Company History: Baltimore's prominent silver manufacturing company, Samuel Kirk & Son, dates its beginning to 1815 when Philadelphia-trained Samuel Kirk finished his apprenticeship under James Howell and moved to Baltimore.
Attracted by the prosperous port, Kirk opened his shop at 212 Market Street (later known as 106 Baltimore Street) with fellow silversmith, John Smith. After the partnership was dissolved in 1821, Samuel Kirk carried on the business alone until his eldest son, Henry Child Kirk, became a partner in 1846. The company prospered greatly. In 1820 Maria Hester Monroe, daughter of President James Monroe, was married in the White House. She chose Kirk Mayflower as her silverware pattern. During his 1824 tour of the United States, General Lafayette ordered a pair of goblets for his Baltimore host, David Williamson. Many of Maryland's prominent families, such as the Carrolls, the Ellicotts and the Ridgelys, were among Kirk's customers. In 1861 and 1863, respectively, two more sons, Charles Douglas and Edwin Clarence Kirk, were admitted as partners, changing the firm's name to Samuel Kirk & Sons. The Civil War and its aftermath created an economic slump in the silver business causing Charles and Edwin to become discouraged. When they withdrew from the partnership, the firm reverted to the name Samuel Kirk & Son.
During this early period Kirk introduced to America the repousse treatment for silverware. Repousse means formed in relief and refers to a pattern which is beaten or pressed up from the reverse side. Kirk's technique was probably inspired by East India silversmiths, but his patterns were uniquely his own. Eventually he applied this technique to flatware as well as other pieces. Samuel Kirk died in 1872 leaving the business to Henry Child Kirk. The firm's technology advanced as hand-wrought repousse methods were replaced by the use of cylindrical steel rolls and eventually flat steel dies. The repousse patterns were cut in reverse in a steel die, then stamped on the softer silver with a heavy drop hammer.
Following family tradition, Kirk's son, Henry Child Kirk, Jr., was admitted as a partner in 1890. Six years later (1896) the firm was incorporated with Henry Child Kirk, Sr., as president, William Higgins Conkling (Kirk's son-in-law) as vice-president, James F. H. Maginn as secretary and Frederick W. Kakel as treasurer. Business continued to prosper as the firm's clientele spread beyond Maryland. Customers included the Belmonts, Astors and Roosevelts of New York; the Lowells, Peabodys and Adamses from Boston; the Biddles, Cadwalladers and Ingersolls from Philadelphia; and the Hamptons, Lees and Davises from the South.
The company suffered severe blows in 1903 and 1904 from two separate fires. At 9:30 AM on June 30, 1903 a fire ignited when gasoline leaking from a tank in the cellar came into contact with the furnace. Much stock and equipment in the workshop were lost but, fortunately, most of the business records and designs were saved. The firm had barely recovered when the great Baltimore fire of 1904 struck on February 7. Again, vital records and patterns were saved by a quick arrangement between Henry Child Kirk, Jr. and the express company manager across the street. They used express wagons and Kirk employees to save the records of both businesses. Samuel Kirk & Sons moved into temporary quarters at 309 N. Charles St. until a new building could be completed on the site of the one destroyed. The factory began operating again in May 1904 at Guilford and Girard Aves., then moved to the Baltimore St. building in June 1905. The retail store re-opened there in November.
The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed several changes in the company. In the nineteenth century business had been generated primarily by word of mouth as the founder felt that advertising was associated with commercialism. Placing the company into more modern times at their November 1911 meeting, the Board of Directors authorized spending $1,000 for advertising in the Baltimore newspapers. An additional $1,000 was approved for advertising in September 1912. Samuel Kirk & Son's first retail silverware catalog was produced in 1914 and their first national advertisements appeared in the October 1937 issues of House Beautiful and House and Garden. In 1911 the company directors began discussing the concept of selling their goods at wholesale prices to authorized dealers, but it was not until 1915 that this method of national distribution began. Another innovation was the purchase in October 1913 of the firm's first automobile delivery wagon.
