George Christian Gebelein (1878-1945)

A first-generation immigrant, George Gebelein earned acclaim for the superb quality of his handcrafted silver products, finding success as a craftsman in an era when mass-produced goods had replaced handcrafted products.

Updated: August 28, 2014

Introduction

Boston silversmith George Christian Gebelein (born November 6,1878 in Wüstenselbitz, Bavaria; died January 25, 1945 in Wellesley Hills, MA) has been called the “modern Paul Revere,” a reference to the Revolutionary War hero and Boston native who was also known as one of America’s best silversmiths. A first generation German immigrant, Gebelein apprenticed with Boston craftsmen, learning skills passed down from Revere’s time. He earned acclaim for the superb quality of his handcrafted silver products and was highly respected as America’s foremost expert in Colonial silver. He helped build some of the most important collections of antique silver in the U.S., including the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at Yale University Art Gallery, and he also shared his expertise with the authors of leading reference books on American silver and silversmiths. He found success as a craftsman in an era when mass-produced goods had replaced handcrafted products, and he managed to develop a business model that helped him succeed financially when other craftsmen struggled to get by. Although Gebelein tended to downplay his German immigrant background, his friendships with other German immigrant silversmiths speak to the importance of ethnic ties in both his private life and career.  

Family and Ethnic Background

George Christian Gebelein was born on November 6, 1878, in the village of Wüstenselbitz, in Upper Franconia (Bavaria). He was the first child of Johann Nicolaus Gebelein (1859-1910), a weaver from the nearby town of Helmbrechts, and Margaretha Kunigunde (née Solger) Gebelein (1858-1944), a native of Wüstenselbitz. By the time of George’s birth, Nicolaus Gebelein had already immigrated to the United States. He had left Germany approximately six months earlier and had arrived at the Castle Garden immigration center in New York on May 15, 1878.[1] Margaretha Gebelein, who was pregnant at the time, had originally planned to travel with her husband, but family members prevailed upon her to remain in Bavaria until after the baby’s birth.[2] Margaretha and George embarked on the journey to America the following year, arriving at the Castle Garden immigration center in New York on September 10, 1879.[3]

The reasons for the Gebeleins’ emigration are unclear. In 1871, Bavaria had become part of the newly formed German Empire, and, according to family lore, the couple left to escape the “iron fist” of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.[4] But their reasons for leaving may have been more economic than political. It is plausible, for example, that their decision was influenced by changes in the weaving trade (namely, the industrialization of textile production), by the worsening plight of isolated rural areas, or by the aftereffects of the Great Depression of 1873. 

Moreover, family connections surely played a role in the Gebeleins’ decision to leave Germany. Not unimportant is the fact that Nicolaus’ uncle and godfather, Nicolaus Bencker, had left Helmbrechts for the United States a decade earlier. After his arrival, he settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he found work as a blacksmith and truss maker and lived alongside other recent immigrants from Germany.[5] After the Gebeleins emigrated, Nicolaus Bencker provided his young relatives with crucial initial support and even took them in for a short time.

By 1880, the Gebeleins had settled just outside of Cambridge, in Somerville, Massachusetts. Nicolaus Gebelein found work as a sausage maker, and the couple went on to have several more children: John Nicholas, Anna Christina, and Katherine Marie (twins Rosa and Theresa died in infancy). Nicolas earned his U.S. citizenship within ten years’ time. His naturalization was a source of pride both for himself and his wife, and it also meant that George Christian automatically received U.S. citizenship upon reaching the age of majority. In 1896, Nicolas was promoted to engineer at the Lewis Merrill pork and sausage works.

The Gebeleins were one of only a handful of German families in Somerville, so they attached themselves to the German community in neighboring Cambridge. Nicolaus was a member of the Independent German Order of the Harugari, Bunker Hill Lodge No. 48 in East Cambridge. Lodge members met twice monthly. First established in the United States in 1847 in response to growing anti-German sentiment, the Harugari[6] sought to preserve the German language and German traditions. By 1903, there were 300 lodges throughout the country. Nicolaus Gebelein became secretary of his lodge in 1896.[7] He also served as installation officer and chaplain, which meant that he played an important role in the German-American community.

The Gebeleins belonged to a German Lutheran church and attended services in their native language. Nicolaus put great effort into Christmas celebrations for his children, dressing up as Santa Claus to make surprise appearances in the week leading up to the holiday. According to family tradition, he did so to impart a belief that children would be rewarded for good behavior. Later on, George Christian continued the tradition with his own children.[8]

George’s formal education ended with his graduation from grammar school in 1893. As the eldest son, he was expected to assume some responsibility for the family. Although he was interested in continuing his education and had the skills to match, earning a living took precedence. He had worked part-time for much of his childhood, starting with his job as a paperboy for a German-language newspaper. George worked after school, on Saturdays, and during summer vacations. His summer jobs included working for a commission merchant, a trunk manufacturer, and at a bakery.[9]

At the age of fourteen, George began working twelve-hour shifts at the Washington Mills Company, which manufactured worsted wool textiles.[10] The mill was in Lawrence, Massachusetts, roughly twenty-five miles from Somerville. George’s uncles, John and Henry Gebelein,[11] lived in Lawrence. John, a weaver by trade, worked at Washington Mills, while Henry was a tinsmith and operated a successful plumbing business. Henry had lived with the Gebeleins in Somerville during the 1880s, learning English at night school before moving to Lawrence with John in the early 1890s.

