lining,” connecticuthistory.org

Nancy Finlay, “Up from the Ashes: Fire at the Meriden Britannia Company,” connecticuthistory.org