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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Roswell Gleason by Anthony M. Sammarco

When we think of silver plate, the names of Reed & Barton, Rogers and Lunt come to mind. Few of us realize that the first attempts at silver plating base metal in this country took place on Washington Street, near Four Corners, in the mid 19th century.

Roswell Gleason (1799-1887) was born in Putney, Vermont, the son of Reuben and Abigail Fuller Gleason, but came to Dorchester as a young apprentice to William Wilcox, a tinsmith at Four Corners. In 1822, after Wilcox’s death, Gleason was able to conduct business on his own. His shop produced tin and pewter items that were used in every home of the period, but it was the introduction of Britannia that brought fame to Gleason. Britannia is a pewter alloy composed of lead, tin and other metals to form a pliable metal that withstands constant use. Gleason, through melding and experiment, made a large array of Britannia ware serving pieces that had a more durable quality than the softer pewter. His business was successful enough that he moved from the former Wilcox shop to a new factory at the present site of “Mother’s Rest.”

The new factory employed numerous workmen, and was to produce a high quality Britannia ware that was sold not just locally, but shipped by barge, boat and train throughout the eastern seaboard. Gleason produced lamps that held whale oil, teapots and coffeepots, and caster sets that became a staple in most households; the designs and the quality of his products brought the attention, and inevitable purchase, of buyers from Stowell & Company and Lows, Ball & Company, two fashionable Boston shops.

However, it was in the late 1840’s that Gleason learned of beautiful wares that had a polished surface that looked as if it was made from the finest solid silver. Urged by his friend Daniel Webster, Gleason sent his sons Roswell Gleason, Jr. (1826-1866) and Edward Gleason (1829-1862) to England to study the process of silver plating; they returned after a short while with not simply the knowledge to produce silver plated metal, but with English workmen who were trained and skillful in the process. “In 1849 he … increased his business by introducing the art of silver plating, and was the pioneer of that business in America.” With the establishment of this new line in his already successful business, Roswell Gleason was to make silver tea services available for those with fancy tastes but not the money to purchase solid silver services. With the availability of silver plate, Gleason revolutionized the silver industry, and made cruets, pitchers, services, and serving pieces available at a fraction of the cost of solid silver.

It was precisely the ability of Gleason’s adaptation to changing public tastes and the changing methods of production that enabled him to revel in phenomenal success. His career was successful, and he was fortunate in his family, for he married Rebecca Tucker Vose (1805-1891) of Milton, daughter of Reuben and Polly Willis Vose, and built a splendid mansion, known as “Lilacs,” for her in 1837. His success as a businessman allowed him the finest material comforts, and his large Gothic villa was on Washington Street, just south of his factory. The house was one of the finest in Dorchester, with superb panoramic views of Dorchester Bay from the piazzas. It was complete with a stable and grapery, and had white lilacs planted about the property, from cuttings secured from those at Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s estate in Virginia. With a playing fountain, and a large carriage drive, the estate was not just an elegant country seat, but testimony to Gleason’s ability as a businessman. He was listed in the book Rich Men of Massachusetts in 1851 and he was honored and esteemed in Dorchester. His financial support of the Christopher Gibson School located on School Street was widely appreciated and he served as captain of the Dorchester Rifle Company, a local drill company composed of Dorchesterites who met at Mount Bowdoin to exchange sham battles and to feast upon lavish dinners prepared for the occasion. Gleason was successful and popular, and the deaths of his sons effectively ended his business.

Both of Rebecca and Roswell Gleason’s sons died relatively young. It was their deaths that prompted Gleason’s closing of the business. The Civil War had ended the shipments of his wares to southern markets, and an explosion in his factory caused tremendous damage. Unable to continue, Gleason closed the silver plate and Britannia ware factory in 1871 and retired to a life of ease as near a “millionaire” as had ever been known in Dorchester. He continued his support of local charities, including the Second Church in Codman Square, where he attended both morning and afternoon services every Sunday. He eventually went blind, but maintained a sense of duty to the end. His death came suddenly, and he was buried in his family lot in the Codman Cemetery, the parish burial ground of the Second Church on Norfolk Street.

The family, the only surviving child being Mary Frances Gleason Vandervoort (1825-1885,) maintained “Lilacs” as a virtual museum, with many Gleason produced items among the family antiques. A fire destroyed a portion of the house, and rather than rebuild, the house was moved to face Dorchester Bay and the former carriage drive to the stable was cut through and renamed Ridge Road (now Claybourne Street.) The wealth amassed by Roswell Gleason during the 19th century enabled him to live in comfort, and to amass a large estate; however, it was that estate that made the greatest fortune for the family, as after the annexation of Dorchester to the city of Boston in 1870, land values skyrocketed and were the best investment one could make. “Lilacs” stood atop the hill at the corner of Park and Claybourne Streets, not just as a reminder of the man who built it, but as a monument to the silver plated empire he created on Washington Street in Dorchester.

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