The Taunton, Massachusetts, firm of Reed & Barton began in 1824 as Babbitt & Crossman, which produced a cousin of pewter known as Britannia, or Britannia ware. Now most famous as the base metal inside the Oscar statuette, Britannia soon gave way to pewter before pewter quickly moved aside for silverplate and, later, sterling silver, which is what the flatware and hollowware manufacturer Reed & Barton is best known for today.
Reed & Barton itself dates to 1840, the same year electroplating was patented in England. By the end of the decade, the company was firmly in the plated-silverware business. In the 1850s and through the Civil War, Reed & Barton sold many of its unplated pitchers, bowls, and trays to Rogers Bros. of Hartford, Connecticut, which put its hallmark on these plated pieces. Curiously, Reed & Barton bought most of its knives, forks, and spoons from Rogers Bros., which it then plated and stamped as Reed & Barton.
During the Civil War, Reed & Barton manufactured weapons for Union troops. After the war and through the end of the century, Reed & Barton was one of the most prolific producers of silverplated figural napkin rings, which were typically positioned next to depictions of dogs, cats, horses, sheep, deer, rabbits, squirrels, doves, parrots, and peacocks, among other animals.
Meanwhile, the discovery of silver in present-day Virginia City, Nevada, in 1858 stoked demand for solid silver pieces. By the 1870s, sterling was competitive in price with high-end plated pieces, and by 1889, Reed & Barton had launched its first line of sterling silver trays, pitchers, bowls, goblets, flatware, and serving pieces.
By the end of the 19th century, Reed and Barton was struggling to compete with more mechanized manufacturers such as Gorham and an amalgamation of 16 failing firms that had joined forces as International Silver Company. Reed & Barton modernized its facilities and shifted from a manufacturing model based on hand craftsmanship to one based on mass-production techniques.
The firm also invested more in advertising and promoting its brand, following Gorham and Tiffany & Co. to New York City in 1905 when it opened a retail store on 5th Avenue. Before World War I, Reed & Barton also challenged its competitors in the prestigious trophy market, creating cups for yachtsmen, hunters, and other sportsmen. Years later, in 1996, Reed & Barton designed and produced the gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Reed & Barton also received commissions from the U.S. Navy for sterling silver services in battleships. The most famous story concerns the water pitchers, coffee urns, and serving bowls created for the commanding officers of the USS Arizona. The engravings and decorations on the sides of these 87 pieces were littered with references to the nation’s 48th state, from depictions of the Casa Grande Ruins to gila monsters. The trove might have been lost when the Arizona was sunk during the bombing of Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II, but the Navy had removed the pieces prior to the ship’s tour of duty there...
Like a number of silver manufacturers, from Gorham to Whiting, Reed & Barton went through a phase when it marked pieces produced in a given year with a special icon. This practice began in 1928 with an acorn on some pieces and an eagle on others, and ended in 1957 with a symbol that looks rather like a missle.
Early flatware patterns by Reed & Barton range from the plain Pointed Antique (1895, based on a pattern by Paul Revere) to the full-figured and even voluptuous design called Love Disarmed (1899). While most of its 20th-century patterns were rather traditional (Francis First, French Renaissance, Georgian Rose Guildhall), sometimes the company dabbled in Mid-century Modernism, like when it hired Italian architect Gio Ponti to design the asymmetrical Diamond pattern in 1958.