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Butter Cooler

Kirk, Samuel & Son
Place Made:
Baltimore Maryland United States of America
Date Made:
HOA: 6″; WOA: 7-1/2″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Silver butter cooler with entire body covered with floral repousse ornament. Except for a cartouche engraved with the script initials “GNG” and a dragon with a cross and flanked by feathers, the cooler’s unattached lid is also covered in floral repousse ornament along with a small landscape view and a stag. The lid’s cast finial is in the shape of a flower and leaf. Acanthus leaf banding edges the lid’s lip, met by a beaded edge on the body’s rim with a row of leaves below it. Two cast handles are applied to the top of the body. Four cast winged claw feet are applied to the bottom edge of the body. Inside the cooler’s body, resting on the upper rim, is a silver dish with a pierced fylfot design and two small applied handles.

The Samuel Kirk & Son bill of sale for this butter cooler (MESDA Acc. 5044.5) establishes that George Guest (1806-1879) purchased it on 24 June 1850 for $71.75.

The dragon-and-feather ornament in the cartouche on the butter cooler matches that on the Guest family coffeepot (MESDA Acc. 5540.1), the only other piece in the service to include the monogram “GNG” in the cartouch. The engravings on the butter cooler and coffeepot were created by a different artist than the one who worked on the cream pitcher and sugar bowl, which match one another. This detail, along with the later “S.KIRK & SONS” mark on the cream pitcher, suggest that the coffepot was purchased with the butter cooler in 1850 and the cream pitcher and sugar bowl were purchased together between 1861 and 1868.

INSCRIPTION: The cartouche on the lid includes the engraved script initials “GNG” for George Guest (1806-1879) and his second wife Honora (Nora) Bankhead Guest (1820-1856) and an engraved dragon with a cross on its chest and flanked by two feathers.

MARK: Struck on outside bottom of body with intaglio “S.KIRK & SON” and “10.15 oz” marks in rectangular reserves (both marks severely worn). Baltimore was the only American city to establish an assayer’s office to ensure the purity of silver sold by local smiths. Established in 1814 under the Silver Purity Act, the Baltimore assay office is the nearest any early American community came to creating a guild system similar to those found in Britain and Europe. The assay office marks from 1814 to 1830 follow provisions set forward by the act and include the state of Maryland’s shield of arms, a date letter, and a mark for the city’s assayer. There were three men whom served as official assayers: Thomas Warner, from 1814 to 1823; LeRoy Atkinson from 1824-1829; and Samuel Steele from 1830 to 1843. The Silver Purity Act of 1814 was amended in 1830, removing the compulsory assaying of silver produced by Baltimore’s silversmiths but required silver not assayed by the office to bear a numerical quality mark that indicated the amount of silver contained per troy pound of twelve ounces (i.e., “11/12” or “11OZ” for 11 ounces of pure silver to 1 ounce alloy metal, or 91.66% silver; another common quality mark is “10.15” for 10 ounces 15 pennyweight silver to 1 ounce and 5 pennyweight of alloy metal, or 89.6% silver). See Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, “Silver in Maryland” (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1983), 26-37.

MAKER: In 1846 Henry Child Kirk (1827-1914) joined his father Samuel Kirk (1793-1872) to form the partnership Samuel Kirk & Son. Fifteen years later, in 1861, two other sons (Charles Douglas Kirk [1840-1880] and Edwin Clarence Kirk [1842-1876]) joined to form Samuel Kirk & Sons. The firm reverted to the singular Samuel Kirk & Son after 1868. Silver produced by Kirk is best known for its extensive use of repousse, which had fallen out of fashion in America with the arrival of neoclassical style in the 1790s. Kirk’s revival of repousse was so innovative, both stylistically and technically, that it set the style for fine silver all over the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The firm Samuel Kirk & Sons remained in operation through the mid twentieth century, eventually being purchased by the Stieff Company in 1979 and branded as Kirk-Steiff. Ten years later Kirk-Stieff was purchased by the Lenox division of the Brown-Forman Corporation, which also acquired the noteworthy silver brands Gorham, Whiting, and Durgin. In 2007 Lenox sold its silver holdings to Lifetime Brands, Inc., which produces silver flatware under brand names including Kirk Stieff. See Jacob Hall Pleasants and Howard Sill, “Maryland Silversmiths, 1715-1830” (Baltimore, MD: Lord Baltimore Press, 1930), Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, “Silver in Maryland” (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1983) and Scott Perkins, “The Stieff Company,” online: (accessed 5 July 2017).

FORM: In America the production of butter, until the rise of factory production about 1860, was a household affair and wooden round, cup-shaped butter molds or “prints” were used by farmers. It was to accommodate this “prints” that most butter dishes had the shape of a round vessel with a domed cover and a pierced platform, so that the melted ice used to cool the butter could drain into the container below.

This butter cooler was purchased on 24 June 1850 (see bill of sale, MESDA Acc. 5540.5) by London-born merchant George Guest (1806-1879) and his second wife Honora (Nora) Bankhead Guest (1820-1856), daughter of Brig. Gen. James Monroe Bankhead (1783-1856) of Caroline Co., Virginia and Irish-born Ann Smith Pyne (1799-1856). The couple were married in 1848 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Guests lived in Baltimore and had two sons. Five years after Nora Bankhead Guest’s 1856 death, George married another woman from Virginia’s Northern Neck; this time Mary Elizabeth Bernard (1824-1895), daughter of John Hipkins Bernard (1792-1858) and Jane Gay Robertson (1795-1852) of “Gay Mont” in Port Royal. The couple had two children survive to adulthood: Bernard Robertson Guest (1864-1948) and Frank Barksdale Guest (1867-1926). The butter cooler and his mother’s Kirk coffee service (MESDA Acc. 5540.1-3) were inherited by Frank Guest. Bernard Guest inherited the family’s Kirk pitcher (MESDA Acc. 5541). The Guest family silver was reunited at Gay Mont in the 1980s when the house was part of Preservation Virginia.
Credit Line:
Trade/MESDA Purchase Fund