ASSOCIATION OF SMALL COLLECTORS OF ANTIQUE SILVER
by Patricia F. Singer
The company, located in Meriden, Connecticut, had started in the mid nineteenth century and had become the largest silver company in the world.
Meriden Britannia was especially known for silverplating; it produced hundreds of thousands of Victorian tablewares such as those in in the image below.
The Defender replica was made as a company showpiece, to reflect the firm's expertise and prominence. The Jewelers' Circular, an industry newspaper, featured it on the cover for the week of November 6, 1895.
The model was described as 3 feet high from the deck to the top of the mast, with a hull 30.5 inches long. The 2- by 4-foot base of the piece, looking a little like a beautiful sheet cake with gracefully stylized waves, was said to represent choppy seas. The platform bore anchors and ropes in relief on its sides. Parts of the model were gold-plated: the mast, boom, gaff, and bowsprit. The largest gold-plated area was the deck.
Meriden Britannia emphasized the model's accuracy and detail, both points of pride for the factory. The sail configuration, an important part of the vessel's design, was scaled from a model supplied by the Herreshoffs and photographs of the actual Defender. Hatches and even a compass were made in minute proportion. The delicate wire rigging, which must have required meticulous work, was also described as exactly right. Most of the hull "disappears" into the silver sea.
The Circular article says the model took a month of work and was made "under the supervision of Walter Wilkinson". Its silver plating was lacquered to keep its white finish. It was given a nominal price of $1,000 but was not actually for sale; the high figure was cited to add to the glamour of the piece.
In 1898, Meriden Britannia and about a dozen other silver makers merged to become the International Silver Company, and naturally the replica came along too. It served the same publicity purposes for International as it had before. International also took over the title of largest silver company in the country, earning it widespread criticism for so-called monopoly practices. However, in terms of American commerce, economies of scale offered a competitive advantage.
At International, the Defender replica joined other silver exhibition pieces that Meriden Britannia had made earlier, such as a large wild-west sculpture called The Buffalo Hunt. Although International quickly centralized under a single management, it continued to use the Meriden Britannia name and mark for some silverplated wares. In fact, International continued using some of its component companies' original names and marks for decades, despite their being merged in reality. This allowed management to separately promote different lines and qualities of products in International's vast output.
An employees' newsletter at International, apparently from the 1930s, mentions that the model was being kept in "Factory E" (traditionally, the major plating factory) and had recently been displayed in Middletown, Connecticut. In time, the company put together a museum of special pieces for visitors to tour; it even had its own historian, Edmund P. Hogan. Presumably the Defender replica resided there with other display pieces, came out for special occasions, and received good care.
The last actual sighting of the replica was in the 1960s. In 1964, it appeared in the silver department of Macy's in New Haven, Connecticut. An ad in the New Haven Register announced its display at Macy's and suggested it was for sale, but the price again seemed set mainly for publicity's sake: $50,000, "stand extra", plus "10% Federal Tax". A blurry contact sheet of photos discovered by the Meriden Historical Association shows the Defender from various angles as the Macy's display was assembled around it.
International shrank in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That was not terribly unusual among American silver manufacturers. But the process by which the company contracted was. During the 1970s, company profits had been redirected to other uses; the International leadership appears to have been struck by conglomerate fever. Using the profits from silver production, they bought a paint company, an office supplies company, a cable company, and many others. The resulting conglomerate, dubbed Insilco, was hardly a roaring success. By 1991, it was buried in debt and forced into bankruptcy (note 1).
Back to International, the shutdown of its large plated hollowware division took place on March 20th of 1981 (note 2). It was a kind of controlled melee. In midday, employees were suddenly notified to gather their personal belongings and get out immediately. Hired men carrying heavy sticks arrived by the busload. They quickly filled the main yard and stood by the gates to encourage workers not to linger. Many employees, stunned, had no idea what had happened to their employer or their jobs.
During and after the shutdown, volunteers from the Meriden Historical Society managed to save some smaller silver items such as plated Victorian teaware, a board of sterling spoons, a library of antique design books, and many company documents. However, few large or unusual silver pieces were shared with the historical association. In a manufacturing shutdown, disposing of a company's equipment and goods can be somewhat decentralized. Historical society volunteers remember salesmen trying to sell silver over the phone at the chaotic headquarters. It's unlikely that a silverplated ship's replica would have been worth much in terms of its metal.
And so the Macy's display in 1964 was, as far as I have been able to learn, the last public appearance of the beautiful silver replica of the Defender. It's possible the model still exists in private hands or even in the dusty storeroom of some New England museum. But as time goes by it seems less likely to turn up. If anyone has seen the model, recently or in the past, please share your information with Giorgio Busetto at the newsletter's email address (email@example.com).
1) Ironically, the name Insilco is still floating thru the business world, but its relation to International Silver is obscure if there even is one. There are still a few sterling flatware patterns sold under the name International; they are made from old dies in Puerto Rico.
2) Information about the International shutdown and the disposition of its silver came from multiple personal interviews with former company employees and volunteers from the Meriden Historical Society