A complete historical reference guide to Nobility Plate and Nobility silver plated flatware and the company that sold it, Empire Crafts Corp.
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Nobility Plate and Nobility silver plated flatware was sold from 1937 to 1974 by a company most commonly remembered as Empire Crafts Corporation. Empire Crafts Corp. was a division of the C. H. Stuart & Co. originally headquartered in the Commercial Building at 165 E. Union St. in the Village of Newark, New York, a small town located in upstate New York on the south side of the Erie Canal between Rochester and Syracuse. The history of Nobility Plate and Empire Crafts Corp. is quite colorful and very diverse. In order to understand what led up to its production and sales, one has to take a look at the history of its larger parent company, C. H. Stuart & Co., Inc. The history of the Stuart companies goes back to 1852 when its founder Charles William Stuart, a jewelry maker from Syracuse, purchased a 60 acre farm in the Village of Newark. The farm was actually a nursery and contained a crop of fruit trees that had to be disposed of. As a result, C. W. Stuart began selling his crop by going farm to farm. This was the beginning of a direct-sales or in-home business that would continue for over 130 years. Many years later, Mr. Stuart’s son, C. H. “Harry” Stuart, chemistry major and graduate of Cornell, expanded the family nursery stock business to include flavoring extracts and eventually a cosmetic manufacturing and retailing business. In 1905, Harry built the Commercial Enterprises building on Union Street in Newark. This would be the headquarters of a variety of new direct-sales companies formed by Harry Stuart’s son, Lyman K. Stuart, including Home Decorators, Inc. and Empire Crafts Corp.
The early history of Empire Crafts is not real clear as its origins are not well documented. But this we do know, in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, the Stuart companies purchased silver flatware from a nearby silver company to offer as premiums to their sales representatives and employees. The success and popularity of this program led to the creation of two Stuart silverware companies. What would later be known as Empire Crafts Corporation and Home Decorators, Inc. were founded by Lyman Stuart to sell both sterling and plated flatware. Home Decorators, Inc. sold Prestige Plate silver plated flatware, State House Sterling flatware, Arcadian China and a very popular line of melamine dishes called Russel Wright Melmac. Empire Crafts sold Nobility Plate silver plated flatware, Royal Crest Sterling flatware, Nobility & Princess China, and silver plated hollowware (tea sets, trays, sugar and creamers). Both of these direct-sales companies created at-home club plans to generate interest and boost sales. The Silver Counselor and the Nobility Club grew rapidly with sales of thousands of sets of flatware and china across mid-century America.
The Empire Crafts Corporation name was created in 1942. It previously had been known as the Nobility Silver Co. with early documents also mentioning the name Silver Service Club, Inc. It is believed that the Silver Service Club, established about 1934, was possibly the Stuart division created to handle the Stuart silver premiums program. The “Nobility Plate” name was officially registered and patented on July 27, 1937 by the Silver Service Club, Inc, at which time company documents began using the Nobility Silver Co. name. According to US Patent and Trademark files, the Nobility Plate logo with the four crowns (symbolizing the quadruple silver plating) was first used in September, 1940. However, it is found on all their flatware prior to that date. The design was officially registered and patented in November, 1948. An interesting note here comes from former Stuart employee and Newark resident, the late Gil Lewis, who recounted the name change to Empire Crafts Corporation was likely brought about by the Federal Trade Commission. FTC regulations required companies using the word “silver” in their company name to actually be in the business of manufacturing silver. Although Empire Crafts Corp. sold vast amounts of silver products, ALL of it was designed by and exclusively made for them, under contract, by Oneida Ltd. of Oneida. New York. Also, the new name better suited the expanding product lines of the company.
Oneida, in fact, played a huge role in the history of Nobility Plate, as well as all of the other silver products sold by C.H. Stuart. A common misconception in printed reference material and on the internet often lists Nobility Plate as an Oneida product and sometimes states Nobility Plate and/or Empire Crafts were controlled by Oneida silversmiths. However, that was far from the case. Many of the products sold by C. H. Stuart were outsourced to nearby manufacturers. ALL of their silver products, which included Nobility Plate, Royal Crest Sterling, Empire Crafts Hollowware, Prestige Plate, and State House Sterling, were manufactured for them by Oneida Ltd. This business partnership was strictly a contractual manufacturer-to-retailer relationship with Oneida NEVER being a controlling factor in their history. This controversy, which is what sparked my initial interest in researching Empire Crafts, is fueled by one simple thing. Reference books often list silver patterns by manufacturer and NOT by retailer. Collectors often assume Oneida Ltd. was the “owner” simply because they were indeed the manufacturer. Research has found that to be a false assumption. The facts are simple. Empire Crafts Corp., with its silver division Nobility Plate, and Oneida Ltd. were two completely separate and independent companies throughout the history of both companies. Nobility Plate was NEVER a part of the Oneida company.
