Breakfast (And American History) at Tiffany's

February 21, 2018

 

Hi Everybody! Welcome back to Out of the Archives and Into the Streets, the Archive on Parade blog. I hope everyone had a lovely long weekend. Since we owe the holiday to President's Day, and I happened to spend the weekend in DC, I thought only a tale from the National Archives would do. 

 

Today's post celebrates the New York origins of the Great Seal of the United States, and honors the silversmith who designed it, the very aptly named James Horton Whitehouse. 

 

Whitehouse wasn't at the White House when he designed the seal, he was in New York, at Tiffany's. The State Department commissioned Tiffany and Company to design a seal in 1884, and Whitehouse's design debuted in 1885. The Tiffany die, seen here at the National Archives, features an American Bald Eagle holding 13 arrows, and an olive branch with 13 leaves to represent the original 13 states.

 

The design is still in use today, and represents the culmination of a national and stylistic debate begun In Congress, July 4, 1776: how would the United States represent itself to the world? 

 

That day, after mutually pledging to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, the delegates of the Continental Congress passed a resolution:

 

Resolved that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.

 

Their Declaration had passed unanimously, but their design died in committee. Congress tabled the design and didn't return to the seal until 1780, when a second committee tried and failed to come up with a suitable design. Two years later, a third committee took yet another unsuccessful swing at sealing the nation's heraldic fate. 

 

 Finally, on June 13, 1782, Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson decided enough was enough. He combined the best elements of all three proposals, and drafted a seal featuring the nation's Latin motto and the American Bald Eagle with spears and olive branch.

 

He presented his design to Congress a week later, explaining that the seal

 

represent[s] the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.

 

His design was approved the same day.

 

As the 1782 die faded, new ones were cast 1841 and 1877 but they became increasingly inaccurate, since they were made from imperfect impressions of the original. On the national centennial in 1876, public interest in the seal spiked, followed by public comment on the inaccuracies of seal then in use. Shockingly, the State Department responded to the public outcry. The Department turned to Tiffany's to set the situation right.

 

Enter James Horton Whitehouse, our Heraldic Hero.  Whitehouse was a silversmith, designer and engraver who left England for New York in 1855, when he was 22. Then as now, the young artist landed in Brooklyn. Census records find him starting his life in New York at 36 Prospect Street, and working as an engraver at 10 Front Street. He would live in Brooklyn for the rest of his life, but his work would take him from DUMBO to SoHo.

 

In 1858, Whitehouse was hired to work in the Tiffany Silver Department, when the firm's silver factory was stationed at 53-55 Prince Street. In his 43 Years at Tiffany's, Whitehouse was recognized as one of the finest silversmiths of the 19th century. In fact, his Bryant Vase, commissioned in 1874 to commemorate William Cullen Bryant's 80th birthday, was the first piece of American silver to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

 

 

As soon as his career at Tiffany's began, his work started to play a significant role in American history. In 1858, the year he joined the firm, Cyrus Field laid the very first Transatlantic Cable. Accordingly, Whitehouse's first project at Tiffany's was to was design a metal and presentation box commemorating that event. Mayor Wood presented the box to Field at the Cable Jubilee at the Crystal Palace in what's now Bryant Park. (It is absolutely worth noting here that Charles Lewis Tiffany made a killing from that Cable: he bought miles of left over cable and resold it in lengths of 4 inches or less, as part of a line of commemorative paper weights, watch fobs, cane handles and seals!) 

 

Speaking of seals, the Great Seal was not Whitehouse's - or Tiffany's - first work on behalf of the government. During the Civil war, Whitehouse designed the Corps badges used by the Union Army, so when the State Department came knocking, Whitehouse was ready.

 

To design the Great Seal, Whitehouse consulted the original text of the 1782 resolution, but his skill and vision made the Tiffany seal unique. According to the State Department,  "The Tiffany die...differs radically from all earlier dies. It is formal and heraldic, rather than realistic...Its 3-inch diameter makes it larger than its predecessors, and...for the first time, the cloud of the crest is in the form of a complete circle." The Department further notes that "it is the eagle itself that has undergone the greatest change." This bird is "a muscular and unmistakably American bald eagle. More of the body appears above the shield, and the engraving is so skillfully done that the break between the white feathers of the head and neck and the dark feathers of the body is visible in both the die and the impressions. In another departure, the eagle grasps the olive branch and arrows in large, strong claws from behind, not from the front, as previously drawn."

 

Whitehouse's Tiffany die remind us once again that though the government might be in Washington, it's in New York City that the nation's fate is sealed. 

 

Cheers,

Lucie

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