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: The Hill Tray


Francis J. Puig



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The most extravagant and important piece of late nineteenth-century silver in the collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is the presentation tray given to James Jerome Hill by citizens of Minneapolis on September 10, 1884. This piece (fig. 1), more recently presented to the Institute by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Slade, is one of the best pieces of Tiffany & Co. commemorative silver extant. Even at the time of its presentation to Hill the Minneapolis Tribune noted that it had been "pronounced by its makers—the Messr. Tiffany & Co. of New York City. . .—and by connoisseurs in this city and elsewhere to be the finest and most elaborate American product of its kind."1 Indeed, no other presentation tray of the period compares to the Hill example in scale, or in quality and abundance of cast and chased ornament.Kidney-shaped in outline, the tray has a large flat central area engraved with a view of Minneapolis, showing the Stone Arch Railroad Bridge completed on November 22, 1883. Crowded on either side of the river banks above the Falls of St. Anthony are flour and saw mills, including the main Washburn Flour Mill (on the left bank) and the Pillsbury Flour Mill (on the right). Surrounding these mills are other commercial and domestic structures. In the distance is the Second Hennepin Avenue Suspension Bridge, completed in 1876, and to its left, the new Union Railroad Depot, then under completion as part of Hill's railroad development of Minneapolis. Around the perimeter of the scene, within molded reserves, are eight vignettes that "represent various significant incidents in Mr. Hill's career from his early manhood to his present state."2 These vignettes are separated by a profile medallion of Hill (at top center); six animals' head trophies of elk, buffalo, Rocky Mountain sheep, deer and wolf, representing animals indigenous to the Northwest Territory; and by a monogram of Hill's initials—J.J.H.—composed of naturalistic vines and leafage.Approximately 7,000 man-hours were expended in the fabrication of the tray. That amount of labor, costing $2,975.00 in 1884, or an average of $.42 per hour, is accounted for by the fact that the piece was custom made and that all parts of it were individually designed and manufactured.3 The central area of the tray was made from a large sheet of silver with three dimensional effects added by the superimposition of thin sheets of silver cut in the shapes of buildings and the bridge; the details on this central panel were subsequently etched and engraved. The border of the piece was separately cast in pieces and then joined around the central panel. Each of the vignettes, however, shows evidence of repousse work as well as casting and chasing. The design of each scene was first hammered from behind (repousse), then individually cast elements were applied to the front to add depth, and finally each scene was chased-tooled with a hammer or punch to raise patterns and pick out details. The six animals' head trophies, the leafage monogram and the medallion of Hill, as well as its framing boughs of evergreen and sheaths of wheat, were all cast as separate elements, applied and then chased.Seventeen prominent Minneapolis businessmen commissioned the tray for Hill on behalf of the citizens of their city "in warm and hearty appreciation of his work, character, and career in the Northwest [Territory]."4 More specifically, the tray was commissioned at the completion of the Stone Arch Railroad Bridge spanning the Mississippi River below St. Anthony Falls on November 22, 1883. As president and chief stockholder of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad, Hill had constructed the bridge which permitted passenger transportation into the heart of the city's business district for the first time. To Minneapolitans the bridge was of great importance as a national symbol of their city's prosperity and progress. First, the bridge was recognized throughout the world as one of the great engineering feats of the nineteenth century and as a civic monument of great beauty that was predicated to stand "until the golden age shall arrive."5 Furthermore, the bridge and the terminal that Hill constructed in Minneapolis, the Union Depot, greatly facilitated passenger transportation between the city and the eastern and western halves of the nation.In a sense the bridge was a monument to Hill and a symbol of his generosity and good feelings toward Minneapolis. At the time of its completion the bridge was acknowledged by contemporaries, even by Hill himself, as a tremendous, perhaps unnecessary, expense.6 Other easier and less expensive crossings had been considered. One alternative, however, would have disrupted traffic and settlement patterns in the city by crossing the river further downstream and running up one of the major thoroughfares.7 Another alternative was to cross the river immediately above the Falls of St. Anthony; yet this plan would have disrupted the flow of water necessary to power the flour and saw mills that lined the river banks upstream and that were the mainstay of the city's economy.8 Moreover, Hill chose to construct the bridge of stone, much of which was imported from Stone City, Iowa, and was an added extravagance considering the ease and low cost of the obvious alternative: steel arch construction.9Minute details of the construction of the bridge and its inauguration were noted in the Minneapolis Tribune in an article that brimmed with civic pride in the structure and with gratitude toward Hill. The headline read: "THE GREAT BRIDGE. . . It cost $650,000 and weighs 