George’s time at the woolen mill was short. Back in Somerville, his great-uncle Nicolaus Bencker and a lodge brother from the Harugari, Adolph Kraas, had arranged for him to become an apprentice silversmith at the newly formed Boston firm Goodnow & Jenks.[12] Kraas was a senior silversmith at the company, which specialized in sterling silver tableware and supplied retail stores in Boston and elsewhere. Born in 1837, Kraas had come to the U.S. from Prussia as a young man and had acquired his U.S. citizenship in 1868.[13] He became Gebelein’s teacher at Goodnow & Jenks.

Gebelein started his apprenticeship in August 1893 and stayed until the fall of 1897. During his four-plus years at Goodnow & Jenks, he acquired fundamental skills and a philosophical grounding in the craft of silversmithing at a time when most silverware firms relied on mechanized production. James T. Woolley, the foreman at the firm, embraced the tenets of the contemporary Arts and Crafts movement, namely the belief that handmade objects had greater intrinsic value than their machine-made counterparts.[14] One of the firm’s partners and its principal designer, Barton Pickering Jenks, was a master member of Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts, which sought to promote “artistic work in all branches of handicraft.”[15] The firm’s other partner, Walter Goodnow, was an associate member. 

The Society of Arts and Crafts was incorporated in Boston in 1897 and held its first exhibition in April of that year. The show included a large display of Goodnow & Jenks silver, most of which was designed by Jenks himself. Other works exhibited by the company were unattributed.[16] Given that Goodnow & Jenks only employed twelve skilled workmen (significantly fewer than the hundreds employed by major silverware manufacturers), it is likely that Kraas and Gebelein worked on some of the silver exhibited by the firm.[17] During his internship, Gebelein learned much from Kraas, Woolley, and Jenks, but also from Goodnow & Jenks silversmith George F. Hamilton, who, as he later recalled, taught him techniques that had been passed down through generations of Boston silversmiths from the colonial era.[18]

Business Development

By 1897, Gebelein was ready to finish his apprenticeship and become a journeyman. With high aspirations, he left Boston on November 6, his nineteenth birthday, in search of work at the prestigious Tiffany factory in Forest Hill, New Jersey. Tiffany & Co. was the country’s leading silversmith firm, with about 1,000 employees and branches in Geneva, Paris, and London. At the time, the founder’s son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, enjoyed worldwide renown for his Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau designs. But Tiffany & Co. turned Gebelein away as soon as it became evident that he was not yet twenty-one, the traditional age for starting as a journeyman. So Gebelein went to the George W. Shiebler silver company in New York and worked at their Manhattan store until he was ready to apply at Tiffany again. After passing a skill test that involved making an ornate silver openwork arrangement that was fitted onto a glass bowl, Gebelein was offered a position at Tiffany & Co. as a journeyman in the Silver Room, the workroom reserved for the company’s silversmiths.[19]

Gebelein stayed at Tiffany for a little over two years. During this time, he lived in Newark, New Jersey, with John and Anna C. Bird.[20] John Bird was a landscape gardener and had designed the grounds around the Tiffany factory in 1893.[21] Bird was from England and his wife was from Germany, but the impression the couple made on Gebelein was more New World than Old. As he later recalled, he regarded his stay with them as his first experience of an “American” household.[22] In his free time, Gebelein explored the museums and jewelry shops of New York City, and studied design and art history books at the New York Public Library.

At Tiffany, Gebelein became friends with George E. Germer (1864-1945), the son of a Berlin jeweler. Germer had come to the United States in 1893 and worked at Tiffany until about 1900, at which point he moved to Concord, New Hampshire. There, he started working at the William B. Durgin silver company, which specialized in sterling silver flatware and employed more than 100 skilled workers. Germer remained there until about 1904, whereupon he moved to Providence, Rhode Island.

Gebelein also moved to Concord to work at Durgin in 1900. While in Concord, Gebelein became acquainted with Eva May Pelren, the daughter of Rosa and Moses Pelren, of Concord. The two married on March 30, 1902. At the time, Eva was seventeen and George was twenty-three. Later that year, the young newlyweds moved to the Boston area, and Gebelein took the first step toward starting his own business by joining The Handicraft Shop, a small cooperative venture for craftspeople working in leather, silver, and other decorative arts. The shop was operated by Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts, which believed that “good work is the natural outcome of [the] right conditions, under which the workman once more becomes a craftsman.”[23] It had been founded around 1900 and occupied a space in a building on Somerset Street. The Handicraft Shop espoused the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement and valued the slow-paced production of handcrafted goods. Each affiliated craftsperson rented a workbench, brought his or her own tools and materials, and developed a clientele. The shop was managed by Mary C. Knight, formerly a designer at Gorham Manufacturing Company in Rhode Island.[24]

Gebelein’s association with The Handicraft Shop and The Society of Arts and Crafts was essential to his success as an entrepreneur. Handcrafted silver products were more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts, and this fact significantly limited the size of Gebelein’s potential clientele. By joining the shop and becoming a member of the Society, Gebelein gained access to a host of wealthy patrons. The high quality of his work brought countless commissions for decades to come. Sometimes his customers represented three generations of a single family.[25]

One of his most important patrons was Arthur Astor Carey (1857-1923), a founder of The Society of Arts and Crafts, a great-grandson of German immigrant and self-made millionaire John Jacob Astor, and a prominent member of Boston society. Gebelein’s first commission from Carey was for a silver tea set in 1905. The design was inspired by late seventeenth-century English decorative arts and was, according to Gebelein’s notes, “most difficult to make.”[26] The style of the tea set became known as the “Carey Style,” and the piece is now regarded as an outstanding example of Gebelein’s work. The “Carey Style” was used exclusively for the Carey family. That same year, Carey’s niece and fellow Astor descendent, the Countess von Oberndorff, commissioned a large oval tray and a complete tea and coffee service for her home in London. The Carey family continued commissioning work for decades. Gebelein’s work was meticulous and time consuming: for example, a Carey Style tea kettle commissioned in 1907 took 102 hours to produce. Gebelein completed the job over the course of two weeks.[27]

