Reed & Barton Corporation History

Address:
144 W. Britannia Street
Taunton, Massachusetts 02780
U.S.A

Telephone: (508) 824-6611
Fax: (508) 822-7269

Website:
Private Company
Founded: 1824 as Babbitt & Crossman
NAIC: 339912 Silver and Plated Ware Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

Our unwavering commitment to high quality and old-world craftsmanship can be found in every piece that bears the Reed & Barton name.

Key Dates:

1824:
The company is founded as Babbitt & Crossman to produce Britannia metal items.
1834:
Henry Reed and Charles Barton acquire the firm.
1867:
Barton dies but the company retains his name.
1889:
The firm begins sterling silver manufacturing.
1901:
Reed dies.
1908:
The company's signature Francis I pattern is introduced.
1941:
The United States enters World War II; Reed & Barton turns to stainless steel flatware production.
1980:
The Saudi Arabian government places the largest order in company history.
1996:
Reed & Barton produces Olympic medals.
1998:
Reed & Barton redesigns the Davis Cup.
1999:
Reed & Barton marks its 175th anniversary.

Company History:

Family owned, Reed & Barton Corporation is one of the oldest silversmiths in the United States, its roots dating back to 1824. Over the years, Reed & Barton has evolved into a diversified tabletop company composed of several divisions. The Reed & Barton Silversmiths division continues to produce a wide range of fine sterling silver, silverplated, and stainless steel tableware and gifts, including flatware, serveware, and holloware, as well as picture frames, Christmas ornaments, baby gifts, and musicals. The Reed & Barton Handcrafted Chests division is the world's largest maker of wooden jewelry boxes and flatware chests. In addition, it offers protective rolls and storage bags for flatware and holloware, cigar humidors, and pen chests. The result of a 1990s acquisition, Miller Rogaska Crystal by Reed & Barton produces handcrafted crystal, including stemware, barware, and giftware. Another acquisition, the Sheffield Silver Company, forms the basis of Reed & Barton: The Sheffield Collection. This division concentrates on holloware and silverplated tableware, offering products such as serving trays, wine coolers, candleware, and napkin rings. The R&B EveryDay division produces high-quality stainless steel flatware intended for everyday use. Reed & Barton also acts as the exclusive U.S. distributor for Belleek Fine Parian China, Ireland's oldest pottery, and Aynsley Fine English Bone China, a renowned, 200-year-old company that has supplied tableware to England's royalty. Reed & Barton maintains its headquarters in Taunton, Massachusetts, once known as "Silver City" because of the number of silver companies operating there. Reed & Barton products are sold in department stores and specialty shops, and the company also operates several retail stores.

Founding the Company in the Early 1800s

The man responsible for the founding of Reed & Barton, Isaac Babbitt, never worked with silver. He first employed pewter--an alloy composed of lead and tin and used to make everyday items such as tankards and dishes. Babbitt, who ran a pewter shop in Taunton, Massachusetts, then found a way to emulate a white metal alloy made from tin, antimony, and copper called Britannia metal, used by the British in the making of flatware and holloware sold in the United States. In 1824 he joined forces with Taunton jeweler William Crossman, forming a company named Babbitt & Crossman to produce their own Britannia tableware. Over the next two decades the company added associates and periodically amended its name, becoming Babbitt, Crossman & Company in 1827, Crossman West & Leonard two years later, and the Taunton Britannia Manufacturing company in 1830. Along the way, Henry G. Reed and Charles E. Barton, friends and fellow craftsmen, came to work at the firm. When the business failed in 1834, following years of steady growth, Reed and Barton, just in their 20s, stepped in to buy it. In 1837 the company was renamed Leonard, Reed & Barton, then in 1840 it assumed its modern name, Reed & Barton. The two men would run the business together for three decades. After Barton died of a heart attack in 1867, Reed carried on, but as a tribute to his longtime friend he decided to retain Barton in the company's name. Ownership of the firm would be passed down through the Reed family.

By the mid-1800s Britannia fell out of favor as a tableware material, supplanted by a new substitute for the prohibitively expensive silver. Sheffield Plate, developed in the 1740s, fused sterling silver to a plate of copper, but in 1840 this technology was superseded by electroplating, which deposited a thin layer of silver on a base metal, copper and later nickel, to produce items with a pure silver appearance. Electroplated silver gave consumers the look they wanted at a reasonable price, and as a result, by the early 1850s the new metal replaced both Sheffield Plate and Britannia metal as the flatware material of choice. Reed & Barton followed the market, and thus became involved in silver for the first time and a pioneer in the practice of silverplating. But silverplate would soon find competition from an unsuspected corner: sterling silver itself. In 1859 the legendary Comstock Lode of silver was discovered and once mining operations in the area were up to speed, silver flooded the market, bringing down prices to the point at which there was little difference between the price of items made from silverplate and actual sterling, which now became the material preferred in wedding gifts. Reed & Barton turned to sterling manufacturing in 1889 and by the end of the century committed an entire factory building to its production.

