ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver ASSOCIATION OF SMALL COLLECTORS OF ANTIQUE SILVER
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article # 135
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by Scott Perkins  
(click on photos to enlarge image)

THE STIEFF COMPANY: HISTORIC OVERVIEW

This article is an excerpt kindly allowed by the author.
For a more complete history and to view the silver of Stieff, please visit the site THESTIEFFCOMPANY.COM
The Baltimore Sterling Silver Manufacturing Company was started in 1892 by Charles Clinton Stieff and several partners. Mr. Stieff was not a silversmith himself, but an entrepreneur who dealt in silver and cutlery. The first pattern for the new company was Maryland Rose. Other early silver patterns were Victoria, Plain & Engraved and Chrysanthemum. (The names of Rose and Maryland Rose were alternated by the company through the 1920's).

In the early years, the company would make silver for both its own retail shop located at 17 North Liberty Street in downtown Baltimore, and for other retailers whose name would be stamped on the silver. This was an early form of what we could today call "private label" branding. As the company's fine silver products became better known around Baltimore, the company's rather industrial sounding name was shortened to a more refined "Baltimore Sterling Silver Company" and the silver mark became BSSCo. The earliest examples of the company's silver are not marked and it takes a trained eye to discern its origins. Many early pieces carry the Crown and B mark.
The Stieff's Rose pattern is very similar to the S. Kirk and Son pattern "Repoussť" of 1828. Eighty-seven years later, Stieff would buy Kirk. There is a section of this site that discusses S. Kirk & Son.
The Great Baltimore fire of 1904 burned large parts of downtown Baltimore but The Stieff building at 17 N. Liberty Street was not affected. The fire stopped just a few doors down at the wall of 9 N. Liberty Street, the location of The Stieff Piano Building, saving that company. The Stieff Piano Co. was owned by relatives.
The Stieff Company called its founder a "born leader who left a legacy of positive actions for American silver" He was a believer in the enforcement of the laws requiring the marking of all sterling silver as 925 or 92.5 to identify its purity.

On the right the photos (from the Stieff Family Collection) of Charles Clinton Stieff, Founder and Laura Numsen Stieff (1897)
Charles Clinton Stieff, Founder (Stieff Family Collection) Laura Numsen Stieff (1897)(Stieff Family Collection)
In 1904, Charles Stieff bought out his business partners and the company name was changed from The Baltimore Sterling Silver Company to The Stieff Company. Warerooms were located at 17 North Liberty Street until 1952. (Near the corner of Baltimore Street and Liberty). Some materials show an address of 17 McLane Place which was an attempt to rename some Baltimore streets after the fire... the name change did not hold, and reverted to Liberty several years later (Baltimore maps of 1914 show the street name changed back to Liberty Street).
Cloth silver wraps showing the street name changes Cloth silver wraps showing the street name changes Silver polish from the McLane Place era
Cloth silver wraps from my collection
showing the street name changes
Silver polish from the McLane Place era
(Courtesy of Howard Lotti)
The manufacture of silver first took place in Cider Avenue, a short street that still exists today in Baltimore, and later at 311-323 West Redwood Street. The Redwood Street location now has an office building on it that faces the 100 block of Howard Street, across from the 1st Mariner Arena Redwood, Cider Avenue (now Alley) and the 17 Liberty Street address were all within a couple blocks walk from each other. The Liberty Street location is long gone, and the entrance to the garage of a hotel occupies the space.
The Cider Alley Factory The German Street factory location
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The Cider Alley Factory with the Baltimore Sterling Silver Manufacturing Co. Sign (The Balt. portion is cut off in the photo) and the German Street factory location (the street was later renamed Redwood Street)
On the evening of May 26, 1923, Stieff founder Charles C. Stieff died at his desk at The Stieff Company's Redwood Street offices. His son Gideon Stieff had become President of Stieff in 1914 and would continue to lead the company until 1970.
In April of 1925 manufacturing was moved to 800 Wyman Park Driveway (note 1) in the Hamden area of Baltimore. The location had been selected by Claire von Marees for whom the Lady Claire pattern was named. Ms. Marees and Gideon had gone to Druid Park and were sitting up on a hill "spooning" as it was called in the day. She pointed out to Gideon that a particular location down below would be a good location for the new factory that the company was planning. Clair von Marees would become Mrs. Gideon Stieff and live until 2003. Both she and Gideon had grown up in the area.

