For many years it was assumed that there were few silversmiths in Tennessee because of its rural character and remoteness. However, early newspapers and available censuses reveal the existence of at least 535 silversmiths and allied craftsmen who worked in Tennessee before 1860. A checklist of these artisans was published in 1971 in a special issue of Antiques about Tennessee.
George Bean is the earliest known silversmith in East Tennessee. He was working there by 1792. One of the earliest in Nashville was Joseph T. Elliston (ca. 1798-1856), who arrived at age eighteen after an apprenticeship in Lexington, Kentucky, and earned his first fifty cents in Nashville repairing a watch.
A young man aged twelve to fourteen could apprentice to a master craftsman and, after a term of years (usually seven), become a journeyman. Like Elliston, most of these craftsmen combined smithing with watch, clock, and jewelry repair, often reworking the silver from old-fashioned jewelry or from Spanish milled dollars. Indeed, the most successful among them gravitated to the jewelry trade. Elliston also served as Nashville’s fourth mayor from 1814 to 1816.
Silver was a luxury in early Tennessee and had to be ingeniously promoted. One popular way was the lottery sometimes featured in tradesmen’s advertisements. Before about 1865, most silver was coin silver, 900 parts silver per thousand. The higher standard of sterling–925 parts of silver per thousand–became standard only after 1865.
Tennessee silversmiths had no distinctive style. Many had come from Kentucky, Virginia, or the Carolinas, and all worked in styles prevalent throughout the eastern United States–classical forms early in the nineteenth century, and more elaborate rococo forms, often executed in repousse (hammered from the back), by the mid-1880s. Generally, simplicity of form and decoration was the keynote of Tennessee silver. Many of the more elaborate pieces were only retailed here. Also, it is dangerous to date Tennessee silver by style, as styles remained long in vogue and were slow to change.
The advent of the steamboat, which reached Nashville by 1816, caused a sharp reduction in transportation costs from cities such as Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Formerly, a round-trip from Nashville to New Orleans by keelboat might take a year. The steamboat covered the distance in seventeen days. Silversmiths could import machine-pressed sheets of silver. By mid-century, features such as patterned banding and elaborate handles were available through suppliers. At first, this seemed a boon to silversmiths, eliminating some of their most tedious work. Ultimately, however, it eliminated these craftsmen entirely by converting silver into an industry.
By the 1840s Tennessee had ceased to be a frontier and had become an agricultural commonwealth. It ranked sixth among the states in population in 1850 and fifth by 1860. Almost every town had at least one silversmith. Among the larger establishments were the brothers George R. and William H. Calhoun in Nashville, active from the 1830s to 1860, and in Memphis F. H. Clark & Company, active 1840 to 1860. Clark sold jewelry, repaired clocks and watches, and produced the usual flatware: cream pitchers, cups with handles, beakers, and ladles. The firm sold plated wares and britannia but also made surveyors’ transits and derringer pistols.
Some silver undoubtedly was destroyed during the Civil War, and some may still be buried, but probably most was bartered away during the hard times of the war and its aftermath. The revolution in silver production meant that those Tennesseans who remained in the business after 1865 were really jewelers who retailed the new machine-made patterned silver manufactured in northeastern cities. Nonetheless, there are a few silversmiths in Tennessee even today. Only tenuously connected with the earlier trade, they emerged in the post-World War II era as craftspeople who took up working in silver or teachers in design schools.
The most comprehensive exhibition of Tennessee silver is at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.
Benjamin Hubbard Caldwell Jr., Tennessee Silversmiths (1989)