Bradley & Hubbard crisis state: Too much of their design history is missing (2016)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | Design Meriden | 22 February 2016.
This interview took place in November 2015.

For 88 years, the Bradley & Hubbard Company manufactured several designs in the small, central Connecticut city of Meriden (1852–1940), with their products distributed across the United States and Canada. Their designs included fire tools and andirons, desk accessories, lamps and chandeliers, bookends, match safes, match box holders and smoking gear, candlesticks and candelabrum, and vases and ewers. Over the years, many of their designs have made their way into museum collections, including the Castle Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC which has 176 B&H objects.

Unfortunately however, in 1976, a fire destroyed the abandoned Bradley and Hubbard factory site in Meriden. Any records that were in the site at the time were lost.

One man, however, made significant effort with the recovery and presentation of B&H design history at a national level, curator Richard Stamm at the Smithsonian Institution. His work in this area culminated in an exhibition entitled The Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing Company, Masters of Metalwork (2010), followed by creating a thorough online presentation which is a very key resource on B&H today []. In this interview, R. J. Preece, a Contributing Editor of Sculpture magazine and art/design historian that grew up in Meriden, talks to Stamm and asks him to reflect on his experience, and look to the future of further recovering the lost product design history of Bradley & Hubbard.

R.J. Preece: How did you first become interested in Bradley and Hubbard design and the company?

Richard Stamm: About 30 years ago, I was at an antique store and bought a Bradley & Hubbard lamp— a big, tall banquet lamp. So I started looking around, and I couldn’t find any information about it. This was the start of my research process.

Preece: What was your research process like?

Stamm: To learn about my lamp, I started doing a patent search. The burners were patented; the design was patented. In fact, I eventually found 238 B&H patent records for B&H. Copies of these and the indices are in the library of the National Museum of American History here in Washington. I built a patent-focused database on the SI website.

Finding out about my lamp and Bradley & Hubbard was, in fact, an 18-month project, looking at it an hour a day or so. Then I made a couple of trips to Meriden. I went through the materials available at the Meriden Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Connecticut Historical Society.

Then my work on Bradley & Hubbard focused on organizing Masters of Metalwork, and I built the B&H micro-website on the Smithsonian website. I also wrote an article.

Preece: Are all of the objects that are photographed on the B&H micro-website in the Castle Collection?

Stamm: Yes. In fact, I bought a lot of those objects myself, and I personally donated them. However, if I bought them after the website was built, I haven’t yet added them to the website. I plan to add those this year.

Preece: As I understand it, Bradley and Hubbard were in business for 88 years, which means that potentially 88 years of product catalogues were produced, maybe not every year, maybe more than one in specific years via different product lines. The product catalogues included numerous illustrations and photographs, intended for sales communications purposes. But these are also key, design historical documentation.

But in the current state, I only know about 10-12 product catalogues in existence today, when there were potentially 50 or many more produced!

Stamm: Yes, that’s the problem I see too. But I don’t know if they produced catalogues that often. Certainly the 1934 one was one that they published after a very long time.

Preece: Regarding the “missing” design history, do you think this is typical or exceptional?

Stamm: I’m not sure. They were a huge company. They not only manufactured items for themselves, but also parts that were used on products of other lamp companies. A lot of times those parts are not marked, but anything that they patented is marked.

Why aren’t there other catalogues? I looked in the Library of Congress. I looked online. They just don’t seem to exist. It’s frustrating in that respect. Maybe they didn’t feel that they needed a catalogue every single year, not like we are used to now.

Preece: Yes, but Meriden Britannia [a predecessor of International Silver] seems like they did.

Stamm: Yes, a lot of the silver companies produced a great deal of catalogues. It is thought that whatever Bradley & Hubbard did have may have burned in the fire. But there should be something out there.

Preece: Could you tell me about the patent database that you developed at [1]

Stamm: In addition to product catalogues as a source of information, another way to find out about a company’s designs, in a bottom-up way, is to do a patent search. Patents provide a great deal of information.

There are 238 patents assigned to Bradley and Hubbard: 151 mechanical patents and 87 designs. Although the drawings illustrating mechanical patents were not meant to depict a design, I have found that some of the devices were built as drawn. The B&H design patents of the 1870s and 1880s were often illustrated with photographs of the actual object rather than drawings which makes them very useful.

Preece: Did you ever go through the department store route to see if they have B&H catalogues in their archive?

Stamm: I have reprints of Sears and Montgomery Ward’s catalogues in which I’ve been able to identify some B&H lamps and other items. But that’s the extent of it. They did have showrooms in at least four cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Their salesmen might have done a lot of the footwork. I haven’t contacted the department store archives yet, so that is yet another avenue for exploration.

Preece: What would you like to see happen for the design history of Bradley & Hubbard? Should there be a national call to try to locate lost product catalogues and related documentation? Shouldn’t it be clearly visible where all the existing catalogues are? I imagine many of these catalogues are out of copyright, and it could accelerate the B&H research process, and more people could find out more quickly more about what they did.

Stamm: Well, I’m soon to retire. I took the documentation recovery and design history as far as I could. So now it is time for maybe others like yourself, and hopefully a younger generation, to take it forward.

There are some really unusual B&H pieces that I occasionally see sold online that I think would strengthen the collection at the Smithsonian, especially objects with strong design elements… Art Nouveau, Art Deco, or Aesthetic Movement. Some cost as little as USD$40.00, some as high as $7,500.00. If anyone were interested in donating, that would be very much appreciated and they could contact me via the general email address.

Regarding a national call, and online access, yes, these are all good ideas. I think it could make a real difference and let us all know the current state of B&H documentation.

Preece: I think it also helps to encourage more shows and research for the future, because more documentation means that more can be worked with, and more efficiently.

Stamm: Yes, I agree. In fact, I think that would be great.


[1] Type "D" in the keyword section and the 238 B&H patents will be listed.