As part of this weekend's 23rd annual Maryland Historical Society Antiques Show, the society will swing wide the door of its vault today, offering students and silver collectors a rare opportunity to view some of the more notable and unusual items from its collection of 2,000 pieces.
Jeannine Disviscour, curator of the society's decorative arts collection, will lead a breakfast discussion beginning at 10 this morning at its headquarters on 201 W. Monument St. in downtown Baltimore. The cost is $25 and includes admission to the antiques show.
A selection of 100 pieces are on permanent exhibition on the first and second floor of the society museum. Disviscour will discuss 25 pieces from the society's vault, encompassing the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Some of them have never been exhibited before.
Disviscour, who joined the historical society as assistant curator in 1995, earned her bachelor's degree in anthropology in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a master's degree from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture in 1991. She has worked as a research assistant at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"The majority of silver on exhibition [at the society] is from the 19th century. The reason for this is twofold," explained Disviscour. "First, our collection of 19th-century silver is the largest of any historical society in the U.S., and second, the wealth of Maryland's 19th-century citizens and their patronage of our pre-eminent silver manufacturers: Samuel Kirk, Samuel Kirk & Sons, Andrew Ellicott Warner, John Lynch, William Ball and Charles Louis Boehme," she said.
Disviscour explains that before the Revolutionary War, the majority of silver owned by Marylanders was brought from or purchased in England. However, in New England, silversmiths began manufacturing pieces as early as the 1640s.
The earliest Maryland-made silver dates to the 1730s and was made in Annapolis. Other silver-making centers in those years included Chestertown, Easton and Baltimore, but it wasn't until the 19th century that Maryland silversmithing really came into its own.
The 25 examples Disviscour has chosen to discuss can only be described as eclectic. They range from a tea caddy to trays, spoons, teapots, a powder horn and even a "pap boat," used to feed infants and invalids.
She has several favorites.
One is a chocolate pot made during 1727-1728 for Sarah Covington Hollyday of Baltimore, and attributed to Thomas Tearle, an English silversmith. Its social significance is that it celebrated the exclusive custom of drinking expensive chocolate and teas, considered something of an exotic beverage in those years.
Disviscour adds that the chocolate pot also has additional significance: "It is the only known 18th-century example with a Maryland provenance."
Another eye-popper is the punch bowl from the USS Baltimore, the illustrious 1889 cruiser that sailed into Manila Bay with Adm. George Dewey during the Spanish-American War.
The punch bowl was part of a 14-piece set that cost $1,400 and was presented to the ship by the citizens of Baltimore in 1892. The USS Baltimore later served as a mine layer in World War I and was stricken from the roll of active U.S. warships in 1937, at which time the silver returned to the historical society and was placed in storage.
In 1951, it returned to the high seas when it was placed aboard the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore, and as before, was returned to the vaults in 1956 when that ship was decommissioned.
The highly decorative bowl, in the repousse (or relief) style, features such Maryland themes as the state seal, shells, crabs, terrapins and native flora. It also includes a representation of the warship.
"It moves me because it so represents the skill of Maryland silversmiths. It's also a tour de force in repousse and sums up what Baltimore silver is all about," Disviscour said.
For baseball fans, the cigar humidor presented to Clarence W. Miles, Baltimore civic activist and founder of Baltimore law firm Miles and Stockbridge, will hold a certain measure of curiosity.
Miles, who helped bring the St. Louis Browns here in 1954 to become the Orioles, bequeathed the box to the historical society upon his death in 1977. It was presented to the society Aug. 30, 1978, in a ceremony at Memorial Stadium before the game between the Orioles and Yankees.
The silver humidor, manufactured by Andrew A. Taylor of Newark, N.J., was given to Miles during a private luncheon on behalf of the Greater Baltimore Committee by Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who also threw out the first ball at the Orioles first game.
While the piece was manufactured elsewhere, it was engraved by S. Kirk and Co. in Baltimore. The engraving read: "With Appreciation to Clarence W. Miles who made this day possible April 15, 1954."
The shiny silver box also contains a number of signatures, including those of Nixon, Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin and Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. The side of the box has signatures of the original 1954 Orioles team.