Kane County History: Aurora Silverplate Company A Symbol of Good Taste
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society.
As part of the Illinois observation of the bicentennial of statehood (Dec. 3, 1818) the Illinois State Museum and the Illinois Governor’s Mansion Association is presenting an exhibition of made-in-Illinois objects to illustrate the many achievements in industry and the arts over the last 200 years.
The exhibit will be on display from July 14, 2018, through at least the end of the year at the newly-refurbished governor’s mansion in Springfield. Hours are expected to be 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday and Monday. Admission will be free.
In addition to the Aurora Silver Plate water pitcher set from the Aurora Historical Society, there will be several other art objects from museums in Kane County. More information is available at https://www.facebook.com/illinoismansion/
Silverplated Tableware — Made in Aurora
To the Victorian consumer, silverplated tableware and decorative objects must have gleamed very brightly indeed. Thanks to the discovery, in 1804, of how to deposit silver or gold onto base metal, and the subsequent development of the electroplating industry in England in the 1840s, one no longer needed to be wealthy to have elegant metalware around the house.
For one-tenth of the cost of sterling, or fine silver, a family’s good taste could be proudly displayed, even in “the West,” meaning places like Aurora in the 1860s.
To the savvy movers and shakers of early Aurora, silverplated goods shone equally brightly, but for very different reasons.
Merely 35 years after the first crude log cabins were raised on the banks of the Fox River and the sawmills and grist mills began their strident song of white settlement, Aurora’s leaders were assessing the future with a worried eye.
Merchants are complaining of “dull times”, Auroran Charles Wheaton admonished business leaders in 1869.
“Nothing has kept them alive but the railroad shops,” Wheaton warned, and to “build up a large city” it would be necessary to emulate the “New England capitalists, and commence building manufactories of our own.” (Richard Haussmann, “The Silver Sunrise”, 1975.)
In short order, the men made a pitch about the advantages of Aurora to the Chicago Silverplating Company, a firm created just a year earlier by former employees of the internationally renowned Meriden Britannia silverplating corporation of Connecticut.
Starting With Stolp
No doubt with an eye toward the expanding western market, the Aurora Silver Plate Manufacturing Company was promptly chartered, with an impressive list of Aurora founders’ names as stockholders. Work began immediately in a building used originally by the Stolp Woolen Mills and then the Grunberg Foundry.
With 50 male and female employees and a five-man team of traveling salesmen covering the Midwest, orders were soon arriving daily by telegraph. A retail outlet was set up in the F.B. Rice Hardware store just east of the factory.
That building lasted just two years before burning down, but within months the business was rebuilt on Fox Street (now Downer Place). It was a brick edifice on a local limestone foundation, three stories high, boasting 185 windows and 20,000 square feet of factory floor space. It was heated by stoves.
Part of the building still stands on the northeast corner of Stolp Avenue and Downer Place, a gracefully delicate bit of architecture that seems entirely consonant with the artistic nature of the work once done inside.
Mulholland Brothers Take Over
After 50 years of commercial success accompanied by some inner travail (there were 15 changes in the office of president, for instance) the company changed hands in 1919, being acquired by Mulholland Brothers and taking that name.
Aurora Silver Plate did well, in terms of both contribution to the economic health of the city and its services to the newly materialistic society of the United States.
To do well in “the West” was an achievement of note because early consumers were biased in favor of goods made in the east, a bias overcome by the fine quality of workmanship and the range of wares and designs, some of which were original to Aurora since the company employed several artists.
And the range of wares was enormous.
Whether you wanted flatware and serving dishes for the dining room table, or hollowware like a candelabra, epergne or loving cup, or whether you wanted something big like an umbrella stand or something little like a toothpick holder, Aurora Silver Plate was at your service.
They offered silver plated white metal, planished tin ware with white metal trimming, and gold plated and gilt washed items. They could also plate or replate copper, platinum, nickel and brass to your custom order. Harness makers and the Burlington shops were among their customers for brass and nickel plating.
Many of the hollowware pieces had glass inserts or applied (soldered) decorations of a huge variety of animals, plants, cherubs and even textiles.
Decorative subjects that were engraved into the metal seemingly had no limit, also, from tiny spiders to entire landscapes. Customers could request just about anything.
The artisans who created these pieces are largely unknown to us today, but their origins and training would make for some interesting research.
Over the company’s 50 years of existence, four marks were used, all of them prominently displaying the word *Aurora*.
The Aurora Historical Society holds one of the world’s largest collections of Aurora Silver Plate wares, having been collecting for over 100 years and receiving, as well, the notable collection of Richard A. Haussmann (1930-2001), Aurora banker, thespian, historian and former treasurer of the Aurora Historical Society.
The Aurora Historical Society has been particularly honored by the request of the Illinois State Museum to display our tilting water pitcher with goblets as part of an Illinois Bicentennial exhibit in Springfield. Tilting pitchers simplified the task of pouring ice water and were very popular as wedding or other celebratory gifts in Victorian times.
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