Stories in Sterling: How Silver Tells New York’s History, Part 1

Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, Teapot, ca. 1663-1719. Silver, wood. New-York Historical Society, Bequest of Major Philip Schuyler, 1915.20

Sure, silver is beautiful to look at. But there’s a lot more to learn beneath that sparkle. Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York uncovers the stories behind the pieces, from the humble beginnings of a slave-made spoon to the ornate trophies of a corrupt political machine. In this two-part series, we speak with Curator Margi Hofer about some of her favorite stories, and why silver is so important to the history of New York.


The New-York Historical Society has a massive collection of silver? How did you decide on the pieces that would be featured in the exhibition?
It was very difficult because we have about 3,000 pieces of silver in our collection, and we could only fit about 120 in the exhibition. We examined each piece for both aesthetic and historical merit, and looked a balance between them. We also wanted the pieces that tell good stories. We have a mix in the show of some of the most important pieces of American silver, and some quite humble and modest pieces that happen to tell terrific stories. For instance, we picked the small spoon by John Hastierbecause of Hastier’s known use of slave labor in his shop. That’s what separates this exhibition from one you would see at an art museum. Our collection is comparable to some of those at art museums, but this show really has a New-York Historical Society stamp on it, in that we’re highlighting the stories and the human connections.


We’ve already looked into Mayor McClellan and silver controller he used on the first subway ride, but there are so many great stories in this exhibition. There are quite a few objects that belonged to the De Peyster family. Who were they? How did they amass such a great collection?
Well, they weren’t alone in having great silver, but we owe our great collection of De Peyster material in large part to a woman named Catharine Augusta De Peyster, who in 1911 donated a huge trove of silver and other objects. She never married, nor did she have kids, but she was a descendant of not only the De Peysters, but BeekmansLivingstons, and Van Cortlandts. This family collection, including portraits and papers, came to her and her sister, and there was no one inherit it. So in 1911 she left it to us.

The De Peyster tankard and the wedding dress [which is only pictured in the exhibition] belonged to  Cornelia De Peyster, who married Oliver Teller in 1712. They were donated by another branch of De Peyster descendants who were also very tuned into their family history and wanted to keep it alive.

Another great object is Al Smith’s Cigar Box. What’s the story behind that?

The box was presented to Governor Al Smith in 1929. Inside it has a lengthy inscribed plaque that copies the editorial in a newspaper piece from Paul Block, which references the close of Smith’s bitter Presidential election campaign in 1928. Paul Block is welcoming Smith home, and is doing it on behalf of all New Yorkers. He was the Democratic nominee that year and ran against Herbert Hoover and lost. On the road he was not well received. He got fierce criticism for being Catholic, being from a big city, and opposing prohibition, and he was really torn apart in other parts of the country. While the description doesn’t reference Smith’s critics, it’s meant as a comforting welcome for him. And it is a cigar box; he was known as a cigar smoker. He supposedly smoked 12 to 14 cigars a day, and would close many of his letters with “I am smoking to your health,” which wouldn’t go over so well today. Aside from that, it’s just a beautiful piece of silver.

Was the decoration hand done? How was it made?
The Tiffany archives records do provide a fair amount of information on the work that went into it. A minimum of four craftsmen labored over it for a period of 105 hours, 70 hours devoted to chasing [exterior decoration] alone. It was a really luxurious gift.


Up next: Margi’s favorite pieces, plus how to clean your silver!



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