Silver display shines among area exhibits

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Silver display shines among area exhibits

November 16, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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One whole and three fragments of earthenware crucibles, used as melting pots for old silver by John Adam, the Alexandria silver maker at 318 King Street from circa 1796 to 1848.
Many people come to shop in Alexandria and enjoy leisurely strolls down Old Town's historic streets lined with tantalizing wares. Over the years long time residents have seen changes in the kinds of wares which occupy our shops. A fertilizer warehouse is now a Christmas store; hardware items are now replaced by French antiques, health foods and futons along King Street.

When historic Alexandrians and travelers from international ports walked along King Street 175 years ago, they also marveled in the vast array of fine goods displayed and made here.

Be a time traveler for a moment. Place yourself today near the southeast corner of King and Royal streets, and walk toward the river a few feet. Today you see a gift shop; now step back to the year 1817. The streets might be muddy, your boots and skirts a bit dirty, but you are excited to walk into John Adam's two-story frame shop at 318 King Street.

Adam was a silversmith and jeweler of fine repute. You might be visiting to order flatware, a tea service, or a covered sugar dish with monogram. Perhaps you are ordering serving pieces, such as silver sugar tongs or cream ladle, or a spectacle case. You might come to Adam's shop to order a three inch christening cup for your nephew.

Today you may once again see the outstanding silver items which John Adam and the many other noted silversmiths of Alexandria produced. A wonderful new exhibit has just opened at the Lyceum entitled "In the Neatest, Most Fashionable Manner: Three Centuries of Alexandria Silver." The accompanying catalogue by the curator of the exhibit, Catherine B. Hollan, will enrich your knowledge of Alexandria and the art of silver-making for many years to come.

As you can imagine, archaeological sites do not often yield artifacts as precious of the silver in the exhibit. But in the excavation of the south side of the 300 block of King Street during the 1960s urban renewal period, Richard Muzzerole from the Smithsonian discovered fascinating evidence of John Adam.

Four crucibles were unearthed in a brick well shaft which can be related to Adam's tenure at this address. As the catalogue discusses, silversmiths used crucibles to hold the metal during the melting stage and to mix silver with alloys. These crucibles are made of earthenware, and their blackened bases attest to their use in fire. These little melting pots had to endure great heat as the old silver was melted down for reuse.

In the next few columns I will highlight different silver pieces in the exhibit and their stories. I encourage everyone to visit the Lyceum at South Washington and Prince Street before January 31, 1995. The large number of objects and portraits of silver makers are extraordinary. Call 703-838-4994 for more information.

Pamela Cressey is Alexandria City Archaeologist