Seth Storer Coburn (1744–after 1796)
Object Place: Probably Boston, Massachusetts
Overall: 7 x 2.2 cm, 0.04 kg (2 3/4 x 7/8 in., 0.09 lb.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
This narrow, cylindrical, seamed form has an applied circular base that is slightly larger than the vessel. A molded strengthening band soldered slightly below a scalloped rim serves as a guard for a deep lid that is similarly seamed and capped. The cylindrical, seamed, metal grater is scalloped at each end, and the border is lightly engraved with abstracted foliate designs. Its surface is densely filled with a diagonal pattern of circular piercings that were punched while the metal was flat.
Seth Storer Coburn should have flourished as a silversmith in a family that boasted connections to some of the major Boston craftsmen of the eighteenth century: John Coburn was his uncle; his great-aunt Mary Coney was the daughter of silversmith John Coney; and through his great-uncle Ebenezer Storer, he was related to the Edwards family of silversmiths. These relationships undoubtedly contributed to the high concentration of silver that descended in these families.
Despite such genetic predispositions to silversmithing fame, Coburn was a n’er-do-well whose nutmeg grater, perhaps his greatest achievement, was fashioned in 1770, when he was about twenty-six years old. Engraved with the name of Mary Storer, the grater could have been made for one of two great-aunts who married brothers in the Storer family. Each was the daughter of a preeminent Boston silversmith. Mary Coney (1699 – after 1774), daughter of John Coney, married the Rev. Seth Storer in 1720; and Mary Edwards (1700 – 1771), daughter of silversmith John Edwards, married merchant Ebenezer Storer (1699 – 1761) in 1723.
Kathryn C. Buhler believed that Seth Storer Coburn apprenticed with his uncle John Coburn, a conclusion based partly on this nutmeg grater, which is modeled after one made by the latter in 1750 for his fiancée, Susanah Greenleaf. John Coburn would have been the silversmith most closely related to Seth Storer and thus was the natural choice for an apprenticeship. Although the two graters are separated by twenty years, both follow the cylindrical form favored in England.3 Each was made when the men were about the same age. Yet even a cursory examination reveals John Coburn’s superior engraving skills compared to those of his nephew.
Coburn probably worked for a time in Boston after his apprenticeship. He purchased two ounces of silver from Zachariah Brigden in 1767, enough to make a few spoons or graters, but little else. He moved to the Springfield area by 1775, the year of his marriage to Elizabeth Day of West Springfield, where he may have retailed and repaired watches and other small accessories. His apprentice, Nathan Storrs (1768 – 1839) of Northampton, witnessed a deed for Coburn in 1786, suggesting that the latter practiced his craft as late as that date. However, Coburn’s income seems to have come largely from the sporadic sale of land inherited by his wife rather than from his own workshop. Aside from one spoon, this nutmeg grater stands as the only record of Coburn’s unfulfilled promise as a member of Boston’s silversmithing elite.
This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.
Engraved "Mary / Storer / 1770" in italics on the circular lid, and "M * S" in shaded roman capitals on base of cylinder.
Inside of lid and on bottom of case, stamped "S [pellet] S [pellet] C" within a cartouche having a shaped top.
Early history unknown. On loan by the donor to the Museum since 1952 and given in 1973.
Gift of Miss Elizabeth Morford in memory of her late partner Lucy Massenburg