John Gorham was born in Providence on November 18, 1820. He was the eldest son of Jabez Gorham who had established himself as a leading manufacturer of silverware and jewelry in Providence in the 1830s.
John began his apprenticeship in 1837 and in 1841, at the age of 21, he became a partner in his father’s business which then became known as J. Gorham & Son. His father’s business model relied on a small number of craftsmen producing a limited number of quality items, but John quickly began to recognize the advantages of mechanization to augment hand craftsmanship in the production of silverware. His research into manufacturing processes brought him to the Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts and the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia where he learned procedures for handling large quantities of coin silver.
His entry into silver manufacturing was blessed by good timing. In 1842 silver business advocates, led by Senator Henry Clay, were able to successfully petition Congress to impose a 30 % ad valorem tax on imported silver giving local manufacturers a major impetus toincrease production. Gorham bought out his father’s interest in 1847 and his incessant drive to learn more about his competitors and their business practices brought him to Europe in 1852 where the thirty-two year old visited factories in Birmingham, Sheffield, the London Mint and the Woolwich Arsenal as well as silver shops in Brussels and Paris. Upon his return to Providence, Gorham quickly introduced factory methods to augment hand craftsmanship,
installed a steam engine to power his new machinery and even designed new machinery himself. By 1869 he had made four fact-finding trips to Europe.
In 1850, Gorham admitted his nephew Gorham Thurber as a partner and another relative Lewis Dexter, assumed a partnership with the company. In addition to management adjustment, Gorham also realized that he could no longer rely on the traditional seven-year apprentice system to enlarge his skilled workforce. Shortly after buying out his father, John had a workforce of only 12 skilled craftsmen. During the 1850s he set out to recruit more than 100 skilled craftsmen from overseas. By 1861 Gorham had grown his workforce to 150, and by the end of the Civil War four years later he had 312 employees.
In 1863 the Rhode Island legislature chartered the company as the Gorham Manufacturing Company, and he assumed its presidency, with Gorham Thurber designated the treasurer. By 1872 Gorham was reputed to be the largest manufacturer of coin silverware in the world and their workforce had grown to 450, the business occupying an entire block around Steeple and North Main Streets.
John Gorham had taken many risks in expanding his father’s old company. The failure of Jay Cook’s banking empire in 1873 and the resultant economic depression led John Gorham to file for bankruptcy in 1875. At one point he became an employee of Gorham, the company he had nurtured from its modest beginnings. One contemporary observer noted that “he is in no business and has no means.”
Sometime after 1880 John Gorham moved to Chase City, Virginia and died there on June 26,1898. Despite this personal setback at the end of his life, Gorham’s entrepreneurial spirit, his inventiveness, and management expertise had taken a small business founded by his father and grown it to be one of the nineteenth century’s Industrial Wonders of the World. Although John Gorham had died, his creation thrived in its new and expansive complex at the end of Adelaide Avenue in the Elmwood section of Providence, to which it relocated in 1890. For that achievement he richly deserves inclusion into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
Outside of his business ventures, John’s personal life was relatively uneventful. In the 1840s he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in a militia unit known as the Providence Horse Guards, and he served one year as a Whig state legislator. In 1848 he married Amey Thurber, a woman with the same name as his mother. The couple had six children, three of whom died before their father’s move to Virginia. In Rhode Island, however, the Gorham name lived on through the twentieth century, and its most famous creation, the statue of the Indpendent Man atop Rhode Island’s statehouse, crafted a year after John’s death, will long be visible as a reminder of the world-renowned business that Jabez and John Gorham began and nutured.