In 1906, Gebelein began marking his pieces with his name, GEBELEIN.[28] At about the same time, he began working on an original design for a coffeepot. Inspired by the shape of pumpkins, the design was called “Melon Style”. The initial sketches for the coffeepot were completed in October 1906 and a formal drawing was exhibited in 1907. A Boston patroness was so impressed with the design that she commissioned a full tea and coffee set from him.[29]

Although The Handicraft Shop did not have a formal showroom, The Society of Arts and Crafts held regular exhibitions showcasing the work being done there. Gebelein also submitted his work to group exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and participated in important exhibitions that gave him greater visibility and helped establish his reputation as a silver craftsman. During his years at The Handicraft Shop, Gebelein adhered to the Society’s principals, putting the creation of beautiful work ahead of material gain. His work was made on commission for wealthy individuals associated with the Society and for patrons who saw his work in exhibitions.

As a member of The Society of Arts and Crafts, Gebelein would have been familiar with their “Principles of Handicraft,” which they printed every year in their annual report. According to the first principle, the “motives of a true craftsman are the love of good and beautiful work as applied to useful service, and the need of making an adequate living. In no case can it be primarily the love of gain.”[30] The principles emphasized full cooperation and comradeship between designer and workman, and placed that cooperation above patronage. Throughout his career, Gebelein embodied these principles, generously sharing his knowledge and expertise with craftspeople, patrons, and scholars. His daughter, Margaretha Leighton, wrote proudly of his “persistent endeavor, his tempered ambition, and his forthright, unswerving honesty.”[31]

In 1907, amateur silversmith David Mason Little (1860-1923) contacted Gebelein and invited him to collaborate on a silver tea set that he was making for his wife. In addition to being a craftsman, Little was a retired naval architect and the former mayor of Salem, Massachusetts. He was also a student and patron of Gebelein. The two worked well together, and in 1908 Little offered to help Gebelein open his own shop.[32]

In February 1909, with Little’s assistance, Gebelein opened his shop at 79 Chestnut Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. The three-story building, originally used as a carriage house, had been remodeled in 1902 for retail use. The first floor was occupied by a plumbing business, while the upper floors were subdivided and rented to craftspeople, including silversmiths. Gebelein set up his workshop and showroom in the back of the second floor. The shop had space for Gebelein, his craftsmen, his students, and Little.[33] Gebelein kept his shop small, hiring only a few craftsmen and apprentices to assist him. Among them were Gottlieb Lamacek, whom Gebelein had met during his time at Tiffany, and George Adolph Fairbairn, the grandson of Adolph Kraas. Fairbairn began as an apprentice with Gebelein in 1919 and remained with him for most of his career.[34]

In 1910, a year after opening his Chestnut Street shop, Gebelein acquired the tools and machinery needed to spin silver. This meant that his craftsmen could quickly turn a sheet of silver into its desired form, rather than hammering it slowly into shape. The tell-tale concentric rings generated by the spinning process were hidden by decorative engravings and small hammer marks.[35] This was a move away from the strict handcraft model, but it dramatically increased the shop’s production and allowed Gebelein to offer lower prices on certain pieces. He continued to produce fully handcrafted silver on commission, but these labor-intensive pieces represented only a small percentage of his total profit.

In keeping with the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement, Gebelein never had more than seven workers in his shop. He farmed out work when necessary; some of his spinning work was done in Attleboro, Massachusetts, by Albert T. Gunner, while much of his engraving work was done by Harold Small.[36] His treatment of his workers, as he described in 1915, focused on nourishing their creativity with “plenty of light, air, comfort and no hurried efforts.”

One of Gebelein’s earliest advertisements appeared in 1912. It was directed at wealthier customers who were seeking personally designed, handcrafted silver. The advertisement described a recent commission from a “well-known artist” for a handcrafted silver bowl that was intended as a gift. Gebelein went on to boast that his customer list included “the names of many old and distinguished families in America and the nobility abroad.”[37] The advertisement was reflective of a business model in which the craftsman catered to the individual needs of each customer, creating a small number of exquisite and unique products. In this respect, it was consistent with Gebelein’s approach at The Handicraft Shop and in his business thus far.

Although Gebelein would continue producing fine custom work throughout his career, he had also come to realize that he needed to enhance the profitability of his business and expand his customer base. Thus, in 1912, he started running more modest advertisements that avoided references to the nobility and encouraged readers to visit his shop or send him correspondence. These advertisements also offered lessons in silversmithing.[38]

The year 1912 witnessed other key developments in Gebelein’s business. That year, his former associate from his days at Tiffany and Durgin, George E. Germer, moved to Boston to start his own business after working for Gorham in Providence, Rhode Island. Germer was accomplished at decorative silver work, primarily chasing and engraving, and over the coming years, he and Gebelein collaborated on various commissions for Protestant and Catholic churches. Their first major commission was an altar set for Grace Church in Providence in 1912.[39]

Gebelein’s efforts to develop a more profitable business also led him to patent a dolphin-shaped design that could be used as a paperweight and a pen rest. He filed for his patent on January 26, 1912, and received it on April 9, 1912. He marketed “The Gebelein Dolphins” in a series of advertisements, noting that they could be used as a paperweight, a seal (if engraved), and as a pen rest: “Three in One.” The dolphins were available in bronze and sterling silver, both relatively inexpensive metals. A 1913 advertisement in Vanity Fair promised “Gebelein Dolphins for Good Luck.” Gebelein followed his dolphin patent with one in 1914 for a door knocker featuring an image of Rip Van Winkle carrying a heavy keg on his shoulders. Gebelein was still marketing the door knocker as late as 1939.[40]

Many of Gebelein’s advertisements from the 1920s suggested that his products made ideal gifts. One advertisement assured readers that the Gebelein showroom presented “a choice of many pleasing gifts,” including copper bowls, vases, and candlesticks; antique pewter and silver; tea services and table silver in “period designs”; and Colonial reproductions made by hand.[41] In some advertisements, Gebelein was portrayed as a silversmith; in others, he was a “Gold and Silversmith”; and in still others, he was a “Maker and Repairer of Silverware.”

