Our Replacements, Ltd. Museum Feature this month is a beautiful sterling silver water goblet produced by Kirk Stieff Silver. The elegant goblet is inscribed: “To David Williamson by Genl. LaFayette 1824.” In 1824, Lafayette commissioned Samuel Kirk to create a pair of sterling water goblets as a present for David Williamson, who hosted Lafayette in Baltimore, MD during his grand tour of America. The featured water goblet in our museum is a reproduction of the goblets created for Lafayette, who received a hero’s welcome in America fifty years after he helped the country achieve its independence.
The Marquis de Lafayette (often referred to simply as “Lafayette”) was born in France on September 6, 1757. Lafayette was born into one of the oldest families in France, and descended from long line of soldiers stretching back to ancestors who served during the Crusades and in Joan of Arc’s army. He joined France’s Royal Army when he was only fourteen years old, and within two years he was a second lieutenant in a regiment commanded by his uncle. It was around this time that Lafayette first learned of the burgeoning revolution in the U.S., and vowed to help the American colonies in their struggle for independence. In 1777, at the age of nineteen, Lafayette purchased a ship and set sail for the U.S. He landed near Charleston, SC, and travelled to Philadelphia, where his offer to serve in the U.S. military was initially rebuffed. However, after Lafayette expressed a willingness to serve without compensation, Congress relented and bestowed upon him the rank of Major General.
Aided by a recommendation written by Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette joined the staff of General George Washington; it was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two. Lafayette distinguished himself early on, rallying troops for an orderly retreat during the Battle of Brandywine before allowing himself to be treated for a gunshot wound to the leg. After several months of recovery, Lafayette rejoined Washington at Valley Forge, and in the spring of 1778, he assisted with the pursuit of the British army as they left Philadelphia and retreated to New York. Lafayette returned to Paris at the beginning of 1779, where he worked with Benjamin Franklin to secure more soldiers and supplies for the American cause. Lafayette returned to the U.S. in 1781, and was sent to Virginia, where his tactical prowess helped force British General Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown. Having gained recognition from both Congress and General Washington for his valuable service, Lafayette returned to France where he was made commander of the National Guard. After enduring years of political unrest in France which resulted in his imprisonment and exile, Lafayette eventually gained his freedom after personal appeals from powerful political figurines, both in the U.S. and France.
In 1824, Lafayette was invited by President James Monroe to take a tour of America, in part to celebrate the nation’s fiftieth anniversary. During this year-long tour of the country, Lafayette visited all twenty-four states and was given an enthusiast reception by notable politicians, distinguished citizens, and adoring crowds. During this year of adulation and fanfare, Lafayette gained honorary citizenship in many states, in addition to a $200,000 grant and a 23,000 acre tract of land in Florida provided by Congress. Lafayette returned to France in 1825, where he served as a prominent public figure until his death in 1834. At Lafayette’s funeral, soil from Bunker Hill was scattered over his grave.
The maker of our featured goblet, Kirk Stieff Silver, is the culmination of two great Baltimore, MD, traditions. Charles Stieff founded Stieff Silver in 1892; Samuel Kirk founded his silversmith firm much earlier, in 1815 (Kirk’s firm is acknowledged as the oldest silversmith company in America). From their inception, both companies were recognized for innovative design and master craftsmanship.
Samuel Kirk began his silver career as an apprentice to James Howell in Philadelphia. In 1815, he partnered with John Smith to open a small shop in Baltimore, Maryland. It was during this time, early in the company's history, that Kirk introduced America to an ancient style of silver craftsmanship known as "repousse," in which artisans hammer a design into the inside surface of a piece of metal so that the ornamentation appears in relief on the outside. The partnership between Kirk and Smith was dissolved in 1820, and Kirk continued the business as the sole owner. Kirk’s customers included Maria Monroe (daughter of President James Monroe), who choose Kirk’s Mayflower as the silver pattern for her White House wedding. Other customers included many of Maryland’s most prominent families, along with the Bonapartes and, of course, Lafayette. Samuel's eldest son, Henry, joined the firm in 1846, and Samuel worked diligently as the company's president until his death in 1872.
Henry operated alone until his son, Henry Jr., joined him in 1890. Under their guidance, the business prospered. Kirk silver products began to garner attention outside of Maryland, and their client list grew to include Belmonts, Astors, and Roosevelts, among other prestigious and wealthy families around the nation. During World War II, the company was reorganized to produce, among other things, surgical instruments and metal hardware. The early 1950s brought a great demand for silver, and Kirk saw continued success. However, as silver demand began to decline in the 1960s, the Kirk Corporation (as it was then known) began to struggle. The company sold its assets to the Stieff Company, a neighboring competitor, in 1979. Stieff’s acquisition of Kirk was an exciting combination of two of America's most influential silver firms. Still, lessened demand for silver products resulted in Kirk Stieff’s sale to Lenox, Inc. in 1990. Today, a variety of the original Kirk and Stieff patterns are produced Lifetime Brands, which purchased Kirk Stieff in 2007.
While the Kirk Stieff Lafayette sterling water goblet in our museum is not for sale, we carry a very large selection of Kirk Stieff pieces available for purchase in our inventory; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our retail store and museum are open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, 7 days (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET, 7 days. The retail store and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!