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 An Ewer Tale

Some antiques have stories to tell, but rarely does a seemingly genteel piece of tableware tell a story of pestilence and devastation. A recent consignment is an American coin silver presentation ewer (pitcher) by New York silversmiths William Gale and Joseph Moseley (partnered from 1828 to 1833, their work may include a distinctive G&M stamp). It is a very large specimen and is encrusted with hand-hammered floral and beaded banding on its classical form. At its midsection is the inscription:

Presented by the Board Of Health of the City of New York TO Julius C. Wright M.D. for professional services gratuitously rendered to the poor of the SECOND WARD during the prevalence of the Cholera. A.D. 1832.

Outbreaks of disease in American urban centers began with the first wave of Spanish conquistadors in the fifteenth century, and escalated from there. The cholera pandemics of the early nineteenth century spread worldwide, from India to the British Isles, Europe and the Americas, and were an obvious consequence of globalization, colonialism and far-reaching trade routes. The outbreak in New York in 1832 was the second wave of the disease, and it was thought to have spread from Quebec down the St. Lawrence River. The chaos and terror in Europe over the illness was reported in American newspapers, and reports from stricken cities around the world flooded in with tales of mass death. Until germ theory was understood in the latter part of the century, this sort of mass chaos persisted.

Who was Julius C. Wright, M.D.? It would likely take a trip to the New York Historical Society to uncover his contributions to public health, but we can speculate that he must have been a major overseer of programs to have received such an expensive gift, purchased from (on donated by) the premier New York silversmiths of the time. Gale and Mosely obviously catered to the elite with large-scale presentation piecesa coffee urn by the pair resides in the collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts. A piece of the stature of the Julius C. Wright ewer is rarely found in private hands.

This item includes the makers stamp at the underside, but was manufactured before widespread marking of either Sterling or silverplate was in common use in the United States. This ewer created a schism in our workplace among employees and patrons as to the silver content of the piece. This kind of debate among antique experts is often the best thing, and enough doubts were raised that we had the piece taken to a silver restorer both to test the silver content and to repair the base (it leaned to one side a bit when it was brought in). The beautifully restored ewer found to be coin silver (900/1000), and so due to its size, history and quality of the workmanship has been estimated to sell for between $5,000 and $8,000. [Editors note: the ewer ended up selling for $3,500 on May 16, 2007.]

References you may wish to explore:
Archiving Early America