Gebelein marketed his business to customers who needed replacements for or repairs to missing or damaged pieces in their silverware sets. He took great pride in matching not only the appearance of the design, but also the actual techniques and tools used to make them. Gebelein collected antique silversmith tools, including some purchased directly from Paul Revere’s descendants. A brief review of Gebelein’s shop in the first issue of Antiques magazine described it as “An unusual place to visit for those interested in fine silver of to-day and the years gone by.” Indeed, visitors to Gebelein’s shop were treated to tightly-packed display cases of silver goods both old and new. In addition to Gebelein’s own creations, visitors could also view the work of his associates; the antique silver he collected and sold; examples of work by his former employers, Goodnow & Jenks, Tiffany, and Durgin; and late-nineteenth century silver products made by old Boston and New York firms.[42]

Gebelein encouraged the public to regard his shop as a center of scholarship that was intricately linked to the past. In one advertisement, Gebelein boasted that most of his shop’s visitors were not buyers; instead, “Collectors come to view our unusual display of fine old pieces, curators of museums come to consult our library of rare works… students come to see the miracle of the silversmith’s art.”[43] Gebelein was not merely a maker and retailer of silverware; he was a custodian of treasures, and his shop was a repository of knowledge.

In 1920, Gebelein expanded his workshop, taking over the entire second floor of the building. He relocated his showroom and office to a pair of rooms at the front of the building to allow more space for his workshop.[44] The office had two roll-top desks: one for his bookkeeper; the other for his secretary. A third desk was added in the 1920s for his son John Herbert, who joined the business as assistant manager and expert in antique silver.[45] In 1942, Gebelein expanded once more, taking over the building’s third floor to use as storage.

Gebelein never opened additional shops; his only showroom was at 79 Chestnut Street. This was not a weakness, but rather a strength, for the Gebelein image depended upon the mystique of exclusivity that came from having only one location. He took pride in his business model, relying on participation in museum and gallery exhibitions to expand his market (see part 5 of this essay), instead of opting for the more mainstream approach of wholesale distribution.

Around 1921, Gebelein began retailing products made by Gorham, Reed & Barton, Currier & Roby, and the International Silver Company. During the Great Depression, Gebelein also sold popular Art Deco chrome pieces manufactured by Chase Brass & Copper.[46] The products made by other companies typically retailed for less than Gebelein’s own work, thereby increasing his sales to customers with smaller budgets.

Although Gebelein sold mass-produced objects in his store, he was still able to maintain an aura of pre-industrial craftsmanship, not least because he continued to accept commissions for handcrafted silver wares. Gebelein deliberately cultivated his image as a silversmith in the older tradition. A 1922 trade journal article about his shop spoke of its “old-time, old-world character” and described the constant sound of “hand-directed” hammers and punches as “almost conversational.” [47]

His Boston location also went a long way in strengthening his image as a silversmith who advanced Colonial traditions in the modern world. By the 1920s, the Colonial Revival was in full swing in New England. Wealthy collectors were eager to find antiques with connections to the Revolutionary War, or at least authentic reproductions. Gebelein also sold historic silver in his shop, a move that increased his revenue and enhanced the allure and status of his business. Some of Gebelein’s advertisements featured an artful photograph of a particularly rare antique silver object that he had acquired and sought to sell. At times, his advertisements described his business as a “shop of old interesting silver.”[48] The buying and selling of antique silver was a significant part of Gebelein’s business. He acquired some items at auctions or estate sales; others were brought to him directly. Gebelein’s years of studying antique silver and the knowledge he had acquired by making reproductions gave him unrivaled expertise as a dealer of antique silver.

Gebelein’s greatest success in buying and selling Colonial silver was his acquisition and subsequent sale of a silver monteith (used for chilling wine glasses) made by Colonial silversmith John Coney in the late 1600s. Gebelein put the monteith up for auction with the American Art Association Anderson Galleries in New York City on April 3, 1937. It fetched what was then the highest ever price for antique silver sold at auction: $30,000 (about $456,000 in 2010).[49] Gebelein and his son John Herbert provided the research for the catalogue. The monteith eventually became part of Yale University Art Gallery’s Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, which also includes a number of silver objects that Francis Garvan purchased directly from Gebelein, including a John Coney chafing dish (c. 1715), which featured prominently in several Gebelein advertisements.

Among the special commissions that Gebelein received throughout his career, church silver and trophies were of particular importance. Although they were labor intensive, they brought him tremendous prestige and greatly enhanced his reputation. In addition to the aforementioned altar set for Grace Church in Providence (which he undertook in collaboration with George Germer), Gebelein made communion sets for the United States Military Academy at West Point, King’s Chapel and St. Peter’s Church in Boston, and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Gebelein’s church silver commissions also included memorial pieces, notably two large ciboria that were presented to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in 1934. They were designed to match two smaller ciboria already owned by the Cathedral, and they had been commissioned by Alice Cheney Baltzell in memory of her husband, Dr. William Hewson Baltzell. The Baltzells were wealthy members of Boston society with close ties to Philadelphia as well.[50]

Gebelein considered his “greatest and finest contribution to the art of silver craftsmanship” to be a communion service commissioned by Augustus Porter Thompson and his wife, Georgia, in memory of their son, Augustus Porter Thompson, Jr., who had been a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and who died a year after his graduation in 1928.[51] The service consisted of sixteen pieces and was copied after a service made by Edward Winslow during the early 1700s.

