Company History: A single line notice in the November 2nd 1892 issue of The Jeweler’s Circular & Horological Review shows the birth of The Stieff Company at the death of another company.
“The Klank Mfg. Co. made an assignment for the benefit of creditors to Charles C. Stieff” Baltimore Silver and Cutlery wholesaler, Charles C. Stieff was now in the silver manufacturing business. The Stieff Company was incorporated on December 2, 1892 with the name “The Sterling Silver Manufacturing Company” and had a combined factory and showroom at 110 West Fayette Street in Baltimore. Mr. Stieff was not a silversmith himself, but an entrepreneur who dealt in silver and cutlery. His store at 17 N. Liberty Street in downtown Baltimore displayed his wholesale wares. By 1894 the store would be come the anchor retail location for his sterling silver business In 1892, the first flatware pattern for the new company was Maryland Rose. Other early silver patterns were Chrysanthemum, Victoria and Plain & Engraved. (The names of Rose, Maryland and Maryland Rose were alternated by the company until the 1920’s).
In the early years, the company would make silver for both it’s own retail shop located at 17 North Liberty Street in downtown Baltimore, and for other retailers who’s name would be stamped on the silver. This was an early form of what we could today call “private label” branding. As the companies fine silver products became better known around Baltimore, the companies industrial sounding name was changed to a more refined “Baltimore Sterling Silver Company” and the silver mark became BSSCO. This was prior to 1900, but the year is currently unknown. The earliest examples of the companies silver are not marked and it takes a trained eye to discern it’s origins. Many early pieces carry the Crown and B mark. In 1904 the company name was changed from The Baltimore Sterling Silver Company to The Stieff Company.
World War II would see Stieff production move to that of fine surgical instruments for the United States Army and components for radar equipment. They were also given a government contract for making aluminum Ice Trays of all things. Silver was considered a vital war material and the government took over control of silver supplies. What ever quantity that Stieff had on hand would have to last them until after the war. Charles Stieff II said the inventory was almost gone by 1943. Some small silver items would continue to be produced through out the war, but in greatly reduced quantity. During the war, flatware production was limited to 5 patterns. After the war, Charles C. Stieff II was the Vice President of sales, and traveled the country extensively to secure new retailers for the companies products.
By the later 1940’s the companies silver was being sold in over 400 stores around the nation. Only those retailers that agreed to adhere to strict quality controls were allowed to sell Stieff silver. By the 1960’s Stieff products would be in over 3000 stores nationwide. In the 1950’s Stieff would make silver items for the Eisenhower administration to give as gifts to dignitaries. Sometimes the White House would send a helicopter over to The Stieff Company and land on the lawn of the factory to pick up items. Stieff also made flatware for use in the White House, some with the presidential seal on them. Mamie Eisenhower toured the factory and picked out silver items. When Charles C. Stieff III was born in 1955, the first lady sent a personal hand written note to the new baby, which he still has today, proudly displayed in his home. Tastes change, as does fashion and the way we entertain. In the prosperity after the second world war there was a brief golden age of silver. Brides who had received their mothers silver expanded the sets or decided on one of the new “modern” patterns brought out by Stieff. As more women entered the workforce less time was allotted for “teas” or formal entertaining. In the 1960’s silver sales started sinking fast. Casual dining and stainless steel flatware gained popularity and acceptance. A Silver Service was quickly becoming something that “your mother” owned.
In 1967, The Stieff Company bought “The Schofield Company” The thought was that by adding volume, more silver could be bought at a lower price. Stieff would also gain the Schofield craftsmen. In 1977 as the old Schofield dies were wearing out, all of the Schofield patterns would be discontinued. Pewter was becoming more important to the company, and by the early 1970’s had become 60% of the companies sales. A 1971 expansion doubled the size of the Wyman Park Drive factory, primarily for expansion of the pewter operations.
In the late 1970’s the Hunt brothers of Texas tried to corner the silver market. Prices fluctuated wildly making the silver business unstable and unprofitable. When silver could be 50 dollars an ounce one month and 11 dollars an ounce the next month, it became impossible to predict manufacturing cost or price accurately. At both manufactures and retail stores it became an impossible job to deliver goods at the price promised. The manipulation of the silver market eventually bankrupted the Hunt brothers and resulted in a 10 million dollar fine from the government. When silver prices were sky high at 50 dollars an ounce, a lot of old silver was sold to the scrappers to be melted down. We lost a lot of historic silver during those dark days.
A major competitor, S. Kirk and Son was purchased in 1979. Kirk had tried to diversify over the years as silver sales waned. With limited success at diversifying, the company agreed to be purchased by Stieff with the understanding that the Kirk patterns would be continued. Many of the old Stieff patterns were discontinued in December of 1979 to make room for the Kirk patterns. The Kirk factory at 2225 Kirk Avenue in Baltimore was closed and all operations were moved to the Wyman Park Drive location of The Stieff Company. Additionally the Kirk Pewter factory in Salisbury MD was shuttered and move to Stieff also. As it had been with the purchase of Schofield, the goal was added sales volume which would lower silver costs and the addition of skilled craftsmen. The name was changed to Kirk-Stieff reflecting the 1815 start date for Kirk against the 1892 date for Stieff. Kirk had been a larger company with a larger market share. This extra presence in the market place would be good for Kirk-Stieff ten years later when Kirk-Stieff would be purchased by Lenox. Stieff Warerooms were located at 17 North Liberty Street until 1952. On the evening of May 26, 1923, Stieff founder Charles C. Stieff died at his desk at The Stieff Company’s Redwood Street offices. His son Gideon Stieff had become President of Stieff in 1914 and would continue to lead the company until 1970. Under the leadership of Gideon N. Stieff, The Stieff Company would grow to become one of America’s greatest silversmiths and reach a national market.
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