The tray is engraved with the inscription: "Presented to Mr. George Walbridge Perkins by The President and Agency Men of The New York Life Insurance Company in commemoration of May 23rd, 1899, and as a testimonial of their respect for him as a man and leader"
The Perkins punch service is one of the great presentation pieces of the late nineteenth century, capping an era known for the conspicuous display and use of silver. Tiffany & Co., as the leading luxury silver manufacturer of the period, were the obvious choice to make the service. Other presentation pieces had already garnered the company a great deal of fame, including the Bryant Vase, presented to the poet William Cullen Bryant in 1875 and the remarkable gold and jewel-encrusted Adams Vase, presented to the chairman of the American Cotton Oil Company in 1893. The Perkins punch service had an overall manufacturing cost of $2,347.15, a substantial sum to pay for a commemorative object, even during the extravagant Gilded Age.
Silver presentation pieces often incorporate decorative themes or motifs relevant to the recipient. The design for the Perkins punch service was inspired by a large bronze sculpture that surmounted the pinnacle of the New York Life's Home Office at 346 Broadway from the late 1898's until 1947. The sculpture featured four kneeling Atlases, each 11 feet tall, supporting a globe ringed by stars and surmounted by a 7 foot tall eagle. This design was also used on the life insurance certificates issued by the company.
The punch service was presented by the New York Life Insurance Company to their youngest vice-president, George Walbridge Perkins on December 21, 1899 during a dinner party at the Waldorf-Astoria in his honor. Perkins was the man largely responsible for the rise of the company to the number-one insurance agency position during an era notorious for cutthroat business practices and fortunes made and lost overnight.
George Perkins had begun his career with New York Life at the age of 15 as a clerk for his salesman father. Although he did not begin auspiciously, his father writing to him at one point, "Until you know a great deal more about the Ins. [sic] business than you do now the best way will be never to express an opinion about anything," Perkins soon rose to the top.1 In 1892, Perkins was called to New York City to become a vice-president of New York Life.
During the late nineteenth century, the insurance industry was a ruthlessly competitive business loosely structured around independent salesmen. Perkins instituted a new management structure giving the New York central office direct control of its salesmen and policyholders. He also introduced the first system of long-term employee benefits - an incentive plan that pledged bonuses and a pension for employees who qualified by meeting a sales goal and completing a certain length of service. The benefit system made Perkins and the company so beloved among the employees that one sales agent named his daughter "NYLIC". Sales improved rapidly in the company, as evidenced by the inscription in the volume presented to Perkins with the punch service: "The most remarkable achievement in the history of life insurance: One Thousand Millions of insurance fully paid for and in force on the books of a single Company, was duly chronicled by New York Life on the twenty-third day of May, 1899."
George W. Perkins went on to achieve other financial and philanthropic successes in later years. He was wooed away from the New York Life Insurance Company by J.P. Morgan, who offered him a salary ten times greater than what he was earning. Known as Morgan's "Right-Hand Man", he helped organize the International Harvester Corporation and US Steel. After his retirement, he was active in the conservation of lands on both sides of the Hudson River and served as the chariman of the Palisades Park Commission. His own estate, Wave Hill, on the eastern bank of the Hudson was preserved and the proceeds of the sale
will benefit it.
1 Garraty, John A., "Right-Hand Man," (New York: Harper & Brothers,
1957) p. 12.
[CAPTION] George Walbridge Perkins (1862-1920)
[CAPTION] The original home office of the New York Life Insurance
Company at 346 Broadway with the Atlas sculpture (Courtesy of New York Life Insurance Company)
[CAPTION] An insurance policy issued by New York Life, circa 1915 (Courtesy of New York Life Insurance Company)