Trophies were regular commission items for the Gebelein shop as well. Among them were the Alexander Agassiz Cup for the inter-house rowing championship at Harvard in 1931; the Percy D. Haughton Memorial Cup for the Tennis and Racquet Club of Boston; the Halcyon and Shattuck Trophy for St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire; and the “Guild Cup,” which was commissioned by the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1937 for the America’s Cup Yacht Race.[52]

Gebelein as a Leading Expert on Colonial American Silver

During his early years with The Society of Arts and Crafts, Gebelein took advantage of an arrangement the Society had with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, whereby all working or student members were granted unlimited access to the museum’s collections.[53] Thus, Gebelein was able to study examples of silver objects made by some of the best Colonial silversmiths. He even went so far as to make plaster casts of important silver pieces in the museum collection, which he then kept in his workshop for reference, adding more casts over the course of his career.[54] He paid particular attention to the work of Paul Revere, the Revolutionary War hero who was one of Boston’s premier silversmiths during the eighteenth century. Gebelein’s casts of an Edward Winslow sugar box, a Jacob Hurd tankard, and a pair of Jeremiah Dummer candlesticks were donated to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan after his death, providing a resource for scholars unable to study the original pieces.[55]

Shortly after Gebelein joined The Handicraft Shop, Colonial American silver became a subject of great interest among collectors and experts, who had previously considered American decorative arts inferior to their Western European counterparts. Since Gebelein had apprenticed in Boston and had learned techniques handed down from the eighteenth century, he had a natural appreciation for Colonial American silver. The first exhibition of Colonial American silver was held at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1906. The first serious collectors included Judge Alphonso T. Clearwater and Francis P. Garvan.[56] The ability to distinguish authentic pieces from fakes was obviously of great importance in the amassing of prestigious collections, and it was also something that Gebelein excelled at.

Over the years, Garvan, Clearwater, and other collectors of their caliber gravitated toward Gebelein. Garvan was a key client; Gebelein produced custom work for him but also sold him signature pieces of eighteenth-century silver. Gebelein also acted as a consultant to collectors, scholars, and museum curators, including Edwin Barber of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Henry Francis du Pont, whose collection eventually became the Winterthur Museum.

In 1916, Gebelein was invited to participate in an exhibition entitled “Fakes” and Reproductions, which was held at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. He loaned two silver spoons, both identified as fakes, to the exhibit.[57] His reputation as an expert was growing. Some years later, in 1922, Gebelein’s skill at detecting forgeries won high praise in an article in The Keystone, which stressed that Gebelein never hesitated to wound “the pride of ownership” when it came to identifying fakes in famous collections.[58]

Gebelein’s intimate knowledge of fabrication techniques, his first-hand examinations of Colonial silver, and his skill as a craftsman made him an expert not just in identifying fakes, but also in creating the highest quality reproductions. In 1928, Gebelein produced a set of fifteen reproduction inkstands for Francis Garvan, modeling them after the one used for the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Garvan commissioned the inkstands as gifts for friends and colleagues. Gebelein carefully replicated the original inkstand, which had been made by Philip Syng, but he also added an inscription to the base of each one, noting its status as a replica.[59]

Another important commission was the restoration of the Williamsburg Mace for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1941. Publicity from the commission brought great prestige to Gebelein’s shop and a good bit of profit as well. The mace, which had been made by London silversmiths around the year 1750 and used as a symbol of government in Williamsburg, Virginia, had been greatly damaged over the course of two centuries. Gebelein was hired to restore the mace to its original glory.[60] It has been on view at Colonial Williamsburg ever since.

Over the years, Gebelein became so closely identified with Colonial America that his German ethnicity was often obscured. In 1935, as tensions with Nazi Germany grew, a potential customer wrote to inquire about grape shears that she had seen advertised in House Beautiful, declaring that she would not purchase them if they were made in Germany; the customer was apparently oblivious to Gebelein’s heritage.[61]

Some of Gebelein’s more public commissions helped lend him a patriotic aura. In 1928, the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, commissioned Gebelein to create a tea and coffee service for the U.S.S. Lexington, a new aircraft carrier. The set was modeled after pieces from the early Federal period. It was paid for, in part, by donations from the town’s citizens, including children who donated their pennies in the spirit of patriotism.[62] Each piece bore the Seal of the Town of Lexington and the words “What a Glorious Morning for America,” a reference to the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Lexington. The service was put on exhibition for a month in the window of the Lexington Trust Company, so that everyone in the town would have the opportunity to view it. On January 28, 1928, the Town of Lexington officially presented the tea service in a public ceremony on board the U.S.S. Lexington. The presentation was a major event, despite a snowstorm that hit that day. A newspaper report estimated that the ceremony was witnessed by about 500 people, roughly half of whom were children.[63] Gebelein, his wife, and their sons Herbert and George, Jr., were present that day.

Although much of his work was either inspired by or was a modern interpretation of Colonial silver, Gebelein also drew inspiration from European sources. A tea set illustrated in the September 1922 issue of The Keystone was adapted from French designs, including the work of silversmith Jean-Baptiste Gaspard Odiot, who was active in the early eighteenth century.[64] In addition to silver, Gebelein also produced work in copper and gold. Among those pieces was an 18K gold salt dish that took its design inspiration from both eighteenth-century decorative arts and ancient Greek kantharos wine cups.[65] The salt dish, featured in a 1922 article, was never sold. It remained in the Gebelein family until 1986 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At the time of his death in 1945, Gebelein was the owner of Boston’s last silver handcraft shop.[66] His family continued the business, incorporating under the name Gebelein Silversmiths. The focus of the business gradually shifted during the 1950s, at which point it became a buyer and seller of antique silver. The shop stopped manufacturing new pieces, although it continued to do some repair work. The company remained at 79 Chestnut Street until 1968, when the shop relocated to 286 Newbury Street, Boston.