(on the right) The new factory under construction in 1924.
The writing on the photo says 1925 but since manufacturing began in April 1925, this is incorrect. Also incorrect is the spelling of STIEFF in the upper right corner. The mill building in the background still exists today.
The new factory under construction
Sterling Silver Lucky Pieces given out to people that toured the new building in 1925 Sterling Silver Lucky Pieces given out to people that toured the new building in 1925
When the factory opened in 1925, Sterling Silver "Lucky Pieces" were given out to people who toured the new building.
These are the size of a Fifty Cent Piece. These very rare early pieces feature the one story building.
(This Lucky Piece was given to me by Charles C. Stieff II.)
First Blank Stamped in New Factory April 29th 1925
The Stieff Company prospered for many years at Wyman Park Driveway. While the new building had enough room for the present, it had been designed structurally so that a second floor could be added at a later date with out disturbing the business below during construction. Within five years, business had grown enough to add the second floor. The building was doubled in size in 1929 to 35,000 square feet.

The timing could not have been worse, as the stock market fell and the great depression was just around the corner. Not knowing how long the economic crisis was going to last, Gideon Stieff kept the employees busy painting and maintaining equipment, and anything else that would keep them around. He knew that once the skilled trades of the silver business were laid off, that getting them all back when business picked up would be near impossible. And as business did start to pick up... war clouds were forming over Europe.
A later 1920ís Stieff Catalog
First Blank Stamped in New Factory April 29th 1925. The pattern of this blank is Rose (note 2)
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A later 1920ís Stieff Catalog (A young Charles C. Stieff II on the cover?)
In 1939 Stieff became the official maker of silver for the Williamsburg Restoration in Williamsburg, Virginia. Actual production did not take place until 1942 just in time to be curtailed by the war effort. Stieff would also became the suppliers of silver and pewter to The Smithsonian Institution, Historic Newport, Mystic Seaport, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Old Sturbridge Village, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
World War II would see Stieff production move to the production of fine surgical instruments for the United States Army and components for radar equipment. Silver was considered a vital war material and the government took over control of silver supplies. Whatever quantity that Stieff had on hand would have to last them until after the war. Charles Stieff II said the inventory was almost gone by 1943. Some small silver items would continue to be produced throughout the war, but in greatly reduced quantity.
STIEFF STEWRLING CAN WAIT....
After the war, Charles C. Stieff II was the Vice President of sales and traveled the country extensively to secure new retailers for the company's products. By the later 1940's the company's silver was being sold in over 400 stores around the nation. Only those retailers that agreed to adhere to strict quality controls were allowed to sell Stieff silver. By the 1960ís Stieff products would be in over 3000 stores nationwide.

In the 1950ís Stieff would make silver items for the Eisenhower administration to give as gifts to dignitaries. Sometimes the White House would send a helicopter over to The Stieff Company, landing on the lawn of the factory, to pick up items. Stieff also made flatware for use in the White House; some with the presidential seal on it. Mamie Eisenhower toured the factory and picked out silver items. When Charles C. Stieff III was born in 1955, the first lady sent a personal hand written note to the new baby, which he still has today as an adult.

Tastes change, as does fashion and the way we entertain. In the prosperity after the second world war there was a brief golden age of silver. Brides who had received their mothers silver expanded the sets or decided on one of the new "modern" patterns brought out by Stieff. As more women entered the workforce less time was alloted for "teas" or formal entertaining. In the 1960ís silver sales started sinking fast. Casual dining and stainless steel flatware gained popularity and acceptance. A Silver Service was quickly becoming something that "your mother" owned.

In 1967, The Stieff Company bought "The Schofield Company" (note 3). The thought was that by adding volume, more silver could be sold at a lower price. Stieff would also gain the Schofield craftsmen. Later all of the Schofield patterns would be discontinued.

Pewter was becoming more important to the company, and by the early 1970's had become 60% of the company's sales. A 1971 expansion doubled the size of the Wyman Park Drive factory; primarily for expansion of the pewter operations.

