Where in the U.S. did the silver from Aspen’s mines end up?
Legends & Legacies
Where did all the silver from Aspen’s mines go? One misconception holds that most went to the mint for coins and for silver bullion to back paper money. But that amount accounts for only a few of the many years of production.
Like my family, yours may display gleaming silver candlesticks, a serving platter engraved for an event, sterling tableware, and other items crafted from silver. During the 1880s and 1890s, items such as these consumed much of the commercial use of silver. You may have noticed their weight, heavy with ounces of silver. They may require gentle rubbing with a soft cloth and some chemical magic to remove the tarnish. But families preferred silver over the iron products of the time for household use. And the more affluent liked to flaunt their silver possessions.
You can trace a progression of time by the weight of silver items. Older items contained more silver, a heavy mineral. During 1899, the Oneida community introduced silver-plated flatware under the name Community Plate. The brand reduced the amount of silver used, but ensured that more families could afford silver for the most ubiquitous utensils.
Silver and gold are malleable, and adhere when pounded into jewelry objects. Their utility adorning fashion items goes back to antiquity. Jewelry constituted the second largest use of Aspen’s silver, measured by the ounce as an Aspen miner would. People preferred gold. But in those days silver cost about one twentieth as much. Silver jewelry pieces likely outnumbered gold in the same ratio, 20-to-one. I do not know the ratio today — likely similar for the same reason — although today’s relative price differential approaches 60-to-one.
One large use of silver combines fashion and practicality in wristwatches. In the mining years pocket watches reigned. A silver case provided practical protection for the glass watch cover. Engraved silver adequately impressed your acquaintances, unless you could afford gold. Like the progress of silverware designs from the 1880s through the 1890s, men’s thick and heavy watchcases could be quite large. Previous generations passed on a collection to me. The watches no longer work, but in my family, silver is supreme. They saved the cases for their silver. As time progressed, silver plating reduced the amount of silver and the weight of the watchcases.
During the early 1900s, the plating process may have reduced the demand for silver to the point where silver would have dropped in price. Aspen’s mines would have lost profitability without producing other minerals such as lead and zinc to meet commercial demands. But the silver-plating process introduced a new customer, photography.
During the early days of photography, the 1860s-1870s, photographers produced daguerreotype, a widely recognized brown-tinged print. Mixed with chemicals, silver responds to light. Copper plates were coated with silver to make prints. Photography did not use much silver, mainly because there were few photographers.
The introduction of film and paper coated with silver halide changed everything. The Eastman Kodak company, founded in 1889, combined that film — first produced by the New Process Film Company — with a marketing strategy that manufactured cameras that nearly everyone could afford.
The Aspen Times described the new product during 1891, “The Kodak rage has at last struck Aspen and the sharp click of the mysterious looking little machine is heard in many quarters and at almost all hours. An Aspen gentleman’s outfit is now considered incomplete unless the little box is added.” During 1899 the newspaper referred to photographers as Kodakers. The fast adoption of the cameras with the additional use of silver ensured Aspen could continue to mine the metal profitably.
Aspen’s miners unearthed a large share of silver. The Silver Queen city’s metal has brightened homelife throughout the U.S.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.