Exhibitions and Consignments

As an independent craftsman, Gebelein promoted his work by participating in exhibitions of Arts and Crafts designs. He exhibited work throughout his carrier, starting from his days as a journeyman. Back then, his pieces were not attributed, but his journals indicate that he worked on some of the Tiffany silver shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universale and at the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition.[67]  

He exhibited annually with The Society of Arts and Crafts and won a bronze medal from them in 1919.[68] Gebelein also exhibited regularly at the Art Institute of Chicago. To expand his visibility and customer base, he became a member of the National Society of Craftsmen of New York and Newport, the Artists’ Guild in Chicago, and The Arts and Crafts Society of Detroit. In 1911, The Arts and Crafts Society of Detroit exhibited pieces by Gebelein and James T. Woolley, with whom he had worked at Goodnow & Jenks.[69]

In 1911, several Gebelein pieces from private collections were included in an Arts and Crafts exhibition in Portland, Oregon. A review of the show noted that Gebelein was “considered the foremost worker in metals in the United States.”[70] Gebelein’s work was included in a 1912 loan exhibition of American applied art at the Colony Club of New York City,[71] and in 1913, Gebelein participated in an exhibition hosted by The Handicraft Club of Baltimore at the Peabody Institute. [72]

In 1914, Gebelein and Arthur J. Stone exhibited together at New York’s Little Gallery. A reviewer for the New York Times praised the “aesthetic merit” of Gebelein’s craftsmanship and described the surfaces of his pieces as “full of delicate variety and expressiveness.”[73] That same year, he also exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Industrial Art Exhibition; a reviewer called Gebelein’s work “notable for some excellent repoussé and embossed borders as well as for graceful and interesting lines.”[74] His best year at the Art Institute of Chicago may have been 1916, when jurors accepted thirteen pieces of his work.[75]

In 1930, Gebelein won an award at the Boston Tercentenary Fine Arts and Crafts Exhibition, as did Katherine Pratt, who had studied with Gebelein fifteen years earlier.[76] In 1937, Gebelein’s work was included in the Brooklyn Museum’s Contemporary Industrial and Handwrought Silver exhibition; it also featured prominently in the exhibition catalogue, which included two illustrations of his work. Cartier, Samuel Kirk & Son, Arthur J. Stone, and James T. Woolley were among the designers and manufacturers included in the exhibition. That same year, his work was also featured in a show at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hamphsire. 

Gebelein sold some of his work through consignments at other craft shops including the Gotham Craft Shop in Aiken, South Carolina; the Bakers Handicraft Shop in Springfield, Massachusetts; the Arts and Crafts Shop in Washington, DC; and The Shop of Fine Arts and Industries in Portland, Oregon.[77] Other consignment locations included summer resort towns such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, Maine. These consignments, like the exhibitions in which he participated, helped him broaden his customer base. During his early years, Gebelein paid visits to the various consignment spots to improve his customer relations. [78]

Over the years, Gebelein took on many students. He reserved a row of benches for them in his workshop. Through an arrangement with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gebelein was even able to offer brief apprenticeships to several young women. Their studies were funded through a scholarship administered by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. Sybil Foster was awarded the scholarship in 1913.[79] She was followed by Elizabeth Lee in 1914 and Katherine Pratt in 1915.[80] Pratt went on to become a professional silversmith.

Gebelein also took on private students, including John Marshall Phillips, who spent the summer of 1931 studying the manufacture of silver with Gebelein.[81] At the time, Phillips was working for one of Gebelein’s patrons, Francis P. Garvan. Phillips later became Curator of Silver at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Social Status, Networks, Family, and Public Life

Although Gebelein worked six days a week, he still found time for hobbies. His interests included mineralogy, genealogy, heraldry, history, and art. Gebelein was also an amateur cyclist, who, as a youth, competed frequently in Boston and New Jersey. In Boston, he was a member of the Cambridgeport Cycle Club, which was founded in 1887. He won several races with his tandem partner, Benny Gerard, with whom he sometimes paced Harvard cyclists. Gebelein often recalled how his mother would cheer him on, calling out “Good luck, my Angel” in German.[82] During his time at Tiffany in New Jersey, Gebelein participated in road races and, once, in a race at Madison Square Garden. He was given a “White” racing bicycle by the White Sewing Machine Company, enameled in gilt-trimmed ivory.[83]

Gebelein’s parents were closely tied to the German immigrant community and maintained their cultural traditions in their new country. Although he grew up in a German household, Gebelein had come to the United States as an infant, and his parents seem to have encouraged his integration into American culture. For instance, as a child, he attended Sunday school at the Prospect Street Congregational Church. He retained a lifelong friendship with his Sunday school teacher, and he used his English Bible to help his mother improve her English.

