ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 206
by Patricia F. Singer
(click on photos to enlarge image)


During World War II, in many combatant countries, the large silver manufacturing companies switched to war production. For example, WMF in Germany stopped making its well known silver-plated cutlery in order to manufacture war goods. The production change also took place at the International Silver Company, headquartered in Meriden, Connecticut. The firm was the biggest silver manufacturer in the world, employing more than 5000 people.

Even though International continued to market a limited amount of sterling flatware during 1942-45, it made literally millions of items needed for the war effort. According to the company historian Edmund P. Hogan, "almost 100 percent of plant production was devoted to manufacturing supplies for the armed forces" (An American Heritage: A Book about the International Silver Company, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, TX, 1977).

A war-products booklet published by the company after the war listed how many ID tags ("dogtags") it produced: ten million. Stamping out flatware for mess kits, International furnished the military with almost thirty-six million pieces. In all, International fulfilled more than 400 prime contracts for the US military.

One unusual product the company made for the war was the chaplainís kit, to use wherever troops were stationed, including near the front lines.

Even before the war, International had an Ecclesiastical Department that made such things as silver altar crosses, candelabra, and communion vessels. It had produced some communion kits during World War I. The department was asked in early 1941 to repair one of these old kits. The result was a whole new line of kits for military chaplains in WWII.

The U.S. government did not furnish chaplains with religious equipment, but the main Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church quickly placed orders with International. National Jewish organizations placed orders for Jewish chaplains as well.

Starting with communion vessels, the company expanded to making full kits for chaplains, including such things as candlesticks. Shipment of the sets began in June 1941 - about 6 months before America entered the war. (Two large private organizations later ordered sets to send to all prison camps where American prisoners of war were held.)

An account of these kits appears in A Century of Silver 1847-1947: Connecticut Yankees and a Noble Medal (Robert M. McBride & Co., New York). The book was published in 1947 by an industrial historian and raconteur named Earl Chapin May. Much of the information in this article comes from Mayís book.

The Basic Set

Internationalís basic set for Protestant chaplains included "a cross, candlesticks, chalice, bread box, two cruets and a lavabo, in a leather case 24x13x7-1/2 inches, " May relates. A smaller set in a smaller case was also made.

Unfortunately, none of the chaplain sets appear to be available on eBay in the U.S., and the Meriden Historical Society in Connecticut does not have any design drawings or marketing material related to them. Itís possible that most of them remained overseas when the US began to ship military personnel back home. Items that we consider valuable collectibles in 2016 may have been thought of as worn, war leftovers that troops were happy to leave behind when they returned home. In addition, limits may have been set on how much they could bring home on crowded troop ships.

The photo below, made as a publicity photo, shows a rather fancy chaplainís set surrounded by International officers. The size of the case for the kit is easy to judge.

a publicity photo showing a rather fancy chaplainís set surrounded by International officers
F.P. O'Neill and George Galvin show Capt. Moriarity and Gen. Drewry one
of our Chaplain Sets which are supplied to Chaplains all over the world

The metals used in the kits were a matter of disagreement with government war boards for a while. International normally used a copper alloy as a base metal for ecclesiastical items, then plated them with silver or gold. However, the U.S. government deemed copper critical to the war effort and proposed that International substitute carbon steel as the base. The company obeyed but notified recipients that the altar items wouldnít have an attractive finish - and also might rust.

National church officials energetically protested the governmentís orders to scuttle the copper base--first the Presbyterians, then the Lutherans, then others. Since International already possessed a large amount of the copper alloy needed, and since refining the copper itself out of the alloy would be laborious, the governmentís War Production Board relented. They had received a snowstorm of letters from chaplains about morale and the importance of religious services to the troops.

Plating with Silver and Gold

On the alloy base, International plated most of the field sets with silver. The communion items for the U.S. Catholic Church, though, were plated with 24K gold, and the vessels to contain the bread and wine for mass were made of sterling.

The mark used on the items in the kits is unknown. The company produced many different lines of sterling and silverplate in peacetime, with different marks. International started in 1898 as a partnership of more than a dozen smaller silver companies, and continued to use many of their names and marks. Later the company invented new marketing names for different quality lines, adding to the plethora of marks. A large number of the marks used by the company appear on Giorgio Busettoís website at .

Earl Chapin Mayís book quotes many grateful clergymen who wrote about their chaplain kits during the war. One chaplain described conducting a service during desert maneuvers; in that situation, sand took the place of water. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, a chaplain used his International kit to set up an altar on the hood of a Jeep. In the South Seas, an American pilot who had just received communion told his chaplain, "You donít know how much this has meant to me." The next day he was killed flying his plane on a rescue mission.

The photo below, from Mayís book, was made in the field and shows a rough wood altar bearing an International cross and candlesticks. The location is unidentified, but it must have been somewhere cold, judging from the heavy jackets. The young men stand solemnly by the burning candles, ready to receive religious succour in a difficult time.

Authorís addendum: A chaplain in the US Army has posted images of World War II chaplain kits online at They include Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish kits in his personal collection. His site does not identify the maker or mark of any of the sets, and the chaplain did not respond to my inquiries.

Patricia F. Singer
- 2016 -