100,000 tons—it is composed of twenty-three arches and is 2,100 feet long—A Structure of Great Solidity and Beauty, and an Enduring Monument."10 To build it as many as two hundred men worked from February, 1881, to November, 1883, under the supervision of Col. C.C. Smith, the chief engineer and architect of the bridge. The bridge's notoriety among engineering circles arose from the fact that it was the first and only curved masonry bridge in the world,11 as well as the first masonry bridge to span the Mississippi River. Aside from the difficulty of the design, its construction was particularly difficult because of the depth of the water below the falls which necessitated the construction of elaborate coffer dams in order to lay the foundations for the structure. Hill, in fact, later described the bridge as "the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life, the hardest undertaking I ever had to face."12 He further commented that it was "the only piece of work upon which I feel I should want my name placed."13 Accordingly, the bridge subsequently received a plaque identifying the engineer; the contractor, Edward Daragh; the vice-president of the railroad, A. Manvel; and Hill, its president.Hill received the tray as a surprise at a gathering of personal friends at the home of William D. Washburn. For the occasion the tray rested upon a "slightly inclined easel. . . imbedded in a retaining cushion of crimson plush, and occupied a place under a dozen brilliant gas jets."14 Present at that meeting were eleven of the seventeen Minneapolitans who joined in the purchase of the tray for Hill for $7,500: William D. Washburn, Charles A. Pillsbury, R.N. Langdon, George A. Camp, John S. Pillsbury, D. Morrison, J.K. Sidle, George A. Pillsbury, Charles M. Loring, W.S. King, and A.H. Bode.15 Unable to attend the presentation were Thomas Lowry, A.H. Linton, H.G. Sidle, H.T. Welles, Thomas B. Walker and Clinton Morrison. Significantly, most of these men were involved in the milling of flour or lumber, or in the railroad development of the territory.16 As early settlers of the region, each of them had undoubtedly conducted business with Hill. Some of them had known him for as long as twenty-five years; and according to William Washburn's remarks at the presentation of the tray, all of them had watched his progress without envy from his "small beginnings" to the "position of which any man in this or any other country might well be proud."17The Minneapolis Tribune, in reporting on the presentation of the tray to Hill, noted the significance of the vignettes along the perimeter of the tray's central engraved panel.18 Specifically, these vignettes coincide with events that occurred after his arrival in St. Paul on July 21, 1856, at the age of eighteen, and trace his various business ventures and interests to 1883. Beginning chronologically at the bottom of the tray, to the left of the leafage monogram, and continuing clockwise, the first vignette (fig. 2) represent a buffalo hunt symbolic of Hill's arrival in an area then considered a wilderness. The next vignette, however, presents a view of the wharves on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a steamboat landing and river barges engaged in river traffic. (fig.3) This scene represents Hill's early years in St. Paul. He began his career as a shipping clerk for the Dubuque Packet Company and by 1865 had become the freight and passenger agent for the Northwest Packet Company and the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad. During those years Hill became an expert in the economics of the territory and in 1868 used this knowledge to establish his own business, James J. Hill and Co., a transportation agency which transferred merchandise between the railroad and steamboats on the river front in St. Paul.19 It is likely that the warehouses represented in this vignette are meant to be those of James J. Hill & Co.Clockwise above the vignette of the wharves of St. Paul is one depicting the steamboat Selkirk of the Kittson Line on the Red River. (fig. 4) Hill had become a partner in the construction and operation of the Selkirk in 1871. A sternwheeler, the boat was 110 feet long, had a 26-foot beam, and had the required shall draft capable of navigating the shallow waters of the Red River.20At the top of the tray, on either side of a profile portrait medallion of Hill, are two views of cattle on open range-on the left (fig. 5) Polled Angus and Short Horn cattle: on the right (fig. 6) Jersey cattle. Hill had been instrumental in the introduction of all three breeds to the Midwest and kept breeding herds of each at his own stockfarm on Crystal Bay at Lake Minnetonka, west of Minneapolis.21To the right of these scenes of cattle is a representation of rows of reapers harvesting wheat on a "bonanza" farm, one of the very large-scale farming ventures which became common in the late nineteenth century. (fig. 7) Hill had been instrumental in the development of the trend toward such large-scale farming when his introduction of railroads to the territory permitted rapid and inexpensive transportation necessary to market harvests and transport cheap farm labor.Below the scene of a "bonanza farm" is a representation of an incident which involved Hill during a trip on a Red River cart into the Red River Valley in 1870. (fig. 8) It "presents Hill in the act of setting the broken shoulder of his half-breed driver who had been injured by the breaking down of one of the carts."22 As Hill later told the story, he essentially pulled the shoulder back into its socket by positioning the man between one of the wheels and, with the use of ropes, pulling his arm toward the opposite wheel.23The last vignette to the right of the "rustic monogram" of Hill's