Silver as Social History

By Richard Barons
Dean and Mary Failey

“Elias Pelletreau”
Dean F. Failey, et al.
Preservation Long Island, $65

The creations of our colonial crafters have been seriously collected since before 1800. It was a combination of national pride, the sentimentality of “the age of homespun,” a wave of anti-migration feeling and ancestor worship, aesthetics, and an inferiority complex about the superiority of Old World culture that ignited Americans into becoming antiquers. 

By the centennial of our Republic, the old architecture of the East Coast and the objects that filled those venerable saltbox houses became icons that could touch the souls of a nation recently split apart by the Civil War. Stories of an imagined simpler era helped heal the deep wounds of war.

Many of the state pavilions at the famous Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876, were patterned after each state’s most prized colonial monument. Certainly colonial history was only part of the exposition’s theme, but its focus on 18th-century American material culture inspired a style now called the Colonial Revival. By the 1880s, city and country homes mimicked old New England buildings on village greens. Furniture and other decorative items also took inspiration from America’s past. Old became new and new looked even older. 

The Colonial Revival was a stilted and superficial approach to early American design. It cherry-picked choice bits and pieces from various late-17th-century and 18th-century styles and molded them into something that could appeal to a late-Victorian family. It was a look, a veneer.

The American antiquers collected objects that they felt were imbued with pure Puritan ideals. They wanted the best piece of Connecticut Queen Anne furniture and the biggest burl bowl. The context of their pursuits was not really historical, nor was it narrative. If it was made or owned by a famous patriot, that was great. But mostly, the articles that these Americana collectors sought were things of beauty that were made for a wealthy class of rural landowners and urban professionals. A silver porringer’s background as social history was a door rarely opened by these early antiquarians.

By the 1950s, collectors, scholars, and museums began to see the craft tradition as a way of understanding more than just the presumed possessions of George Washington. There was a whole new world out there that included people of different ethnicities, the working class, women, and slaves. Collectors like Henry Chapman Mercer and Henry Francis du Pont took pains to collect the objects and tools that “made” America. Though beauty and connoisseurship remained a prime element for du Pont, he was persuaded to purchase the tools and some furniture from the 18th-century workshop of a family of craftsmen from East Hampton. He recreated their shops in his museum.

In his adopted summer community of Southampton, du Pont restored and furnished the tools for an 18th-century silversmith’s shop. A new group of folklorists, cultural historians, archeologists, preservation technologists, Marxist art historians, and curators saw objects as a way to interpret a world that was very different from the perfumed world of privilege.   

For historians of colonial American industry, our Long Island holds a pre-eminent place. Southampton and East Hampton each possess their own family dynasties that created superb handmade objects and left us daybooks and ledgers and their 18th-century-built workshops. 

East Hampton’s Dominy family of craftsmen produced windmills, furniture, clocks, spinning wheels, and bullet molds. Museums, collectors, and the descendants of the people who originally bought the Dominys’ products are proud possessors of their chests, chairs, and sundry household items made in two shops on North Main Street from the mid-18th century until the 1830s. Their workshops have survived (though moved about) and soon will be returned to their original lot and become a museum and study center. The amazingly intact Dominy tool collection is on display in a reproduction of their woodworking and clock shops at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. This collection, purchased by du Pont, is likely the most complete group of one American artisan family’s 18th-century woodworking tools in existence.

The Pelletreau silversmith shop, restored by du Pont between 1960 and 1966, graces Southampton’s Main Street. It saw the production of handsome tankards, shoe buckles, teapots, and hundreds of spoons between 1750 and 1804. Though only a few of Elias Pelletreau and Elias Pelletreau Jr.’s tools survive, their combined output of over 50 years of expensive and fashionable tablewares is impressive. Their records are invaluable in our understanding of how a boy born in rural Suffolk County went off to New York City to apprentice with a silversmith and then returned home to Southampton. The shine of silver must have hovered over his head, because by clever and diligent work, he became a success, and his silverwares are in major museums throughout the country.

The Pelletreau story is the focus of a new monograph created for an exhibition of his time and place that recently closed at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook titled “Elias Pelletreau: Long Island Silversmith and Entrepreneur, 1726-1810.” The catalog was produced by Preservation Long Island.

My college adviser and mentor, Dr. Peter Bohan, was British born and had written an important book on Connecticut silver while curating the Garvan Collection of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery. It was in one of his rambling art history lectures that he showed a slide of an Elias Pelletreau gold beaded necklace. He told the class how rare late-18-century American gold jewelry was and how much we could learn from gold and silver objects. He then showed a series of pictures of 18th-century silver teapots that he juxtaposed with period furniture and architecture. 

The point he was making was that expensive items needed to be very up to date because wealthy consumers wanted to show off their good taste. Silver design needed to reflect its value in material as well as style. The transportable nature of silver items meant that the most modern styles were often introduced into American port cities before any design books were published. 

Professor Bohan showed us a baluster on a Newport, R.I., public building the shape of which had been copied from a Queen Anne coffee pot. Within a short period of time, fancy new European styles, be they Baroque, rococo, or neoclassical, were first formed in precious metals then quickly translated into less expensive porcelain, pewter, pottery, brass, or glass. I have carefully looked at silver as a major influence on design ever since. 

