Baltimore losing its Stieff silver lining Passing: When the silversmith's Hampden plant closes early next year, the city will lose a part of its heritage that has flourished since the 1800s.

Way Back When

November 07, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

"I can't imagine Baltimore without Kirk-Stieff," Charles O. Culver said from his Philadelphia home last week.

"It was so much a part of the city's heritage. The fine furniture and silver that came out of Baltimore in the 18th and 19th centuries certainly paralleled that made in Philadelphia, New York and Boston," said Culver, an antiques appraiser who grew up in Snow Hill surrounded by ancestral Samuel Kirk & Sons and Stieff Co. silver.

In late October, the venerable firm's parent company, Lenox Inc., a unit of the Louisville, Ky.-based Brown-Forman Corp., announced that it was closing the company's landmark Hampden plant. Operations will be consolidated at its Smithfield, R.I., facility early next year.

Kirk-Stieff, the oldest silversmith firm in the country, was the product of a 1979 merger of two Baltimore firms, Samuel Kirk & Sons, founded in 1815, and the Stieff Co., started in 1892 by Charles C. Stieff, whose family were piano makers.

The announcement brings to an end the era of silversmithing in Baltimore, an industry that has continuously flourished here since the early 1800s.

Experts say that the market and demand for metal, pewter, silver plate and sterling silver settings and pieces has declined 50 percent in recent years.

"Young brides today want stainless," said Charles C. Stieff II, grandson of the founder Charles C. Stieff, and former executive vice president of the company.

"It's easy to keep clean and they don't have to worry about it if it's stolen," said Stieff, a longtime North Baltimore resident.

Stieff began working in the factory as a youth when his father, Gideon Numsen Stieff Sr., long-time president of the Stieff Company, was chairman of the board. He recalls wrapping packages during holidays in the company's retail stores on Howard and Liberty streets.

"The market has shrunk as a result of changing tastes, and competition from foreign makers hasn't helped either," he said.

The Stieff Co. began in a small shop on Cider Alley in downtown Baltimore and later moved to German Street, since renamed Redwood Street.

In 1924, the company moved to its present building on Wyman Park Drive, which features an outdoor sign whose popularity is rivaled perhaps only by the Domino Sugar sign in Locust Point.

"During the Depression when the demand for silver fell, we kept the employees busy doing painting and cleaning in order to keep them on the job," Stieff said.

In 1939, the company signed an agreement with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to produce sterling silver replicas of Colonial-era silver, which allowed the company to market products with the Williamburg hallmark in exchange for a royalty fee.

After Williamsburg's pewtersmith retired in 1952, they took up the production of its pewter line, too.

During World War II, when restrictions were placed on silver, Stieff said the plant converted to war work, producing electronic parts and surgical handles.

After the war, the demand for silver returned, so much so that the plant could barely keep up with demand.

During the 1950s, the rising popularity for its pewter flatware, holloware and other specialty items kept the company's workers busy, and in turn made Stieff the largest manufacturer of pewter products in the country.

Stieff recalls First Lady Mamie Eisenhower visiting the Wyman Park plant one day.

"Mamie came through the factory, talked with the workers and personally picked out what she wanted," he said.

Through the years, Stieff has created many unusual pieces, including a solid gold tea set and 50th anniversary silverware VTC created by them for James Cardinal Gibbons.

Perhaps one Stieff's more well-known objects is the Woodlawn Vase, the trophy that has crowned every Preakness Stakes winner since 1917 and is recognized as the richest trophy in American sport.

The trophy, created by Tiffany and Co. for R. Aitcheson Alexander's now-defunct Woodlawn Racing Association in Louisville in 1860, has been appraised in excess of $1 million.

Weighing in at 29 pounds and 12 ounces, the trophy was presented to winners at New York and New Jersey tracks until being brought to Baltimore and the Preakness by Thomas C. Clyde in 1917.

Today, winners of the Triple Crown race are presented with a half-sized reproduction produced by Kirk-Stieff. The original rests safely in the company's Wyman Park Drive vault.

One of the more interesting moments of the company's history occurred in 1970, when Stieff buried a sort of "time capsule" of $50,000 dollars worth of silver and pewter in the foundation of an addition to its Hampden facility.

The booty, sure to someday be discovered by archaeologists, included a hand-chased tea set, a tray with a hot water kettle and a chest of sterling silver with teaspoons in varied designs, a glass bottom tankard with the Baltimore Colts' symbol, a sterling silver Jefferson Cup and silver baby-feeding utensils.

"It's still there in a trunk," said Stieff the other day in an interview from his home.

The Stieffs hoped that the artifacts would show how people lived in 18th, 19th, and 20th century America.

"Maybe people will be eating with pills, and not know what this is. We hope they will still be using bowls," Rodney G. Stieff, president of the company, told the Evening Sun in 1969.

As much a part of the Stieff legacy as the Woodlawn Vase or a beautifully handchased spoon is the building's landmark sign, which for nearly 75 years has greeted Baltimoreans and assumed landmark status.

For nearly all of those 75 years, the white light bulbs that outline the letters of the sign have been changed changed to red and green for the Christmas holiday season.

Stieff, though, is not certain what will happen to the sign once the building is closed.

"It's such a landmark and I just hate the thought of it being dismantled," he said.

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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