initials at the bottom of the tray is another scene that probably also occurred in 1870 on the first leg of a journey into the Red River Valley in March of that year.24 (fig. 9) It depicts Hill starting a dog train, the only means of winter transportation in some parts of the Upper Midwest.The central scene, of course, represents the culmination of Hill's career by 1883. In 1879 he had undertaken the reorganization of the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which was renamed the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba. By 1883, he had become president of the road that in 1889 became the Great Northern Railroad.25Unfortunately, the records of Tiffany & Co. do not identify the designer of the tray.26 It is likely that a Minneapolitan gave Tiffany & Co. a rough idea for its design after the appropriate views and vignettes had been decided upon by a committee formed from the seventeen friends who commissioned the piece for Hill. Yet, it is almost certain that the finished appearance of the piece was determined by one of Tiffany's twenty or so designers.The sources for the pictorial images of the tray are not recorded by Tiffany & Co. Only a photograph (fig. 10) taken of Hill in 1883 can be identified with certainty as the model used for the profile medallion (fig. 11) at the top center of the tray. A photograph of the bridge with Minneapolis in the background is also the most likely source for then engraving in the central panel of the tray. General pictorial sources or casts of animals available to Tiffany's designers were probably the sources for the vignettes, the animal's head trophies and naturalistic motifs on the tray. In the Tiffany & Co. library there were numerous publications covering art, nature and scientific subjects.27 Farm journals, for instance, were probably the source for the views of the cattle. Stuffed animals and small casts are the likely sources for the trophies around the perimeter of the piece. One periodical in 1878, in fact, described the designing room at Tiffany's as having the appearance of a museum of natural history, noting that "all around are well-preserved counterfeits of birds and smaller animals, as also gourds, ears of corn etc., all of which served as studies."28Tiffany & Co. made no other trays like the Hill example, a fact that gives credence to the statement that appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune in 1884 that the piece was the "finest and most elaborate American product of its kind."29 This is, of course, partially because of the weight of the piece—531 troy ounces, or nearly forty pounds—which makes it much more of a plaque rather than a utilitarian tray, since it is next-to-impossible to carry.30 Nevertheless, few presentation pieces are known which approximate the intricacy and superb workmanship of the Hill Tray. One of these, the Bryant Vase (fig. 12), commissioned for William Cullen Bryant by friends for his 80th birthday, was mentioned by the Minneapolis Tribune as another example of Tiffany's workmanship at the time of the presentation of the Hill Tray. Considered a great artistic achievement at the time, it undoubtedly represented the high degree of craftsmanship and artistic merit that Hill's friends sought to emulate in their own commission. Like most presentation pieces of the period, it illustrates the story-telling characteristics of late nineteenth-century art in general and combines a pride in achievement with a love of symbolism.31 The only other presentation piece which clearly relates to the Hill Tray in design and construction is the Belmont Tray (fig. 13). It was "presented to August Belmont, Esq., by the Board of Directors of the Interborough Rapid Transit Subway" of New York City in 1904.32 Similar to the Hill Tray, though slightly less adventurous in its design, its central area is engraved with a map of the subway and the border is made up of cast and applied medallions representing Belmont and several construction sites for the subway. While both pieces are of great artistic significance as well as historical importance to their respective locales, no piece of silver except the Hill Tray could possibly be as important to Minneapolis' history and the collections of nineteenth-century Americana at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Hill Tray is not only one of the major artistic achievements of Tiffany & Co., but also a symbolic link between Minneapolis and St. Paul as represented by the Stone Arch Bridge and its ties to James J. Hill, the man most influential in the development of the Northwest Territory.Francis J. Puig, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is a specialist in American furniture. Mr. Puig is a doctoral candidate at Yale and is working on a dissertation entitled: "The French Revolution and Philadelphia: The Effects of the French Revolution on Politics, Society and the Arts in Philadelphia, 1790-1805." Mr. Puig was a joint author of the catalogue for The Eye of the Beholder: Fakes, Replicas and Alterations in American Art at the Yale University Art Gallery and was on the exhibition team for American Art: 1750-1800 Towards Independence. He was formerly Assistant Curator of the Atwater Kent Museum, a historical museum of the city of Philadelphia.Endnotes
  1. "A Gracious Gift," The Minneapolis Tribune, September 11, 1884.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Miss Lorraine Yanega, Tiffany & Co. to Francis J. Puig, MIA, May 22, 1981. Yanega identifies the piece and mentions details of its construction: The cost of labor alone in 1884 was $2,975.00, retail was approximately $7,500.00. Judging by the 1884 labor cost, it appears that somewhere in the vicinity of 7,000 man-hours of labor went into making the piece.