Oneida designers, Grosvenor N. Allen, Mary Parker Fleming, and Lloyd E. Ressegger, created the first new pattern designs for the original Nobility Silver Co. in 1937. Each design was back-stamped or hallmarked with the Nobility Plate name followed by the four crowns. Caprice (1937-1962), Reverie (1937-1962), and Baronet (1937-1939) were the first three patterns introduced in 1937. Caprice and Reverie were both all new designs but Baronet had been previously released by Oneida as Tempo (aka Stoneleigh). As a result, another all-new design was introduced in 1939 and Baronet was discontinued. The new pattern was called Royal Rose (1939-1958). Caprice, Reverie, and Royal Rose were officially patented on March 7, 1939. The earliest documented sales of Nobility Plate dates back to February, 1937. The actual trademarks for the pattern names however were not filed for and patented until 1944. These three patterns were the only designs they sold for the next sixteen years. During this period, Empire Crafts experienced tremendous sales growth partly because of the popularity of the three patterns but mainly due to the success of their at-home sales program known as The Nobility Club.
The Nobility Club was a classic example of C. H. Stuart’s “party plan” direct-sales method. This very unique sales approach was a major part of what made the Stuart companies so successful. The club reached out to American homes through a national sales network and provided opportunities to purchase a piece of the “better life” with its beautifully designed and affordable quality silver products. The club plan itself was quite simple. It used company literature and brochures as the primary source of advertisement. This helped keep costs down and profits high. Additionally, unsalaried housewives and future homemakers were enlisted as sales representatives by word of mouth and paid in premiums, rewards, and commisions. The “Silver Lady,” as they were often called, would visit her friends and neighbors, upon invitation and in the quiet of their home, to display her samples, demonstrate the beauty of owning fine silver, explain the joys of club sponsorship, and most importantly, to convince potential members of purchasing Nobility Plate silver. Customers could purchase “by the piece” or in full sets without actually participating in the Nobility Club program. Sponsored club members, on the other hand, had the option of doubling their place setting purchases, without charge, by sponsoring others into the club plan. For example, if a club member purchased six place settings, they could earn six free additional place settings by getting six other friends to purchase Nobility Plate and be sponsored into the club. In addition to the free silver, occasional premiums and discounts were offered to club members as well. Club literature outlined these nine benefits to membership:
1. Membership of five years
2. The opportunity to earn additional Nobility Plate silver without cost
3. Free entertaining and etiquette consultation with “Miss Margaret Williams”
4. Monthly party planning brochures
5. Creation of a Silver Savings Account with extended time-payment benefits
6. A permanent charge account for the purchase of additional silver
7. Courtesy credit card to aid in establishing other credit accounts
8. Free anti-tarnish place setting rolls for your silver service
9. Additional benefits and privileges that occur during your membership
The mid-1950's brought a variety of changes to the Nobility Club and Nobility Plate starting with the 1955 introduction of a sleek new silver pattern known as Wind Song (1955-1964). Oneida designer Frank R. Perry patented this new design in May, 1957, with the hallmark stamp of just the word Nobility. Perry would later design three additional Nobility patterns, Magic Moment (1958-1974), Polonaise (1961-1974), and their final design, Lady Empire (1963-1974). Empire Crafts silver plated hollowware was introduced as well as Nobility Fine China & Permaware (manufactured by Jackson Vitrified China Co. in Falls Creek, Pennsylvania), Vienna crystal glassware (Libbey-Rock Sharpe in Toledo, Ohio), Nobility Stainless Cookware (Vita-Craft Corp. in Shawnee, Kansas), and eventually Empire Crafts Stainless flatware (Oneida Ltd.) in three patterns, Windward, Brooklea, and Climax. The early success of the new china sales led to the introduction of Princess China, Lady Empire Dinnerware (Jackson Vitrified China Co. and Shenango China in Newcastle, Pennsylvania), and the newly named Nobility-Princess Club. In the early 1960’s, with the new company name Nobility, Inc., sales remained fairly good but as market trends changed and over-expansion proved perhaps unwise, a need for simpler and more cost-effective business practices were in order for the Stuart companies. In 1969, Nobility, Inc. and the other Stuart company selling silver and china, Home Decorator's, Inc., merged to form Nobility-Prestige, Inc. The newly merged company introduced a large line of home decorative items that proved very unsuccessful. With the success of large retail sales malls, discount stores, foreign competition, and this major change in product focus, Nobility-Prestige sales continued to drop eventually leading to the company's demise in 1974.
