The popularity of owning silver grew, as indicated by the high number of silversmiths and jewelers working in the Charleston area between 1780 and 1820.
From the late seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century, the center of South Carolina silver production, importation, and consumption was Charleston. Populated with an oligarchy of planters and merchants, the city had the highest per capita income in British North America. British culture dominated Charleston society, and British goods, including silver, were in great demand. In a society known for its conspicuous consumption, owning silver was a practical way to both display and preserve one’s wealth.
The early colonists imported all silver or plate from England, but by the early 1700s colonial silversmiths began to compete with imported British wares. A surviving chalice dated 1711 and attributed to the Charleston goldsmith Miles Brewton (1675–1745) indicates early silver production in the city. Charleston silversmiths, such as Alexander Petrie and Thomas You, as well as most American silversmiths, usually marked their wares with either their initials or their last names. Pseudohallmarks similar to British hallmarks were sometimes added to give the appearance of English wares.
The Revolutionary War called a temporary halt to the importation of silver and curtailed the work of many South Carolina silversmiths. Reportedly British soldiers carried off large loads of silver when they evacuated Charleston. After the war members of Charleston society continued their close ties to England but also supported local silversmiths as well as other artisans living in the city.
The popularity of owning silver grew, as indicated by the high number of silversmiths and jewelers working in the Charleston area between 1780 and 1820. Domestic silver, especially pieces associated with the serving of tea, was the mainstay of these Charleston artisans. They also were commissioned by churches, fraternal organizations, and civic groups to produce silver for ceremonies and awards. Notable silversmiths of the era included Heloise and Louis Boudo and John Ewan.
By the early 1800s emerging inland communities such as Columbia and Camden could boast several working silversmiths. William Glaze initially began his career as a silversmith but later established the Palmetto Armory in Columbia to provide weapons for the defense of the state. William Gregg is known more for starting one of the state’s first cotton mills than he is as a master silversmith in Columbia. A Camden silversmith, Alexander Young, operated a bookstore in his shop and also sold items from military goods to patent medicine.
Less is known about silversmiths working in the upstate. By the mid–nineteenth century, when many communities had the populations to support silversmiths, silver manufactured in the Northeast was easy to obtain and more fashionable than locally made wares. The popularity of imports lessened the demand for South Carolina artisans. Flatware, however, does exist bearing the marks of upstate jewelers and silversmiths, indicating that at least some silver continued to be produced in Chester, York, and Greenville up until the Civil War.
Little silver was produced in South Carolina after the Civil War. The exception was the Eastern Carolina Silver Company, which operated in Hartsville from 1907 to 1909. The company was one of the few southern ventures in the mass production of silver-plated wares.
Bivens, John, and Forsyth Alexander. The Regional Arts of the Early South. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991.
Burton, E. Milby. South Carolina Silversmiths 1690–1860. Revised and edited by Warren Ripley. Charleston, S.C.: Charleston Museum, 1991.
Wilmot, Patricia J. Hartsville’s Eastern Carolina Silver Company. Hartsville, S.C.: Hartsville Museum, 1988.