This unique Tiffany & Co. dish offers a fascinating glimpse into one of the most exciting periods in American history, the turn of the twentieth century. Presented to Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Schiff as a momento of their Alaskan tour of 1910, its fine illustrations and monumental inscriptions recall not only several of the period's premier personalities, but through them, some of its greatest financial, industrial, military, and expansionist moments.
THE OWNERS: MR. AND MRS. JACOB H. SCHIFF
The recipient of this extraordinary dish was none other than Jacob H. Schiff (1847-1920), arguably the most important member of American Jewry at the turn of the twentieth century. A brilliant financier and munificent philanthropist, Schiff was born in Frankfort, Germany. In 1865, at the age of eighteen, he emigrated to the United States to pursue a career in banking. While Schiff's success was immediate, his rise to international renown began in earnest some ten years later when he joined the banking firm Kuhn, Loeb and Co. Under his leadership, Kuhn, Loeb became one of the two most powerful private investment banking houses in the United States. The profound influence Schiff exerted on American and international history finds its most dramatic expression in two pivotal events: his reorganization of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1895, which saved one of the nation's principal railways from bankruptcy, and his financing of the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which facilitated Japan's spectacular victory over the Russians.
Unabashedly proud of his Jewish heritage, Schiff's generosity towards his coreligionists knew no geographical or denominational boundaries. A member of the prestigious synagogue Temple Emanu-El, he was a founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a substantial contributor to Yeshivath Rabbi Isaac Elchanan (Yeshiva College and University), and the Hebrew Union College. His beneficence enabled the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary to acquire major collections of rare books and manuscripts, helped establish the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, assisted in the creation of Harvard University's Semitic Museum, and aided New York's Montefiore Hospital. The parameters of Schiff's philanthropic activities, however, were not constrained by his Jewish interests. One of the four founders of Barnard College (to which he donated $1,000,000), Schiff contributed to numerous American universities, supported the American Red Cross, and served on the New York City Board of Education and Chamber of Commerce. He was clearly as proud of his American identity as he was of his Jewish heritage.
Known to be a forceful personality, Jacob H. Schiff found his life partner in the "gentle and submissive" Therese Loeb, daughter of Solomon Loeb (of Kuhn, Leob and Co.), and co-recipient of the Tiffany & Co. dish. The couple's portrait, etched on the dish's obverse, is indeed remarkable, not only for its fineness of execution, but also for its portrayal of their union, which is said to have earned the genuine admiration of others: similar in size and stature, Jacob and Therese's conjoined figures appear wholly complementary. Many vacations were surely enjoyed by the Schiffs during their decades-long marriage. Only their two most extraordinary, however, were commemorated by deluxe souvenirs. The first of these, a fourteen-week tour of Japan in 1906, produced a unique literary record, Our Journey to Japan. Comprised letters Schiff wrote during his trip, in which he describes each day's events, this publication (beautifully printed and charmingly illustrated on Japan paper) was commissioned by Jacob's family and presented to him on his sixtieth birthday. The second grand excursion, an eight-week journey to Alaska, inspired the single Tiffany & Co. dish: inscribed with a daily chronicle of the Schiffs' travels, its was commissioned by two of Jacob's longtime acquaintances, James H. Wilson and George A. Plimpton.
THE COMMISSIONERS: JAMES H. WILSON AND GEORGE A. PLIMPTON
Like their eminent acquaintance, both Wilson and Plimpton command impressive entries in the annals of American history. A career General, railway developer, and published author, James H. Wilson (1837-1925) was a hero of the Civil War. He served valiantly under Ulysses S. Grant, led the greatest single cavalry movement of the war, and orchestrated the capture of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In 1870, General Wilson resigned from the military to engage in railway construction and management. Two years later, he joined forces with Jacob H. Schiff in a bold attempt to acquire a share of a Japanese bond issue. Although the venture failed, their relationship blossomed: decades of correspondence from Schiff to Wilson, who resumed his military/political career, demonstrate their long standing friendship, and their mutual involvement in politics, the Far East, and railway development.
An entirely different set of interests underlay the friendship between Schiff and George A. Plimpton (1855-1936), the renowned publisher, book collector and philanthropist. Plimpton made his name and fortune as partner in Ginn & Co., which, by the time of his retirement, had become the second largest textbook publishing house in the United States. His contribution to America's educational system, however, reached far beyond his production of textbooks. Like Schiff, he contributed generously to numerous academic institutions, among them Columbia University (to which he donated his own remarkable collection of rare books and manuscripts), Amherst College, the Union Theological Seminary, and the American Academy of Political Science. It is in the establishment of one of the nation's premier academic institutions for women, in fact, that Plimpton's name is forever bound with Schiff's: for it was they, along with two others, who founded Columbia's sister school Barnard College in 1889, serving consecutively as its first two treasurers. In 1915, five years after presenting him with the Tiffany & Co. dish, Plimpton successfully encouraged Schiff to donate $500.000 to Barnard for the establishment of a women's student hall.
