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Reed & Barton (Est. 1824 – 2015) When Reed & Barton, a family owned corporation and one of the oldest silversmiths in the United States filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015, it brought an end to a nearly two century old firm whose name was – and remains – synonymous with fine sterling silver, silver plated and stainless steel tableware, and gifts. Always based in Taunton, Massachusetts, it was at one time one of the city’s major employers as well as for surrounding communities. Former workers claim that more than 1000 people worked there during the 1960s and 1970s, which some consider the company’s heyday.
The company’s notable merits as a manufacturer include flatware, serving sets and accessories, carving sets and steak knives, flatware chests, crystal products, serveware, such as barware, pitchers and accessories, bowls, platters and trays, specialty serveware, revere bowls, julep cups, and candle holders. Other specialty items were sterling frames, jewelry boxes, men’s valets, and decorative, specialty storage solutions.
Also on the production lines were baby products including cups, flatware, bowls, plates, and baby banks, musicals, waterglobes and carousels, picture frames, albums, and baby specialty gifts. The company also put its name on jewelry boxes for women and girls.
In addition to its enormous output, the firm added to its civic importance in Taunton with the creation and operation of The Reed and Barton Complex, an historic industrial complex t on the site of one of Taunton’s first and largest industries. The company’s success was instrumental in Taunton becoming known as the Silver City. The complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
What ultimately became Reed & Barton had a convoluted inception. As the 19th Century brought its first quarter to a close, a man named Isaac Babbitt, who never worked with silver, ran a pewter shop in Taunton. Babbitt found a way to imitate a white metal alloy made from tin, antimony, and copper that he called, Britannia, a metal used by the British to make flatware and holloware sold in the United States.
In 1824, Babbitt joined forces with Taunton jeweler William Crossman, forming a company named Babbitt & Crossman that produced Britannia tableware. Over the next two decades as the company added associates, it periodically revised its name, becoming Babbitt, Crossman & Company in 1827, Crossman West & Leonard in 1829, and the Taunton Britannia Manufacturing Company in 1830.
During this period, Henry Reed and Charles Barton (???? – 1867), friends and fellow craftsmen, came to work at the firm. When the business failed in 1834, following years of steady growth, Reed and Barton, both only in their twenties, bought it.
In 1837 the company was renamed Leonard, Reed & Barton, but in 1840 assumed the name by which it was known for the rest of its history: Reed & Barton. Its two namesakes ran the business together for three decades. After Barton died of a heart attack in 1867, Reed carried on and, as a tribute to his longtime friend, retained Barton in the company’s name. Ownership of the firm was then passed down through the Reed family.
By the mid-1800s Britannia lost its appeal as tableware material and was unseated by a new substitute for the prohibitively expensive silver. Sheffield Plate. Developed in the 1740s, it fused sterling silver to a plate of copper. In 1840 this technology was succeeded by electroplating, which deposited a thin layer of silver on a base metal, copper and later nickel, to produce items with a pure silver appearance.
Electroplated silver gave consumers a look they wanted at a reasonable price. By the early 1850s, the new metal replaced both Sheffield Plate and Britannia metal as the flatware of choice. Reed & Barton followed the market and became involved in silver for the first time and a silverplating pioneer. Silverplate would soon find competition from an unsuspected corner: sterling silver itself.
In 1859 the legendary Comstock Lode of silver was discovered and soon silver flooded the market, bringing down prices to the point where there was little difference between the price of items made from silverplate and actual sterling that became the material preferred for wedding gifts. Reed & Barton turned to sterling manufacturing in 1889 and by the end of the century committed an entire factory building to its production.
During the Civil War, Reed & Barton manufactured weapons for Union troops. After the war and through the end of the century, Reed & Barton was among the most prolific producers of silverplated figural napkin rings which featured depictions of dogs, cats, horses, sheep, deer, rabbits, squirrels, doves, parrots, and peacocks, among other animals.
By the 1870s, sterling was competitive in price with high-end plated pieces, and by 1889, Reed & Barton had launched its first line of sterling silver trays, pitchers, bowls, goblets, flatware, and serving pieces.
From precious glittering silver and blown-glass Christmas ornaments to practical, durable stainless steel flatware sets, Reed & Barton continued to offer quality-made products designed to help people celebrate and enjoy life.