C. H. Stuart & Co., Inc., known for their high quality products, fair dealings with salespersons and customers, and of course their very successful at-home sales programs, continued to be a thriving privately owned corporation into the mid-1980’s. Throughout its history, over 30 company businesses were established selling a wide variety of products and services including nursery stock, spices and flavorings, liniments and home remedies, cosmetics and perfumes, sterling and plated flatware, fine china and melamine dishes, packing and packaging, distributorships, home furnishings and décor, boats, and several lines of jewelry. It was their jewelry businesses that proved most successful in the end. Emmons and Sarah Coventry Jewelry were sold worldwide and both extremely popular. Sadly though, with the sale of Sarah Coventry Jewelry in 1986, the closure of their last surviving company ended the Stuart family saga. The history and products of this fascinating and prolific company will be remembered and cherished f or decades to come. Over forty years later we are still amazed at the vastness, quality, and beauty of Nobility silver and all of the products sold by Empire Crafts Corp. and the many divisions of C. H. Stuart of Newark, NY.
Vintage sets of flatware are often considered treasured family heirlooms and typically have sentimental or intrinsic value attached to them. This intrinsic value often gives owners a false sense of worth. Such is the case with vintage sets of Nobility Plate silver plated flatware. However, vintage flatware including Nobility Plate is only worth as much as the market will bear. The sad truth is that today’s market demand for vintage silver plated flatware is quite low. Most people are opting for the more valuable and collectible sterling flatware (if they can afford it) or the more practical and affordable, maintenance-free, stainless flatware. For this reason, the value of vintage silver plated flatware is relatively low. It is that age old issue of supply and demand. Hundreds of thousands of vintage silver plated flatware sets are on the market but not many are buying. It is simply the nature of vintage silver plated flatware these days. As for value, we think that eBay is a good standard for determining current value. Complete sets of Nobility Plate (a service for 12 with approximately 115 pieces in an original chest) ranging from very good to excellent condition usually go for between $75 and $200 on eBay. One might get slightly more in an antique consignment shop but probably not much. Lastly, many people think that the silver content in silver plated flatware makes it valuable or that it could be melted down for the silver value. However, one has to know that silver plated flatware is made primarily of a metal alloy (brass, tin, and copper mix) with only a tiny, almost microscopic, coating of silver. Melting it down to “save” the silver is cost prohibitive and much more than the silver content will return. Our recommendation will always be, if your set of Nobility Plate is worth more to you than market value, please do not sell it. Create a new family heirloom that will be appreciated by generations to come by keeping it, polishing it up, and using it.
We would like to add a final observation regarding online pricing. We frequently see sets of Nobility Plate for sale on eBay or Etsy and the like with extremely high-dollar asking prices. These listings often base their sale price on what they have seen or read from online websites that specialize in replacement services such as Replacements.com. These websites provide a unique service to those seeking to replace a missing or damaged piece or two. They get top dollar for those pieces because most people who are looking to replace that missing or damaged piece are usually willing to pay the price regardless of how high it may be. However, the pricing on these websites are generally considerably higher than the actual market value for those same pieces sold elsewhere. It is like buying auto parts at your local new car dealer. The dealer prices are extremely high and the sum total of parts to “replace” or rebuild a car is several times the actual value of the car. In other words, the value of the car is based on market value and not based on what it cost to replace the parts. The same thing applies to Nobility Plate pieces and sets. Sets of Nobility Plate are only as valuable as the market will bear and not what it cost to replace each piece from a highly-inflated online replacement service.
These tips apply to any silver plated or sterling flatware and holloware pieces.
The History of Nobility Plate: written August, 2009 & revised July, 2018
Website created: February 1, 2018
Last website revision: October 13, 2018
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