Gebelein’s wife, Eva May Pelren, was of Canadian, French-Canadian, and Irish descent. The couple met at a Concord party hosted by her cousin, Maud Currier. Eva shared George’s interest in bicycling, and they spent much of their courtship cycling through the New Hampshire countryside. Upon their engagement, Gebelein presented her with a small diamond that he had acquired in New York. It had been set in a gold Tiffany ring by a Concord jeweler. They were married at the North Congregational Church in Concord.[84]

Gebelein and his wife had seven children: Margaretha Pelren, who authored her father’s biography in 1976; Ernest George; John Herbert; Esther Marie; Arthur David; Eleanor Eva; and George Christian, Jr. The Gebeleins wanted to raise their children in the suburbs, so, in 1904, they left the city and moved to Wellesley Hills, a half-hour train ride from Boston. Gebelein enjoyed gardening, and he also raised chickens. He was a nature lover, and frequently gave lessons in nature study to his children. He had enjoyed ice skating as a child and took it up again when his own children were old enough to skate.[85]

While living in Boston, the Gebeleins became interested in Christian Science and joined The Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston. In 1911, they became charter members of the Wellesley Branch Church, where George Gebelein taught Sunday school for many years. He also served as the church treasurer.[86] Gebelein was a member of the National Geographic Society, the Wellesley Country Club, the Republican Club of Massachusetts, the Wellesley Hills Skating Club, and the Wellesley Historical Society, which was founded in 1925.

Gebelein had a particular admiration for Harvard College from an early age.[87] He became friends with Professor Barrett Wendell (1855-1921), an esteemed scholar who introduced the study of American literature to Harvard. He also befriended Professor Langdon Warner (1881-1955), a Harvard art historian who was also one of the inspirations behind the Indiana Jones movies. All four of Gebelein’s sons graduated from Harvard, and Gebelein was given an honorary membership in an undergraduate club.

All of Gebelein’s children spent at least some time working at his shop. His sons worked as apprentices after school and during summer vacations, just as Gebelein had worked regularly during his childhood. His two oldest sons, Ernest George and John Herbert, were entrusted with a variety of tasks and chores that were essential to business operations. Gebelein’s son Arthur David had a natural inclination towards silversmithing and eventually joined the family business as an associate silversmith. Gebelein’s daughters were also encouraged to spend a little bit of time in the workshop, and they learned to make “trinkets” by observing the silversmithing process.[88]

Gebelein’s daughter Eleanor Eva worked as his secretary between her college graduation and her marriage; she occasionally filled in as his secretary later on as well. Gebelein’s son John Herbert formally joined the family business in 1926 as a silver expert and general manager. [89] Herbert went on to become a “pioneer researcher” in the field of China trade silver and was the first person to positively identify a piece as such during the 1930s.[90]

Herbert enlisted in the military in March 1941 and remained in service for the duration of World War II. While he was away, George Christian Gebelein died on January 25, 1945, in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. Eva Gebelein stepped in to manage the Gebelein business until Herbert returned from the war later that year.[91] He shared the management of the business with his mother, becoming President after Gebelein Silversmiths was incorporated and relocated to 286 Newbury Street in 1968. The family sold the business in 1984. Two years later, the new owner, Dave Thomas, relocated the business to Vermont, where it still exists as an antique shop specializing in silver objects.

Conclusion

George Christian Gebelein arrived in the United States as an infant and was raised in a close-knit community of German immigrants. His family’s connections within that community were essential to his start as a silversmith – without the intervention of his great-uncle Nicolaus Bencker and of fellow German immigrant Adolph Kraas, Gebelein might very well have spent his entire life working in a textile factory. Gebelein continued to connect with German-Americans throughout his career, collaborating with other immigrant craftsmen and taking on Kraas’ grandson as his apprentice. Nonetheless, his success as a silversmith was largely attributable to his embrace of American culture and history: his expertise in Colonial American silver, his deliberate association with the tradition of Boston craftsmanship, and the prestige he garnered from patriotic commissions.

Despite his commercial success, Gebelein the silversmith was always more artist than businessman. In an era when most people chose to purchase relatively inexpensive, mass-produced products, Gebelein offered his clients rare, hand-wrought, custom-designed goods. From the very outset of his career, Gebelein embraced the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement and preferred to make fine, handcrafted silver, but as a savvy businessman, he realized that he needed to supplement his revenue by retailing mass-produced goods and, even more importantly, dealing in antique silver.

Notes

[1] The Battery Conservancy, Castle Garden database, http://castlegarden.org/quick_search_detail.php?p_id=6698784 (accessed February 27, 2012).

[2] Margaretha Gebelein Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, Boston Silversmith, 1878-1945 (Lunenburg, VT: The Stinehour Press, 1976), 2.

[3] The Battery Conservancy, Castle Garden database, http://castlegarden.org/search_02.php?m_ship=&po_port=&p_first_name=&p_last_name=Solger&o_occ=&co_country=&province=&town=&m_arr_date_start=1820&m_arr_date_end=1913&submit.x=0&submit.y=0 (accessed February 27, 2012).

[4] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 1.

[5] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 1-2.

[6] Sometimes spelled Harigari.

[7] Cambridge Directory (Boston: W. A. Greenough & Co., 1896), 607.

[8] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 10.

[9] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 8.

[10] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 12-13. Gebelein’s daughter wrote that the mill’s name was the William Wood Worsted Company; Wood was the company treasurer, and worsted was the primary product.

[11] Five of Nicolaus Gebelein’s six siblings eventually immigrated to the United States, including all three of his brothers, John Ulrich, Henry, and George, and two of his sisters, Theresa and Babbetta. A third sister, Sophie, remained in Helmbrechts. Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, note 1, p. 110.

[12] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 12-13.

[13] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Index to New England Naturalization Petitions, 1791-1906 (M1299), Microfilm Serial M1299, Roll 82, http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&db=usnatindex_awap&rank=1&new=1&MSAV=0&msT=1&gss=angs-d&gsfn=adolph&gsln=kraas&mswpn__ftp=Boston%2c+Suffolk%2c+Massachusetts%2c+USA&mswpn=4668&mswpn_PInfo=8-|0|1652393|0|2|3242|24|0|2812|4668|0|&uidh=3l6&pcat=40&fh=0&h=3719098&recoff=5+6 (accessed February 27, 2012)

[14] The movement, whose advocates included the famed English designer William Morris, had started in the late 1800s in response to growing industrialization.