It is known that Schiff invited one of his close friends, Sir Ernest Cassel, to join him and his wife on their upcoming trip to Alaska. While Cassel declined this offer (due to his daughter's illness), it is possible that a similar invitation was extended to, and accepted by, James H. Wilson and George A. Plimpton. Indeed, a shared Alaskan experience would well explain the decision to present the Schiffs with a costly souvenir of their remarkable tour.
THE ALASKAN TOUR
With or without Wilson and Plimpton, Jacob and Therese Schiff departed New York City for Alaska on June 18, 1910. Behind their extraordinary journey lies the turn-of-the-century fascination with this newly-explored territory, which, since the gold rushes of the late 1800's had drawn countless fortune seekers, settlers, and tourists to the Final Frontier. Schiff's penchant for travel and passion for the railroads could indeed find no better outlet than an Alaskan adventure: over a period of eight weeks, he and his wife would traverse thousands of miles, by land and by water, rarely remaining in a single location for more than one day.
The comprehensive itinerary and fine illustrations that adorn the dish's reverse enable one to follow precisely the course, means, and highlights of the Schiffs' journey. How satisfying it must have been for this great railroad financier to travel across the American Northwest on the Union Pacific, the very line that he had heroically rescued from bankruptcy. And how exciting it surely was to spend almost a week in the magnificent Yellowstone National Park (Old Faithful is illustrated at left), before embarking for Seattle on either the Northern Pacific or the Great Northern -- two railroads which had long benefited from Schiff's interest and resources. But the ultimate destination of this journey was, of course, the Alaskan territory, where the principal mode of transportation was not the railroad but the steamship (depicted at bottom). Three of the many vessels serving the region's newly-populated waters were boarded by the Schiffs: the Ramona, the Whitehorse (which was preserved as an historic site in 1961), and the Selkirk.
The Schiffs' ambitious itinerary finds close parallels in early-twentieth-century travel guides, and included a great many of Alaska's natural and man-made attractions. Numerous days were spent in glacier country (pictured at top), sailing amidst magnificent mountains of ice that had been explored and named only a decade before their arrival. A gratifying moment it must have been, after a day of seasickness on July 21, to come upon the "grandfather of all glaciers," Columbia, whose width ran four miles and peak ascended some three thousand feet. Later that day, the Schiffs encountered so many mosquitoes that the presence of these pesky bugs was recorded for posterity on their Tiffany & Co. dish! Yet another memorable spectacle was Alaska's exquisitely carved Totem poles (illustrated at left), which the Schiffs viewed in Sitka on July 26, and surely before that in Ketchikan on July 3. Nearing the end of their Alaskan tour, the Schiffs disembarked on Annette Island to visit the model village of Metlakahtla. While there, they apparently met the settlement's founder, the famous Scottish missionary Father William Duncan.
Mr. and Mrs. Schiff made their way back to New York City across Canada. Traveling again by land, they spent many days on the Canadian Pacific, one of Schiff's earliest railroad interests. Passing through Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec, they ended their great Alaskan adventure on August 11, 1910.
An accompanying letter dated March 22, 2002 and signed by Louisa Bann, manager of research services at Tiffany & Co., verifies that this dish appears in their manufacturing ledger "Sold Orders - Silver" Vol. E. 1908-1945, p. 78. Corresponding to entry No. 3357 [stamped on the dish's reverse], it is listed as an "H.D.O." (hors d'oeuvre dish). Four silversmiths, whose names require clarification and further research, devoted a total of 291.5 hours (approximately 7.3 weeks) to the dish's production. A significant portion of this time was surely dedicated to its decoration, which involved the intricate transferring of images from photographic glass plates to silver. This was achieved through the innovative technique of acid-etching (or photo-etching), a process that Tiffany & Co. developed and promoted through its decorated silverware. The dish was manufactured and designed in-house, at Tiffany & Co.'s Fifth Avenue and 37th Street location.
FOR COMPARATIVE LITERATURE:
Adler, Cyrus, Jacob H. Schiff: His Life and Letters, 1928.
Cohen, Naomi W., Jacob H. Schiff. A Study in American Jewish Leadership, 1999.
Dictionary of American Biographies, vol. 10, 334-36 [Wilson], suppl. 2, p. 532-33 [Plimpton].
Soeffing, Albert, The History of the Origins, Design and Promotion of Tiffany and Co. Hollowware, Tiffany and Co. Retrospective: Designs from Tiffany & Co., 1837-1999.
Vitalli, Ubaldo, unpublished remarks pertaining to photo-etching as a decorative technique at Tiffany & Co., delivered at New York University silver conference, March 16-18, 1999.