Maintaining Reputation for Quality: Early 20th Century Through Post-World War II Era

With the start of the 20th century, Reed & Barton underwent a change in leadership, following the 1901 death of Henry Reed at the age of 91. He was replaced by his son-in-law, William B.H. Dowse. By now, after decades of strong marketing efforts, Reed & Barton had developed a reputation for quality craftsmanship and fine design work, especially in sterling. The company's first patented flatware pattern, "Roman Medallion," was introduced in 1868. The firm's work was recognized in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which awarded it a medal of excellence for its entry, an exquisite vase called "The Progress Vase." Later, the U.S. Navy would commission Reed & Barton to fashion ceremonial sterling services for several battleships, including the Arizona, California, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, and Utah. Several years after Dowse took over, in 1908, Reed & Barton introduced what would become its signature flatware pattern, "Francis I," which remains the company's most enduring design. It was so well regarded, in fact, that in 1924 a Francis I sterling silver dinner service won a million-dollar award from India's Maharajah of Barwani.

In 1923 Dowse was succeeded as Reed & Barton's president by his son-in-law, Sinclair Weeks, Sr. He would run the company for nearly half a century. During his tenure the company became involved in producing stainless steel flatware, a move born out of duty rather than design. During the first half of the 1940s, to fulfill its part in World War II, Reed & Barton switched from making silver tableware for civilians to producing flatware and holloware for the armed forces made out of stainless steel. A shiny, rust-resistant alloy invented in the early years of the century, stainless steel was originally used in such applications as cannon barrels and airplane engines before finding more mundane uses. In addition to tableware, Reed & Barton relied on stainless steel to produce surgical instruments for the Army Medical Corps. Following the war, the company continued to produce stainless steel tableware, which over the next half century would contribute increasingly to the balance sheet. But during the postwar years after servicemen returned home, married, and produced the Baby Boom generation, Reed & Barton's business remained very much devoted to the production of sterling silver items, the sales of which were spurred by a strong economy and the large number of weddings and christenings that took place during this period.

Battling the Practice of Deep Discounting in the 1970s-80s

In 1971 Sinclair Weeks, Sr., was succeeded as president by his son, Sinclair Weeks, Jr., who five years later would also take on the title of chief executive officer. During his tenure, Reed & Barton acquired the Sheffield Silver Company, founded in 1908 and well respected as a maker of fine silverplated holloware, especially its casseroles and bakers. The younger Weeks also took over during a period of unpredictable silver prices, due to rampant speculation. The result was that the public was uncertain about the true value of silver and there was confusion in the marketplace. The situation was complicated by the practice of deep discounting in the U.S. silver flatware industry. Manufacturers maintained high suggested prices but sold their wares to retailers at realistic levels. The retailers would then advertise a deep discount on the products, based on the inflated manufacturer's suggested retail price, in an effort to lure customers. It was a successful practice, but it soon got out of hand. Late in 1979 silver bullion prices jumped from $5 an ounce to more than $48 an ounce in early 1980. Retailers took advantage of their inventories, purchased before the escalation in silver prices, to offer 50 percent discounts. Then the silver market crashed, as did consumer demand for flatware, and the dependence on deep discounting became even more extreme. Reed & Barton's manufacturing rivals opted to name their suggested retail prices in order to allow retailers to advertise discounts as high as 85 percent. To Reed & Barton the practice amounted to false advertising intended to mislead consumers into making uninformed decisions. To bring sanity to the situation, Reed & Barton decided to stop issuing a suggested retail price list, but retailers refused to comply and insisted the company reinstate a price list. Reed & Barton finally agreed, issuing a list that would allow retailers to mark down its merchandise by some 25 percent. Some in the industry soon followed Reed & Barton's lead, but others continued to abuse the discounting practice. In March 1982 Reed & Barton sued five competitors in federal court, charging "false advertising concerning the price of their products." The resulting publicity helped to at least convince retailers to pull back on the use of deep discounting.

Aside from the deep discounting flap, the 1980s represented a period of significant change for Reed & Barton. The decade began strongly, with the company making the single largest order in its history: the 3,318 piece sterling service purchased by the Saudi Arabian government. The set included 50 custom sterling items, and ten four-foot and five-foot sterling platters for carrying roasted lambs. But silver was falling in popularity with the general public, forcing Reed & Barton to diversify. A housewares division was formed to broaden the product line. The company also began focusing more attention on stainless steel, which was increasing in popularity with consumers. As a result, Reed & Barton added breadth to the range of its price points, straying from its traditional perch at the high end of the market to the moderate range. The company also took steps to beef up its marketing efforts, especially in the bridal registry area.