[15] The Annual Report of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Volume 5 (Boston: The Society of Arts and Crafts, 1901): i.

[16] “Features of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition,” The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review 34.12 (April 21, 1897): 4.

[17] Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Report of the Chief of the Massachusetts District Police, for The Year Ending December 31, 1893 (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1894), 143.

[18] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 15. Gebelein remembered Hamilton as Irish, but the 1900 census listed him as the son of Scottish immigrants.

[19] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 18-20.

[20] U.S. Census, Newark City, Essex County, New Jersey, 1900.

[21] “News Gleanings in Woodside and Forest Hills,” Newark Sunday Call, May 21, 1893.

[22] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 21.

[23] The Annual Report of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Volume 5 (Boston: The Society of Arts and Crafts, 1901): xii.

[24] Knight’s predecessor at the shop was Mary Ware Dennett, a leatherworker who established the shop and recommended Knight as her successor.

[25] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 44-45.

[26] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 41.

[27] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 48.

[28] He later started using a second mark for his less expensive pieces.

[29] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 46-47.

[30] The Annual Report of the Society of Arts and Crafts (Boston: The Society of Arts and Crafts, 1903): xxx.

[31] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 10.

[32] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 50-55.

[33] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 56.

[34] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 66-67, 107.

[35] Alexandra Deutsch, “George Christian Gebelein: The Craft and Business of a ‘Modern Paul Revere,’” Master’s Thesis (University of Delaware, 1995), 46.

[36] Deutsch, “Gebelein,” 48.

[37] Vogue 40.11 (December 1, 1912): 141.

[38] Gebelein advertisement, Country Life in America, April 15, 1912.

[39] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 70.

[40] House & Garden, Volume 75 (1939): 24.

[41] Gebelein advertisement, Antiques 1.1 (January 1922): 4.

[42] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 71-72.

[43] Deutsch, “Gebelein,” 55.

[44] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 70.

[45] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 71.

[46] An example of which is the Canape Plate in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, accession number 1986.72.1-2.

[47] Irene Sargent, “Examples of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Domestic Silver, with Interpretations of Same by George Christian Gebelein,” The Keystone, September 1922.

[48] Gebelein advertisement, Antiques 1.7 (July 1922): 43.

[49] “Silver Bowl Sold Here for $30,000,” New York Times, April 4, 1937. All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[50] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 78.

[51] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 79.

[52] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 80.

[53] Beverly Kaye Brandt, “’Mutually Helpful Relations’: Architects, Craftsmen and The Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, 1897-1917,” PhD diss. (Boston University, 1985), 280.

[54] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 56.

[55] Deutsch, “Gebelein,” 34.

[56] Esther Singleton, The Collecting of Antiques (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1941), 138.

[57] Pennsylvania Museum, “Fakes” and Reproductions (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Museum, 1916), 59.

[58] Sargent, “Examples of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Domestic Silver.”

[59] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 74.

[60] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 81.

[61] Letter from Rose Jutkovitz, January 2, 1935 (Gebelein Papers, Henry Ford Museum), quoted in Deutsch, “Gebelein,” 58.

[62] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 82-83.

[63] “Airplane Carrier Lexington Presented Silver Tea Service by Town’s Citizens,” Daily Boston Globe, January 29, 1928.

[64] Sargent, “Examples of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Domestic Silver.”

[65] Sargent, “Examples of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Domestic Silver.”

[66] Henry W. Harris, “Some of Revere’s Silver Displeases English Expert,” Daily Boston Globe, August 3, 1947.

[67] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 20.

[68] American Art News, April 19, 1919.

[69] Art and Progress, 2.2 (December 1910): 57.

[70] “Arts and Crafts Draw,” Morning Oregonian, December 8, 1911.

[71] “Applied Art Shown At the Colony Club,” New York Times, February 9, 1912.

[72] Elisabeth Spalding, “Old and Modern Handicraft: An Exhibition Held in Baltimore,” Art and Progress 4.7 (May 1913): 962-66.

[73] “Art at Home and Abroad,” New York Times, April 26, 1914.

[74] Evelyn Marie Stuart, “Exhibition of Industrial Art at the Art Institute,” Fine Arts Journal 31.5 (November 1914): 549.

[75] Catalogue of the Fifteenth Annual Exhibition of Original Designs for Decorations and Examples of Art Crafts Having Distinct Artistic Merit, 1916.

[76] A. J. Philpott, “Mayor Opens Fine Arts and Crafts Exhibition,” Daily Boston Globe, July 8, 1930.

[77] Deutsch, “Gebelein,” 30-31.

[78] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 69.

[79] “Dedham Girl Wins Scholarship,” Boston Daily Globe, December 5, 1913.

[80] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fortieth Annual Report, For the Year 1915 (Boston: T. O. Metcalf Company, 1916), 169.

[81] Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University, 1953.

[82] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 7.

[83] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 22.

[84] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 24.

[85] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 51-52.

[86] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 60.

[87] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 7.

[88] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 67.

[89] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 71.

[90] Edgar J. Driscoll, Jr., “New Museum Scores With World’s First,” Boston Globe, June 12, 1966.

[91] Leighton, George Christian Gebelein, 97.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"George Christian Gebelein." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved November 20, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=123

Chicago Style

Guest, Raechel. "George Christian Gebelein." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. Last modified August 28, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=123

MLA Style

"George Christian Gebelein," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 20 Nov 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=123>

George Christian Gebelein at his desk

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