Charles F. Hummel’s “With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York,” published in 1966, is a masterpiece of dogged research placing the Dominy family in context with their community, coastal trade, and design influences. Its illustrated catalog of tools and furniture is a major resource for understanding rural life and workshop production. Dean F. Failey’s brilliant “Elias Pelletreau: Long Island Silversmith and Entrepreneur, 1726-1810” furthers our knowledge of all aspects of managing a shop from 1750 through the American Revolution and on into the cloud of the War of 1812.

We have waited for almost 50 years to have Mr. Failey’s research available to us. His interest in Elias Pelletreau began when he was a graduate student of the Winterthur Program in American Culture. His first job was as the first director of the East Hampton Historical Society. As a Long Islander, he must have been excited to be able to curate the Wheelock Collection, which recently was turned over to the society. It is one of the great collections of Long Island furniture formed from 1890 until about 1920. In many ways, the Wheelock material is the perfection of what the antiquers assembled during the birth of the Colonial Revival. 

Mr. Failey continued his interest in Long Island’s material culture at the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (now Preservation Long Island). His book “Long Island Is My Nation: The Decorative Arts & Craftsmen, 1640-1830” is still the only scholarly work on Long Island’s early craft traditions.

When Mr. Failey retired from his position as head of the Americana department at Christie’s in New York, he started to expand his master’s thesis. He hunted down early documents and returned to the trail in search of documented pieces of the Pelletreaus’ output. He died in 2015 with many papers still on his desk. Through the Long Island Museum and Preservation Long Island, an exhibition and this publication have been brought together. The monograph includes Mr. Failey’s essays and contributions by Jennifer L. Anderson, Deborah Dependahl Waters, and David L. Barquist. Robert B. MacKay has written a memoriam, and Mr. Hummel authored a foreword.

What this book does is paint a picture of one family’s rise and fall as craftsmen, husbands, landowners, and merchants. There are few broad strokes; mostly the brush has just a few bristles — the details are impressive. We need to learn about the craft of goldsmithing (silversmithing) inside out. How did a young man learn such a skill? How is apprenticeship handled? How long did it take to become a master? How many colonists could afford silver objects? Where did the smith get his silver and gold? How many silversmiths could a city support? How can a small rural Long Island village be a logical location for starting a shop that supplies luxury items? Ms. Anderson’s essay is remarkably informative and interesting.

The narrative about Elias Pelletreau’s French Huguenot family starts after 1685, when his grandfather immigrated to New York City. In 1698 Elias’s father and brother were dealers in whalebone and tallow. By 1717 his father had settled in Southampton, possibly to be nearer the source of whalebone and oil. In Mr. Failey’s hands this almost Dickensian tale of Elias leaving home to train under the great Huguenot silversmith Simeon Soumaine in New York City is vivid. By the time the American Revolution arrived on the East End, life became very complicated, and we follow the family to Connecticut. An apprentice ran away, and after Elias Pettetreau’s return to Southampton his son Elias Jr. played an important role in the firm.

Ms. Waters discusses the clients and what they ordered from the Pelletreaus between 1760 and 1817. Names like Gardiner, Floyd, Pierson, and Buell ordered gold mourning rings, shoe buckles, soupspoons, sugar tongs, and teapots. These beautiful objects are often engraved with the initials and sometimes a family crest. This book has many photographs that illustrate both the objects and the details of the touch marks, but also maps, portrait paintings, and ledgers.

To give the reader an idea as to what Pelletreau’s New York City contemporaries were producing, Mr. Barquist, an American silver scholar, devotes a chapter to Elias Pelletreau’s influences, including Soumaine and other important artisans like Myer Myers, Benjamin Wynkoop, and Daniel Fueter. This essay is particularly important because it places Pelletreau among a handful of the great American 18th-century silversmiths.

Appendices chart the names of purchasers of hollowware (tankards, porringers, etc.) and special commissions such as penknives, coat buttons, and swords. There is also a copy of the inventory and credits for Pelletreau’s estate, the exhibition catalog checklist, and a bibliography.

This is a most important publication and a landmark in thorough documentation and thoughtful scholarship. Not since Mr. Hummel’s Dominy monograph has such an exhaustive study been taken to interpret the life and times of one of Long Island’s greatest 18th-century artisans. Without the preservation of the Pelletreau artifacts, account books, bills, and small gambrel-roofed shop, such a project could never have been undertaken. How lucky we all are that these wonderful tablewares and accoutrements have survived over 250 years, so they now open our eyes into the past. 

We owe much thanks to Dean Failey for falling in love with Long Island’s extraordinary contributions to America’s material culture and his enthusiasm in sharing his discoveries. 

Richard Barons was the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society from 2006 to 2017 and remains its senior curator. He lives in Springs.

Wood engraving in “The Early History of Southampton, L.I., New York” by George Rogers Howell, 1887. Preservation Long Island
A silver porringer with keyhole handle made by John Pelletreau (1755-1822). Engraved with “JLG/1802” for John Lyon Gardiner (1770-1816). Courtesy of Suffolk County Parks, Division of Historic Services, Photo by Glenn Castellano