Jewelry Makes Providence a Boom Town in 1919

Providence, R.I., was an important and established jewelry hub when The Jewelers’ Circular turned 50 years old.

The editors of the magazine’s anniversary issue referred to the growth and development of the city’s jewelry industry as “constant and consistent.”

“Providence was where a lot of industry set up in the early years of the 20th century,” JCK editor-in-chief Victoria Gomelsky tells me. In fact, the state of Rhode Island led all other states in the manufacture of jewelry in 1905. “While a lot of factories abandoned Rhode Island, some still remain,” Gomelsky says.

Peggy Jo Donahue, director of public affairs for MJSA, says that Providence was big, even up to the 1980s. “The Providence-based ad sales guys at JCK made a fortune back then,” she says.

Some stats from the Providence jewelry trade in 1870 (one year after the American Horological Journal was first published):

  • The city was home to 86 jewelry “establishments.”
  • The jewelry trade employed 1,343 male and 236 female employees.
  • Jewelry employees’ wages totaled $948,201, an average of $601.77 per person.

Some Providence-centric stats from the national census of 1910:

  • Thirty companies that had been in business in 1869 were still in operation.
  • The city was home to 296 jewelry-related companies.
  • The industry employed 9,511 employees, 56.8 percent of whom were men.
  • The estimated annual average wage was $610.
  • The total value of product was listed as $20,685,100.
  • The jewelry trade was the fifth largest industry in Rhode Island.
The 50th anniversary issue of JCK also included mentions of companies that were thriving in Providence when the magazine debuted in 1869, and still going strong in 1919. Here’s a sampling:

Gorham Mfg. Co., 1869

Gorham Mfg. Co., 1919

“Providence has the distinction of excelling all other American cities in several lines of manufacture, one of the principal ones being silver. The Gorham Mfg. Co., of which Jabez Gorham was the founder, is the most extensive maker of the silverware on this continent, if not in the world.

“Gorham was born in Providence on Feb. 19, 1792, and died in 1869. He learned his trade as a jeweler from Nehemiah Dodge, “the father of the manufacturing jewelry industry,” and engaged at first in company with four others, about 1813, in the manufacture of jewelry at the corner of North Main and Steeple Streets. In 1831, a journeyman silversmith from Boston, by the name of Henry L. Webster, came to Providence and in company with Mr. Gorham began the manufacture of silver spoons.

“Since then, the business has gradually grown to its present mammoth proportions, its development being co-existent with the growth of the industry in this city, and of the city itself. During the great world war period (WWI), which terminated with the armistice of Nov. 11, the Gorham Mfg. Co. was engaged in the manufacture of munition parts and supplies on a large scale for the government.”

Gorham’s factory in 1919

Palmer & Capron, 1869

Palmer & Capron, 1919

“One of the oldest firms of manufacturing jewelry still doing business in Providence is Palmer & Capron, 167 Dorrance St., where the business has been located during its entire existence. John S. Palmer, the founder of the business, was born in 1824, and entered the employ of G & S Own in 1840. After acquiring a knowledge of the business he went into partnership in 1845 with Christian C. Stave. The latter withdrew four years later, and Lucian P. Lawton became the junior member.

“In 1852, upon Mr. Lawton’s death, Charles S. Capron, a brother-in-law of Mr. Palmer, entered the firm, which has been known continuously since that time as Palmer & Capron. Mr. Capron retired in 1891, and Julius Palmer, son of John S., was admitted to the firm, as was Fenelon A. Pierce. On July 8, 1908, John S. died, and his grandson, John S. Palmer II, was admitted. In July 1916, the interests of Mr. Pierce, who died in December 1915, was acquired by Harry S. Wiltshire, who had been associated with the business for a number of years. At the same time, Julius Palmer retired.”

An old jewelry factory in Providence

Herbert Phillips, 1869

Herbert S. Tanner, 1919

“The retail jewelry business represented by Herbert S. Tanner was established in 1869 by the late Herbert Phillips at 40 Westminster Street. Mr. Tanner was in the employ of Mr. Phillips as clerk for several years, and at the death of the proprietor, in March 1884, he purchased the stock in trade and continued the business, now in the Turks Head building, 90 Westminster Street.”

For more on the jewelry industry in 1919, check out: