This article discusses William Faris’ life, his family relationships, and his clocks and silver work, describing some silver spoons that have his mark. It originally appeared in the February 1948 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.
The most picturesque figure among the 18th century Maryland silversmiths was William Faris of Annapolis, watch maker, clockmaker, silversmith, designer, portrait painter, cabinetmaker, mirror maker, tulip grower, tavern keeper, dentist, diarist, and gossip par excellence. He arrests and deserves attention…
Thus runs the account of Faris in Maryland Silversmiths, 1715-1830, by J. Hall Pleasants and Howard Sill (Balt. 1930). There is no doubt that even in his own day and age William Faris was recognized by his contemporaries as the “dean” of the group of talented master craftsmen who found demands for their work among the affluent families of Maryland.
The period from 1725 up to the beginnings of the trouble leading to the American Revolution was one of expanding prosperity in the colonies strung out along the seaboard from Massachusetts to Florida. It manifested itself — particularly in the tidewater section — in the form of the great country manors and estates; and in cities, in the mansions of those families which drew their wealth from commerce and shipping based upon tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo. Charleston, Savannah, Williamsburg, the latter the capital of the Virginia colony, all had reached a degree of culture and affluence before 1760-65.
Annapolis was the social and political center of Maryland and was thronged at the time of the Courts and the meeting of the Maryland jockey Club. As in England, the period in the American colonies was a golden era of portraiture, architecture, silver, furniture and home decorations. There were attracted from England and the Continent master workmen who had served their apprenticeship in all lines of trade and who produced for the wealthy colonists things as beautiful as made overseas.
William Faris was born in England the 17th day of August 1728, according to an entry he made in his famous Diary in which he recorded the doings and the goings on of the rich and great and of some who were not so great. He died in Annapolis the 5th day of August 1804, aged 76 years. According to family tradition his father was William Faris, a London clockmaker, a Quaker who died in prison because of his religious beliefs.
The mother referred to in the early Philadelphia records as the “Widow Abigail” was a smart, able and successful business woman. As the story goes the widow Abigail, when her son was an infant in arms, arrived in Philadelphia in the spring of 1729, bringing with her, according to the family tradition, several clocks made by her husband. Apparently these clocks were her only capital asset. Incidentally, one of these clocks, well authenticated, is still owned by one of the descendants.
The son, William Faris, must have completed his apprenticeship at a very early age, probably under one of the several noted English masters who had settled in Philadelphia, perhaps a friend of his father. Some of the fine brass tall clocks by Faris bear striking resemblance to clocks made by the famous Stretch family of Philadelphia. William Faris was one of the few colonial craftsmen who, according to his newspaper advertisements, made not only 8-day but 30-day and also one-year clocks as the customer might order, some with musical attachments; also jeweler’s timepieces — tall clocks known as regulators.
Before he was 21 years old his name is recorded with that of his mother, the widow Abigail, in several sizable real estate transactions in Philadelphia. In 1757 he settled in Annapolis where he remained for the balance of his life. Why he should have deserted the growing, thriving city of Brotherly Love and settled in Annapolis which by then had passed, its peak of prosperity must remain a mystery.
There he married Priscilla Woodward, niece of William Woodward, the great English silver and goldsmith who had settled in Annapolis. It was at 25 West Street, Annapolis, he had his home, his tavern, his garden behind the house, and, in one room, his shop. They reared a family of nine children, five sons and four daughters.
Three of his sons, William Jr., Hyram and Charles, served as his apprentices and followed the trade, but they died early and left no descendants. The famous Diary reveals the “Old Man’s” critical attitude towards his sons with whom he constantly quarreled; his adoration of his daughters, particularly Ann, the apple of his eye, and the reaction of the children to their parent. This document sheds light upon the strange and fascinating man from an angle not to be found in any other source.
When Faris settled in Annapolis he became a prolific advertiser and a dozen or more of his announcements in the Maryland Gazette have been found. In these advertisements he never forgets his pride in his ability as a clockmaker. Here is his notice in the Maryland Gazette of December 4, 1760:
“William Faris, Watch and Clockmaker at the sign of the Crown & Dial near the Church in Annapolis
Makes and Repairs Clocks and Watches as usual in the best and cheapest Manner. He also, having procured an excellent Work-name for that Purpose, carries on the SILVERSMITH’S BUSINESS, Large, small or Chas’d Work in the neatest, best and cheapest Manner. Also jewelling of any kind. All Gentlemen or Ladies who shall be pleased to employ him may depend upon good dispatch from
Their humble servant
In addition to his Diary, there have survived his account books, also a drawing book in which he sketched many elaborate pieces of silver, including a teapot, a gravy boat and other hollow ware, as well as flat pieces. He must have turned out large quantities of flat silver, judging from the entries in his account books. Incidentally, those records of his include the names of the Whose Who in Maryland of that day and age.
In view of the quantity of flat silver he must have made in his shop with the help of his sons and his several apprentices, it is passing strange how few pieces of silver with his touch mark W F have survived, or at least are now known to be in the hands of collectors.
There are some pieces by William Faris in the Baltimore Museum, included in the collection presented to that institution by Mrs. Miles White. One of these is a large gravy boat (fig. 1) in the Georgian manner, and another is a squatty, plain but beautifully proportioned Georgian cream jug (fig. 3). In the Metropolitan Museum of New York there is a coffee set bearing the touchmark, Cs. Faris in an oval, namely that of his son, Charles Faris (1764-1800). In fact this is the only known silver bearing Charles Faris’ touchmark (fig. 4).
A photograph of the dial and clockwork of one of William Faris’ fine musical clocks is shown, this being owned by Mr. and Mrs. Martin B. Faris of Martha’s Vineyard and Miami (fig. 5). This musical clock has a brass movement of the conventional type between 1760 and 1785. The frame is a little heavier in order to carry the weight of the musical attachment which takes the form of the brass cylinder of the old-fashioned music box, together with a series of bells which play the tunes. The dial is a single sheet of brass on which has been applied a metal ring for the hour numerals and, in the four corners, cast brass spandrels. Above the square section of the dial there is the half circle. A semi-circle strip is applied to this curved section and on that strip is the quotation “As the hours pass, so passeth the life of man.” This semi-circular section carries pointers to make the clock strike or keep silent and also a pointer which circles the musical attachment. Inscribed in italics is William Faris, Annapolis.
For many years the author and his wife, the latter a descendant of William Faris, have conducted an extensive search for pieces of silver bearing the touchmark of William Faris and so far have acquired a number of spoons, pictures of some of which are here reproduced, as follows:
Fig. 6 (a): A pair of large, plain tablespoons with oval bowls and rounded end handles, following the style of English silver of 1720-50, although obviously made by Faris, 1760-70. They are marked with engraved initials, H over I C. While there has been nothing uncovered to prove the name of the original owners of these tablespoons, they may have been made to order by Faris for his friend Jasper Hall and his wife. The archives show that Faris did have business transactions with the Halls. There is a third such spoon with the same engraved initials, now owned by a collector who specializes in spoons by early American silversmiths.
6 (b): A group of three very dainty teaspoons executed in the so-called “bright cut” or ribbon edge pattern made so popular by the Batemans and their English contemporaries, 1790-1800. The shank of these spoons is square, very thick and sturdy. In the engraved oval are the initials C W in italics, which might have stood for Cassandra Woodward, one of the nieces of Mrs. Faris.
6 (c): A pair of small teaspoons engraved with the italic initials D W, presumably another of the Woodward clan. The engraving on these two spoons carries out the idea of the bellflower drop, the style of inlay so common upon side boards, tables, chairs, etc., as executed by Maryland cabinet makers in the first quarter of the 19th century, after the Sheraton and Hepplewhite manner. These three groups of spoons are from the collection of Mrs. Berenice O. Barr.
It is of interest to point out that while the touchmark W F is clear and sharp on all of these spoons, there are three distinct touchmarks, each varying from the other. There are shown the three marks reproduced from Maryland Silversmiths, these marks being executed from rubbings taken from pieces of authenticated Faris silver (fig. 2).
William Faris evidently did not confine his inventive genius to clockmaking and the silversmith art. He has to his credit a number of inventions in other fields, two of which were patented. Copies of the documents have survived. A copy of his patent dated Apr. 29, 1797, covering a mechanism for “propelling land carriages” is owned by the Long Island Historical Society in Brooklyn.
Unfortunately the records of that institution do not record how they came into possession of this document. In those days patents were printed forms filled out by hand and attached to a hand-written sheet signed by the inventor setting forth his claims. This horseless carriage patent was signed by John Adams, President, Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State, and Charles Lee, Attorney General. According to the claims of the inventor, this patent on the horseless carriage could be used to raise weights, move houses and drive water carriages or boats. Unfortunately, the inventor failed to state what the prime moving power was.
There is a second patent issued to William Faris under the date of May 17, 1799, covering his invention for a water elevator. This invention consists of a hollow tube in the form of a polygon, though just how it raised water cannot be discovered from the wording of the patent. The machinery was to be put in motion by wind, by hand or by horses. This water elevator patent is owned today by Martin B. Faris of Martha’s Vineyard who inherited it from his family.
When William Faris died in 1804 his mantle was inherited by his apprentice, Wm. McParlin, who had married the niece of Mrs. Faris. The McParlins bought the Faris home and Mrs. Faris made her residence with her niece until her death. The McParlin family inherited much of the residue from Mrs. Faris, including the Diary, the account books and papers of Wm. Faris, also some Faris silver and a fine tall clock.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.