Henry Child Kirk, Sr. died in 1914 and left a deed of trust placing the business in the hands of five trustees. At the termination of the trust agreement in 1924, the company was reorganized as Samuel Kirk & Son, Incorporated with Henry Child Kirk, Jr. as president and treasurer, James F. H. Maginn as vice-president and assistant treasurer, William Higgins Conkling, Jr. (great-grandson of Samuel Kirk) as secretary, and Roderick Douglas Donaldson (grandson-in-law of Samuel Kirk), Martin Laurence Millspaugh (great-grandson of Samuel Kirk), and Charles Markell as directors. Robert E. Coughlan was elected a member of the board soon after. In addition, the Kirk Realty Corporation was created in 1923 to manage the real estate concerns of the company. A lease was signed with Mano Swartz in October of that year for the four-story building under construction at Charles and Franklin Streets. Swartz agreed to make changes in the building (at Kirk's expense) to accommodate the new tenant's retail operations. At the same time, construction commenced on a new facility at Twenty-Fifth St. and Taylor St. (now Kirk Ave.) for the purpose of handling the wholesale and manufacturing divisions. The Great Depression of the 1930's had its effect on all businesses including Samuel Kirk & Son, Inc. In spite of the poor economy, the number of agents selling Kirk silver continued to increase and several improvements were made to the factory. Kirk stock generally continued to pay quarterly dividends.
During World War II, Samuel Kirk & Son, Inc. became very involved with the war effort. The War Production Board closely regulated what and how much could be manufactured. Wages and work weeks were controlled. Silver bullion and other raw materials were rationed. In February 1942 Kirk received its first war contract from Liberty Motors and Engineering Corp. Other contracts followed with many companies including American Hammered Piston Ring, Standard Gas Equipment, and Western Electric for manufacturing surgical instruments, metal hardware or performing services such as silver soldering. Production and price controls remained in effect past World War II until the Korean conflict ended in 1953.
The prosperous post-war 1950's saw a shift of population to the suburbs and the rise of shopping centers. Following this trend, Samuel Kirk & Son, Inc. opened a branch store in Edmondson Village on June 2, 1953. A second branch opened in Towson, Md. on May 6, 1958. By the early 1960's, however, the retail division was lagging behind the wholesale operation. Kirk closed their three retail stores in January 1963, having arranged to lease retail space in three Stewart & Co. stores: downtown, York Road, and Reisterstown Road. The retail division of Kirk closed completely in 1975. The leases were allowed to expire at the Stewart & Co. outlets and the department store absorbed Kirk's retail functions into their own operations.
Late in 1966, S. Kirk Millspaugh, great-great-grandson of the founder, gained a controlling interest in the company by purchasing 80% of the outstanding shares of stock. The Kirk Corporation, as it became known, acted as a holding company which owned several subsidiaries including the original Samuel Kirk & Son, Inc. It began to diversify its interests by acquiring the Coastal Trailer Corporation in the late 1960's and Studebaker Southern, Inc., a Florida-based manufacturer of mobile homes, in 1969. It was hoped that these companies would provide greater financial opportunities and help maintain overall financial stability during periods of fluctuating economic conditions. However, the anticipated advantages failed to materialize. There was little technical or management crossover between companies which resulted in differences in policies and objectives. A construction slump in 1974-1975 compounded the problem. Studebaker Southern, Inc. was terminated in 1972 and Coastal Trailer Corp. was sold off to its original owners in a 1975-1976 reorganization of the parent company. Other acquisitions by the Kirk Corp. were more successful due to the similarity of their products: Eisenberg-Lozano, Inc. (an importer of silver plate, stainless and pewter holloware) in 1970 and A. L. Hanle, Inc. (a manufacturer of pewter holloware) in 1971. The name of the latter was changed to Kirk Pewter, Inc. in 1972 and Eisenberg-Lozano became Kirk International, Inc. in 1973. The Kirk Collection was established in 1972 for the production of limited edition collector's pieces. The following year it ceased to be a subsidiary and became a trade style of Samuel Kirk & Son, Inc.
In 1968 the Samuel Kirk Museum, Inc. was founded to display Kirk artifacts and develop educational programs on the silver, gold and pewter crafts. The collection was exhibited at the Peale Museum when in Baltimore, but was frequently on tour to art museums throughout the world. By 1979 the Kirk Corporation found itself in difficult circumstances. The reorganization of 1976 had cost the company a $600,000 commercial loan which increased the company's interest charges and decreased the capital base available for current operations or expansions. The cost of the company's essential raw materials, silver and tin, began to skyrocket and the wildly speculative silver commodity market made it almost impossible to price Kirk's products to meet dealer orders. In addition, the company's manufacturing and office facilities had become severely cramped and a great deal of machinery and equipment needed to be replaced. The high cost of real estate, construction and machinery coupled with the company's reduced financial resources brought the matter to a head.
The Stieff Company, a Baltimore silver and pewter manufacturer since 1892, offered to purchase the assets of the Kirk Corporation. The two companies drew up a proposal which combined management personnel and allowed for the continued production of the Kirk line. The shareholders approved the merger on 10 October 1979 and a new company was born under the name of The Kirk Stieff Company.
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