By the mid-1980s, Reed & Barton had isolated a number of areas that offered strong potential: silverplated holloware, flat- ware, sterling flatware, stainless flatware, and giftware. Reed & Barton also was beginning to become less of a manufacturer and more of a product developer, distributor, and marketer. To remain competitive in the stainless steel arena, by the 1990s it ceased manufacturing these products in Taunton and began outsourcing to Asia, resulting in a steady drop in the number of people employed in Massachusetts. But at the same time it added products such as Christmas ornaments, jewelry, porcelain statues, and engravables. In the late 1980s Reed & Barton also took a stab at the mass-market flatware business, introducing a line of stainless and plastic-handled flatware. To protect the value of the Reed & Barton brand name, however, the products would assume the Savvy label. Manufacturing would be handled by a Connecticut company, with Reed & Barton providing the marketing and distribution.

The 1980s also saw changes in the top ranks of management. In September 1987 Albert D. Krebel, the president and CEO of Farberware Corp., replaced Weeks as president and CEO at Reed & Barton. Weeks stayed on as chairman, however. For Krebel it was a return to the silver industry, where he had more than 20 years of experience, working in sales and marketing and holding management positions at Gorham Silver Co., International Silver Co., and Wallace Silversmiths.

Product Diversification Along with Commitment to Tradition in the 1990s and Beyond

Under Krebel, Reed & Barton continued its efforts at diversification in the 1990s. Early in the decade, the company entered into a new product development joint venture with Swid Powell, a tabletop specialist. As a result of the collaboration, Reed & Barton began manufacturing and distributing architecturally designed serveware products. Next, Reed & Barton came to an agreement with the Ralph Lauren Home Collections to act as a licensee to produce sterling silver, silverplate, and stainless steel flatware, which would be sold in the same retail outlets as Ralph Lauren's china and crystal tabletop products. In the 1990s other licensing deals would follow, including agreements with Waterford and Royal Doulton. The company also became involved in crystal. In 1993 it became the exclusive distributor of Val Saint Lambert Crystal's high-end tabletop lines in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Reed & Barton also added the North American distribution rights for Aynsley china, Belleek china, and Galway crystal. Moreover, the company became involved in crystal manufacturing with the 1996 purchase of Miller Rogaska Crystal Co., maker of mid-range to upper-priced crystal stemware, barware, and giftware.

Reed & Barton reached a watershed moment in 1996 when sales of its stainless steel flatware outpaced sterling silver flatware for the first time. Nevertheless, the company continued to offer its time-tested sterling silver designs and continued to maintain a reputation for contemporary craftsmanship. Reed & Barton was selected by The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games to manufacture the gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 1996 Olympic Games. This contract was prestigious and highly coveted, and was the culmination of an established relationship between Reed & Barton and the committee. Already the company had been named a licensee of Olympic Games merchandise, granted the exclusive rights to market sterling silver, silverplate, goldplate, and wood giftware. In addition to producing 2,600 competition medals, Reed & Barton would make the wooden cases for them and also produce 30,000 commemorative medals to be given to dignitaries and others associated with the games. Reed & Barton's reputation also would be recognized, and enhanced, in 1998 when the company was chosen to redesign the Davis Cup, awarded annually in an international team tennis tournament.

Reed & Barton marked its 175th anniversary in 1999 by launching its first web site, but the company entered the new century committed to maintaining its tradition and the value of its brand by not venturing too far afield from the position in the high end of the market it had carved out over the years.

Principal Divisions: Reed & Barton Silversmiths; Reed & Barton Handcrafted Chests; Miller Rogaska Crystal; Sheffield Silver Company; R&B EveryDay.

Principal Competitors: Oneida Ltd.; Mikasa, Inc.; Syratech Corporation; Lunt Silversmith, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Schorow, Stephanie, "Tannon's 175-Year-Old Reed & Barton Still Brings Elegance to the Table," Boston Herald, June 2, 1999, p. 56.
  • Schwartz, Meredith, "Reed & Barton Turns 175," Gifts & Decorative Accessories, October 1999, p. 170.
  • Silk, Alvin, J., Sterling Seasons--The Reed & Barton Story, Taunton, Mass.: Reed & Barton Corporation, 1999.
  • "The Silverware Price Wars," Business Week, March 29, 1982, p. 160.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.67. St. James Press, 2005.

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