In the 1970ís the Hunt brothers of Texas tried to corner the silver market. Prices fluctuated wildly making the silver business unstable and unprofitable. When silver could be 50 dollars an ounce one month and 11 dollars an ounce the next month, it became impossible to predict manufacturing cost or price accurately. At both manufactures and retail stores it became an impossible job to deliver goods at the price promised. When silver prices were high, a lot of old silver was sold to the scrappers to be melted down. We lost a lot of historic silver during these dark days. The manipulation of the silver market eventually bankrupted the Hunt brothers and resulted in a 10 million dollar fine from the government.
A major competitor, S. Kirk and Son was purchased in 1979. Kirk had tried to diversify over the years as silver sales waned. With limited success at diversifying, the company agreed to be purchased by Stieff with the understanding that the Kirk patterns would be continued. Many of the old Stieff patterns were discontinued in December of 1979 to make room for the Kirk patterns. The Kirk factory at 2225 Kirk Avenue in Baltimore was closed and all operations were moved to the Wyman Park Drive location of The Stieff Company. Again, the goal was added volume to lower silver costs and the addition of skilled craftsmen. The name was changed to Kirk-Stieff reflecting the 1815 start date for Kirk against the 1892 date for Stieff. Kirk had been a larger company with a larger market share. This extra presence in the market place would be good for Kirk-Stieff ten years later when Kirk-Stieff would be purchased by a larger company.
In 1990 the Lenox division of the Brown-Forman Corporation bought Kirk-Stieff from the Stieff family. As Brown-Forman struggled with digesting the various diverse companies it was buying, the silver market was continuing to decline. Lenox was in the tabletop business selling china, crystal, and flatware. Brown-Forman also owned Hartmann luggage, and was heavily invested in the liquor and spirits business.

The Stieff Factory ceased production on January 15, 1999 and the building and retail outlet were shuttered on March 31st 1999. In the end, only 75 employees remained in Baltimore to lose their jobs at the time of closing. There had been 150 employees only five years earlier. Production was moved to Smithfield, RI, outside of Providence, RI into a building shared with Gorham, and later to Pomona, New Jersey. Demand for sterling and hollow ware had seen its heyday many years earlier.

The Stieff family retained ownership of the land and building at 800 Wyman Park Drive during the Lenox years, but later sold the property after the factory closed. Struever Bros, Eccles & Rouse purchased the building from the Stieffs. They specialize in rehabbing historic buildings and the Stieff building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now a mixed-use office building. The Stieff Silver sign has been restored and continues to glow in the night sky.

Lenox would later be spun off into its own company with Kirk-Stieff included within it. The product line expanded into gifts, glass and outlet stores and the silver business soldiered on. Lenox was bought by the "Dept. 56" gift company in 2005. Dept. 56 then changed the name of the whole company to Lenox Brands. In July 2007, Lenox Brands sold the silver brands of Kirk-Stieff, Gorham, Whiting and Durgin to Lifetime Brands, Inc. for 8.775 million dollars (US). They currently manufacture and sell the product. Lifetime Brands now produces sterling flatware in Puerto Rico.
 
ENDNOTES

note 1: The "Driveway" designation was later changed to Drive

note 2: to learn how a blank becomes a piece of fine silver see at http://www.thestieffcompany.com/The_Stieff_Company/How_Silverware_is_Made_%26_Factory_Photos.html

note 3: The Schofield Company was founded in 1903 by Frank Schofield on Pleasant Street in Baltimore. The company was purchased by Stieff in 1967.
I created the site THESTIEFFCOMPANY.COM after I was not able to find more than snippets of information on Stieff silver. Some of the information available seemed to contradict other sources. After a month or so of creating the site, I was contacted by Charlie Stieff II with a few corrections of his own. With the help of the Stieff family and a lot of research I have been able to produce the site as a one stop source for silver collectors as well as those looking to sell their silver on ebay.
Along the way, I have been able to properly identify the introduction years for several patterns that have been incorrectly published over and over in silver books. Another section hopefully puts an end to the old rumor/urban legend that Frank Schofield created the dies for the first Stieff pattern, Maryland Rose (aka Stieff Rose) and I have been able to prove that this could not have happened. At the site, the 1939 catalog is the best one to use to identify pieces of silver (both flatware and hollowware) as it provided measurements of the various pieces and most of the other catalogs shown on the site do not.
I invite you to visit the site where you will find hundreds of on-line pages of Stieff Silver along with the pewter products the company created later. I am always looking for additional material to add to the site, especially ads, catalogs and price lists. If you have any material that can be added, please contact me at Scottinelmgrove@yahoo.com
Scott Perkins
Scott Perkins
- 2010 -
THESTIEFFCOMPANY.COM