After an apprenticeship to Nehemiah Dodge, Jabez Gorham became the foremost Rhode Island producer of jewelry and silverware. While in his twenties, Gorham established a shop at North Main and Steeple Streets, the first of several buildings that formed his original factory complex. By the end of the century, the company he founded was a world leader in the production of silverware.
Jabez Gorham came from a long line of illustrious New Englanders. His ancestor Captain John Gorham was Bristol’s first settler in the 1670s, when that area was part of Plymouth Colony and the domain of the Pokanokets. Another relative, Nathaniel Gorham, was president of Congress under the Confederation and a Massachusetts delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. In contrast to these prominent Gorhams, the father of Jabez (also named Jabez) was a Providence harness maker who married Catherine Tyler in 1762. They produced ten children, of whom Jabez, born February 15, 1792 was the sixth.
After attending the common schools of Providence, Jabez was apprenticed to Nehemiah in 1807. Gorham learned the trade but chose not to emulate his master by crafting costume jewelry when he concluded his apprenticeship in 1813. Not long thereafter, Jabez entered into a partnership with other craftsmen and began the manufacture of gold jewelry on the ground floor of a building at the corner of North Main and Steeple Streets in Providence’s original jewelry district. In 1818, after five years of partnership operation, Gorham became to sole proprietor and soon won a regional reputation by making French filigree jewelry and a special kind of gold chain that became known as the “Gorham chain.” From 1825-1840, Gorham took on a succession of three partners — Stanton Beebe, Henry Lamson Webster and William Gladding Price. The Webster partnership, which opened a shop at 12 Steeple Street in 1831, made the momentous shift to silver spoons as its leading product. From that point on, silverware and Gorham became synonymous.
In 1837, Jabez Gorham took on an apprentice who would one day transform the Gorham Manufacturing Company into a world leader in the production of silverware, holloware and statuary. That protogeé was his third child, John. In 1839, Jabez Gorham withdrew his partnership with Webster and Price but continued to manufacture his Gorham chain.
Jabez also became a proprietor of the Eagle Screw Company, the captain of a militia unit, and a Whig member of the Rhode Island General Assembly. These outside interests took up most of his time until he resumed the manufacture of spoons and silverware in 1841 at 12 Steeple Street, forming the firm of J. Gorham & Son. From 1824-1844 he also served on the Providence Town Council.
Jabez retired permanently from the business in 1847, having achieved both fame and prosperity. His first wife, Amey Thurber, died from complications in childbirth with John. Jabez then married Lydia Dexter in 1822. She bore him four more children by 1834. He and his wife built an imposing brick house on the corner of Benefit and Bowen Streets where Jabez resided until his death March 24, 1869 at the age of seventy-seven.