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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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SILVER YEARS: FOR BRIEF PERIOD, PITTSBURGH BOASTED FINE SILVER ARTISANS

SILVER YEARS:  FOR BRIEF PERIOD, PITTSBURGH BOASTED FINE SILVER ARTISANS
Creamer and sugar bowl by Andrew Osthoff are in The Carnegie's collection. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum
Elegance in silver. Subtle. Serene. Powerful. As anthropologists study bones to understand the history of our cultural development, so too we are able to study the wares of early Pittsburgh artisans as keys that unlock the spirit of the craftsmen who made them and our ancestors who used them.

In 1788 Pittsburghers shopped at Williams & Company, located at Front and Ferry Streets in Downtown. Requests were basic. Toothbrushes, combs, shaving boxes and brushes, shoes, jeans, corduroys, linens, silks, muslins, tea, coffee, chocolate, molasses, sugar and snuff in bottles.

Payment in cash, please. Or bartering for whiskey, flour, butter, cattle on foot, cheese, and hard soap.

Gradually, skilled artisans started to produce higher quality goods in the backs of their stores. The half-dozen shops at the end of the revolution grew to seven times as many a decade later says, says Stefan Lorant in his book, “Pittsburgh: The Story of An American City.”

Money from Pittsburgh immigrants helped bring success to the region and the demand for quality heirlooms was born.

Silver manufacturing and silver plating were two such early businesses. Ads for silversmiths first appeared in local newspapers in 1815. Trying to eke out a living in a changing economy, the silversmiths often wore more than one hat. Watchmaking, clockmaking, engraving and goldsmithing, were some of their combined skills.

When a silversmith settled in town, he would place an add in the local paper, much like new businesses do today. Andrew Osthoff was one such artisan. He came from Baltimore and lived in Pittsburgh only four years, 1814-1818.

"The most outstanding examples of locally made hollowware are labeled Osthoff," says Mike Malley, dealer, and owner of East End Galleries in Pittsburgh. Not much is known about Osthoff personally. Or how much silver he actually crafted. But the character of his workmanship speaks of an artist with an insatiable passion for quality.

"The silver industry never had a great foothold in Pittsburgh," says Malley. Because of the need for a raw material, it was expensive to be in the business. So ads appearing in the newspaper for a new silversmith would often disappear the following year. If the artisan could not make ends meet, he would pack up, move down river, and try again in another city.

The handmade silver tradition was cut off in large part by the Industrial Revolution. Machines eliminated people and local craftsmen became part of the production instead of the thing being produced. Not until the arts and crafts movement in the late-1800s did handcrafted silver come into vogue again.

The sugar bowl and cream pot pictured are part of the collection at The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Crafted by Andrew Osthoff, this set represents the finest work of the period in Pittsburgh. It is labeled “Osthoff-Pittsburgh-Sterling.”



Q. I am enclosing a picture of a crock made be Cowden & Wilcox Co. of Harrisburg, Pa. Any information as to the age and value would be appreciated? S. S. Aliquippa, Pa.

A. Cowden & Wilcox is a well-known name in early crocks. The exceptionally strong and nonporous handmade stoneware was made about 1880-1900. Jugs were the tin cans of their era, and are treasured by antique country collectors.

Style, color, design, condition and age are the factors involved in valuing them. In many cases, potters stamped their wares with their own names or with those of their commercial customers. Breweries are an example. Many identifying marks are listed in reference books.

A collector will first look at the shape, decoration and glaze. To create a surface that was smooth and easy to clean on the crock, a potter would glaze the containers with salt. Salt was shoveled into the kilns. It vaporized and sealed the clay with a layer of sodium silicates.

Different regions of the country where salt was hard to come by would substitute dark clay, or a glasslike mixture based on sand and an alkali such as wood ash or lime to create a smooth surface.

Your crock is a good example of turn-of-century handmade stoneware. I would estimate the value to be $300-$500 based on condition.

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