Consider the shoe buckle. Once so common it inspired nursery rhymes -- "One, two, buckle my shoe" -- it has fallen so far out of fashion that it seems only the Founding Fathers wore them in official portraits.
In its heyday, though, the ornament was such a big deal that English silversmiths and jewelers filed 27 patents for shoe buckle improvements in just one decade, 1779-90.
This is the sort of fun factoid to be gleaned from "A Handsome Cupboard of Plate: Early American Silver in the Cahn Collection" on view through March 24 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Organized by the institute, the show will travel to museums in Kansas City, St. Louis and Williamsburg, Va., after its Minneapolis debut.
"Cupboard" is not, we hasten to say, a show about footwear. As its ponderous title suggests, it is, well, a handsome display of colonial era serving pieces -- tea and coffee pots, beer tankards, porringers, sauce boats, trays, candleholders -- handmade by some of the era's most distinguished craftsmen, including Paul Revere of Boston, Myer Myers of New York and the Richardson family of Philadelphia.
Each of the approximately 75 pieces dates to the 17th or 18th centuries, when ownership of such things was a mark of status. The wares were made by an eclectic lot of mostly European-born craftsmen -- English, French, Swiss, Dutch, German -- who worked side by side with "apprentices and unnamed journeymen, skilled indentured servants, free blacks, and slaves," according to the show's scholarly catalog.
Silver "plate," as the whatnots were called, was prized for its malleability and intrinsic value. In tough times it could be sold to pay debts or taxes. Objects that got damaged or went out of fashion could be melted down and redesigned in the latest style. Governments could, and often did, confiscate them to pay for wars or other extravagances.
While the pieces are up to 300 years old and made in America, the silver itself is older and better traveled.
"Most of the silver was mined in South America and sent to Portugal and Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries," said Eike Schmidt, the museum's curator of decorative arts and sculpture, who oversaw the installation. "From there it was exported to the rest of Europe and England, made into new objects and then shipped to the colonies," where it was remade yet again.
Because of the constant refashioning, old silver objects are exceedingly rare. The collection of Paul and Elissa Cahn of St. Louis, featured here, is considered among the best in private hands.
Early American 'modernism'
In keeping with international fashion, most colonial-era silver is simple, clean-lined and elegantly proportioned. The earliest piece, the two-handled 1690 "Tufts Cup" by Jeremiah Dummer of Boston, is a lovely ball-like bowl with a gently flaring lip, stylized vine-like handles and gracefully engraved inscriptions. A wooden-handled teapot by Myer Myers is so spare and sleek -- with an ostrich-egg body and narrow tapered spout -- that it could pass as an early 20th-century Danish-modern design though it was made around 1750 in New York.
Some items seem buffeted by winds of stylistic change, notably a pair of sauce boats turned out by the Richardson brothers circa 1780. The beads around their lips are a newfangled neoclassical conceit while their feathery handles and animalian legs are a pastiche of rococo fancy work.
Contemporary foodies will appreciate the international flavor of colonial tables. The introduction of coffee, tea and chocolate from the Middle East, Asia and South America inspired a wealth of storage boxes, specialized brewing pots, strainers, water pitchers and stirring spoons.
Sugar, once a rarity, became a common import. But how to serve it? Myers cleverly modeled a sugar bowl after a Chinese covered rice bowl, an elegantly functional design. The New York artisan (1723-95) is also remembered as the British Empire's "first native Jew" silversmith, according to the catalog.
For all their talent, however, all these metalsmiths must defer to Paul Revere (1734-1818) when it comes to design. Popularly remembered as the patriot-horseman who warned that British soldiers were on the move, Revere was a splendid artisan with an eye for elegant design. The Cahn collection boasts four Revere pieces -- a tea pot and stand, a covered sugar urn and a cream pot. All are fluted forms defined by columnar indentations decorated with delicate engravings of swags and fringe. Assembled from various owners, the group includes pieces historically associated with relatives of President John Adams and his President-son, John Quincy Adams.
The show's great contribution is the chance to see those Revere pieces next to the institute's splendid 18-piece Templeman tea service, the most complete Revere set in existence. While the Cahn set is modest by comparison, having two Revere services of such quality and pedigree under the same roof is an opportunity not to be missed.
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