  4. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit.
  5. "The Great Bridge," The Minneapolis Tribune, November 23, 1883.
  6. The author of "The Great Bridge," op. cit., made a great deal of the cost of the bridge and mentioned an "iron bridge," a much cheaper form of construction, as one of the alternatives. Hill, quoted in "A Gracious Gift," op. cit., noted that he "tried to get some engineers to locate it somewhere on the upper ledge," thereby implying that its construction would have been cheaper and also easier in another location.
  7. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit. According to Hill, the aborted plan was "to cross the river and run down Lyndale Avenue at the intersection of the "Minnetonka Line and then come out and go east over the old bridge."
  8. In "A Gracious Gift," op. cit., Hill was quoted as stating that the Chief Engineer, Col. Smith, was responsible for the location of the Bridge below the Falls. Apparently, there was serious danger of disturbing the flow of water over the Falls. In 1866 a slab of stone "fifty feet long and twenty broad fell from one of the West side ledges to the rocks below. . ." In 1869 more serious damage occurred leading to the creation of a "board of construction" to "devise a means to avert the danger which threatened the existence of water power as a whole." Relief was provided in 1875 by the "erection of a retaining wall built under the bedrock across the river from bank to bank." See Marion D. Shutter, History of Minneapolis (Minneapolis: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1923), I, pp. 337-338.
  9. The details of the construction of the bridge and the proposed use of iron as an alternative building material to stone are mentioned in "The Great Bridge," op. cit.
  10. Ibid.
  11. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit.
  12. Stewart J. Holbrook, James J. Hill: A Great Life in Brief (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), p. 93.
  13. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Yanega to Puig, op. cit.
  16. Several histories of Minneapolis include biographies of these men. See Isaac Atwater, History of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota (New York: Munsell & Company, 1893); Horace B. Hudson, A Half Century of Minneapolis (Minneapolis: The Hudson Publishing Company, 1908); Shutter, Marion D., History of Minneapolis (Minneapolis: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1923), vols. I, II.
  17. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Albro Martin, James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 35-50.
  20. Ibid., p. 80.
  21. Holbrook, op. cit., p. 97.
  22. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit.
  23. Martin, op. cit., p. 76. Hill's account was recorded in detail in 1910 during a speech at the University of North Dakota.
  24. Ibid., pp. 73-74.
  25. Ibid., pp. 190-198, 279, 396.
  26. Yanega to Puig, op. cit.
  27. Charles H. and Mary Grace Carpenter, Tiffany Silver (New York: Mead & Company, 1978), p. 229.
  28. The Jeweller's Weekly, 1878, p. 3019, quoted in Carpenter, op. cit., pp. 228-229.
  29. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit.
  30. "A Gracious Gift," op. cit., describes the tray as a plaque. Tiffany's records call it a "shield." We have elected to call the piece a tray assuming that it is the description that the modern museum visitor is most likely to comprehend.
  31. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), cat. No. 285.
  32. Ibid., cat. No. 285.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Presentation Tray
    Tiffany & Co., 1884
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. G. Richard Slade
  2. Detail: Buffalo Hunt
  3. Detail: View of the Wharves on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota.
  4. Detail: The Steamboat "Selkirk."
  5. Detail: Polled Angus and Short Horn Cattle
  6. Detail: Jersey Cattle
  7. Detail: A Bonanza Farm
  8. Detail: An incident on a Red River Cart
  9. Detail: A Dog Sled in the Red River Valley
  10. Photograph of James J. Hill in 1883.
    Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
  11. Detail: Profile Medallion of James J. Hill
  12. The Bryant Vase
    Tiffany & Co., 1875
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
    Gift of William Cullen Bryant, 1877
  13. The Belmont Tray
    Tiffany & Co., 1904
    The Museum of the City of New York,
    Gift of August Belmont
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Source: Francis J. Puig, "The Hill Tray," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 64 (1978-1980): 42-53.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009