Philadelphia Exposition of 1876: A Monumental American silver-plated "Chief and Squaw" centerpiece, Meriden Britannia Company, Meriden, CT, the figures attributed to Theodore Baur, 1876
- height 34 1/4 in. (87cm); length 40 3/4 in. (103.5cm)
Charles Venable, Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor, p. 108 (Meriden pavilion) and 192 (Chief figure).
Edmund P. Hogan, An American Heritage: A Book about the International SIlver Company, p. 111 (Meriden pavilion)
The inscription on the side of the bowl reads:
The Meriden Britannia Company was determined to make a splash at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. They were in keen competition with the firm of Reed & Barton to be masters of the fine silver-plate market, and both firms appreciated the showcase that the Exposition offered. Reed & Barton produced an elaborately decorated English-style four-foot centerpiece in sterling, and commissioned their pavilion from Herter Brothers. Meriden, on the other hand, stuck with their silver-plating expertise but brought it to a new artistic level with finely detailed, specially commissioned sculpture.
This centerpiece, with its figures of an "Indian Chief" and "Indian Squaw", occupied the front corner window of Meriden Britannia's square-domed pavilion. The choice of this view of the display by photographers, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and Meriden's own promotion materials shows just how prominent its placement was to fair visitors. Further down, centering the long side of the structure, was the related sculptural group of "The Buffalo Hunt." The head designer for Meriden, Henry Hirschfield, had commissioned the group from the New York-based sculptor German sculptor Theodore Baur (b. 1835). According to Edmund Hogan, Baur studied a buffalo in the New York Zoo and Native American artifacts in museums to create his sculpture (An American Heritage, p. 112).
It seems probable that it was Baur, a Western-themed artist specializing in well-costumed Indian figures, who also provided the models for the "Indian Chief" and "Squaw" figures - which not only adorned the centerpiece to the left of the "Buffalo Hunt," but which were also displayed as free-standing figures at the side entrance to the display. Baur continued to work on the theme of Native Americans; his most widely-diffused work is a bronze bust of "Chief Crazy Horse," of which there is a version in the Denver Art Museum. He also continued to be associated with Worlds' Fairs, sculpting "The Secret" for the Chicago fair of 1893 and a frieze for the Mines and Metallurgy Building at St. Louis in 1904, as well as figures of "Beethoven" and "Religion" for the Library of Congress building.
The individual sculpture of the "Chief" (no. 6400) and "Squaw" (no. 6300) were offered in the Meriden catalogues of the 1880s; when finished in "old silver, gold inlaid" they cost $50 and $45 respectively in the 1882. Examples of the figures are retained by the Meriden Historical Society and were shown in the 1994-95 exhibition in Dallas A Century of Splendor.
The occasion of American's Centennial in 1876 spurred several silver designers to look for "American" themes in regional fauna, and through Native American motifs. Painters such as George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller had brought such scenes to eastern audiences, but in 1876 Indian themes were also a nod to current events. The early 1870s witnessed the Indian Wars as the government pushed the remaining plains Indians onto reservations and away from the Black Hills. During the run of the Philadelphia Exhibition itself, General Custer would be killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25-26th. It is thus not surprising that alongside Meriden's "Chief," "Squaw," and "Buffalo Hunt" were shown Eugene Soligny's "Comanche Cup" for Tiffany & Co. (sold Sotheby's, New York, January 20, 1998, lot 35) and the Bennett candelabra from the same firm, decorated with peaceful Indians in canoes but topped by fierce warriors brandishing scalps.
The efforts of the firm paid off, and Meriden Britannia Co. took the First Place medal for plated wares – or, in the words of their 1878 catalogue, for the "large variety of silver plated white metal hollow ware, of excellent quality and finish, and of tasteful designs." The publicity of the award and the impression the firm made on the fair's 8 million visitors was continued by the catalogues and other intensive marketing; by the end of the 1870s Meriden Britannia Co. was considered the largest silverware company in the world.