I want to report on a conversation I had last week with Charles Osenton, who worked in sales at Gorham from about 1950 until his retirement in 1972. It’s the kind of conversation institutional professionals don’t often get to have with someone who had a hand in the workings of a major collection in their holdings, but one which sheds a lot of light on the kind of documents we stumble upon every day yet don’t have the context to fully understand ourselves, let alone explain to our patrons. Of course, because Charles worked for Gorham after the Martele line was discontinued, this post won’t have much of a connection to our work on the IMLS database project. Still, the information he provided is part of the overall picture of Gorham’s own industrial evolution, and I think those of you who are collectors of all things Gorham, as well as industrial designers and historians, may find it interesting.
When Mr. Osenton was at Gorham, he recalled, J. Russell Price was the principle designer. In fact, Price was a RISD alumnus who had been hired as Director of Design at Gorham in 1935, but then left in 1952 to become Director of Design at the Royal Doulton China Company in England. He resumed his post at Gorham in 1963, and presided over one of the more interesting periods in Gorham’s history. As Mr. Osenton recalled, Price designed just about all of the flatware patterns the company was producing under the Gorham name. Price had a fairly broad range as a designer: compare, for example, his 1938 Greenbrier pattern, shown here: http://www.sterlingflatwarefashions.com/PatternsGorham7.html with his design for Sovereign-Old (http://www.sterlingflatwarefashions.com/PatternsGorham16.html), just three years later. With his intervening experience at Royal Doulton, Price was uniquely qualified to help Gorham diversify when the market for consumer silver wares began to decline in the mid-1960s. In 1968, Gorham officially embarked on a diversification program into what Mr. Osenton called “total table top” industries, including the manufacture of china, crystal and even fine writing papers. As Gorham had no expertise in any of these lines, they relied on acquisitions to make the plan work. In 1970, for example, they acquired the Flintridge China Company in Pasadena, California, a maker of fine translucent china in both ivory and white. Gorham discontinued most of the existing Flintridge patterns, and Price then designed a sequence of new patterns for Flintridge to produce that were marketed under the Gorham name. In fact, Mr. Osenton brought with him a sample cup and saucer designed by Price and marked with the Gorham name to donate to the Gorham Company Archive. Mr. Osenton also mentioned a paper company that Gorham acquired in Lenox, Massachusetts, but he could not remember its name. You’ll find some further details on J. Russell Price and his career at Gorham in Sam Hough’s Roster of Gorham Craftsmen, which is linked to the left.
While Mr. Osenton was at Gorham, during Price’s second reign as Director of Design, the small staff of four in Product Development answered to the folks in Product Design. In fact, the sales staff (of which Mr. Osenton was initially a part and later headed) played a critical role in the development of new products, because they were out on the front lines with customers and got direct feedback on what Gorham patterns and products were selling in particular places and the kinds of designs that consumers in those areas found appealing. Early American patterns, for example, sold well in New England, but poorly in Texas and California. As the designers had to evaluate what would sell, they studied fashion trends. The knowledge brought back to the designers by the sales team was important for developing successful products. One personal success that Mr. Osenton described took place in 1969, when Gorham launched its first Christmas tree ornament, in the form of a sterling silver snowflake. That year, Mr. Osenton was able to sell one-third of the entire production to a single retailer, J.E. Caldwell in Philadelphia.