Reed & Barton Handcrafted Chests was the largest flatware chest and jewelry box manufacturer in the world. In addition to offering a wide selection of superb, all-hardwood flatware and jewelry chests, Reed & Barton Handcrafted Chests produced fine cigar humidors and pen chests, as well as protective rolls and storage bags for flatware and hollowware.
The firm also invested in advertising and brand promotion. It also followed Gorham and Tiffany & Co. to New York City in 1905 where it opened a retail store on Fifth Avenue.
Before World War I, Reed & Barton challenged its competitors in the prestigious trophy market, creating cups for yachtsmen, hunters, and other sportsmen. Years later, in 1996, Reed & Barton designed and produced the gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Reed & Barton also received commissions from the U.S. Navy for sterling silver services in battleships. Among its most famous creations were the water pitchers, coffee urns, and serving bowls made for the commanding officers of the USS Arizona.
The engravings and decorations on the sides of these 87 pieces were littered with references to the nation’s 48th state, from depictions of the Casa Grande Ruins to gila monsters. The trove might have been lost when the Arizona was sunk during the bombing of Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II, but the Navy had removed the pieces prior to the ship’s tour of duty there.
Like several other silver manufacturers, Reed & Barton went through a long phase when it marked pieces produced in a given year with a special icon. This practice began in 1928 with an acorn on some pieces and an eagle on others, and ended in 1957 with a symbol that looked like a missile.
Early flatware patterns by Reed & Barton range from the plain Pointed Antique (1895, based on a pattern by Paul Revere) to the full-figured design called Love Disarmed (1899). While most of its 20th-century patterns were mostly traditional (Francis First, French Renaissance, Georgian Rose Guildhall), the company occasionally opted for Mid-century Modernism, an example of which was the asymmetrical Diamond pattern created in 1958 by the Italian architect Gio Ponti.
Reed & Barton continued diversification into the 1990s. Early in the decade, the company entered into a product development joint venture with Swid Powell, a tabletop specialist. As a result of the collaboration, Reed & Barton began manufacturing and distributing architecturally designed serveware products.
Next, Reed & Barton came to an agreement with the Ralph Lauren Home Collections to act as a licensee to produce sterling silver, silverplate, and stainless steel flatware sold in the same outlets as Ralph Lauren’s china and crystal tabletop products. In the 1990s other licensing deals followed including agreements with Waterford and Royal Doulton. The company also became involved in crystal in 1993 when it became the exclusive distributor of Val Saint Lambert Crystal’s high-end tabletop lines in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Reed & Barton also added the North American distribution rights for Aynsley china, Belleek china, and Galway crystal. In addition, the company became involved in crystal manufacturing with the 1996 purchase of Miller Rogaska Crystal Co., a maker of mid-range to upper-priced crystal stemware, barware, and giftware.
The company had a watershed moment in 1996 when sales of its stainless steel flatware outpaced sterling silver flatware for the first time. Even so, the company continued to offer its time-tested sterling silver designs and continued to maintain a reputation for contemporary craftsmanship.
However, as the company’s expenses increased, revenues began to decline. When it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2015, it cited company cited pension liabilities ranging from $9.6 million to $18 million. By then, the company’s workforce had been reduced to 76 people mostly in office and management jobs, but 900 former employees were still collecting pensions.
The bankruptcy of Reed & Barton marked the end of an era for a manufacturer that once created sterling silver and silverplate flatware that graced tables in the White House and in the best hotels around the world.
The closing was also a blow to the Taunton, Mass., economy and underscored the demise of the once great silversmithing industry that extended from Greater Providence through Southeastern Massachusetts. The effects of the demise were far reaching and the region still struggles to replace the skilled, middle-class jobs that the industry once generated.
In January 2016, the Taunton Gazette reported that the landmark site once known as Reed & Barton had new owners. Acuity Management Inc., who paid $100,000 for the nearly 14.5-acre, eight-parcel property with its three parking areas and 26 buildings, some of which date back to 1830.
Despite its sad demise, the Reed & Barton name lives on as a product line: Lenox Corp. paid $22.2 million to outbid Lifetime Brands and purchased Reed & Barton’s operating assets and assumed certain liabilities.
The Reed & Barton brand continues marketing a broad assortment of gift-ware. Collectors continue to prize Reed & Barton’s longstanding legacy, its rich history, and its undeniable contribution to the nation’s silver, design, and manufacturing industries.
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