Silver Making the Urn
Silversmith Joseph Lownes of Philadelphia crafted this sugar urn around 1800, the year the United States Congress held its first session in Washington, DC. Most early American silver was made from older silver objects that had been melted and repurposed. Between 1550 and 1800, the majority of new silver ore came from Spanish-run mines located in Central and South America.
The mining industry devastated the regions in which silver was discovered. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, about 150,000 square miles of forests in Central and South America were cleared to fuel the silver extraction and refining process. Mercury, which was added to silver to separate it from ore, sickened workers and animals, poisoned soil, and contributed to toxic clouds and trash heaps that pervaded Potosí, a city in modern-day Bolivia and the site of the renowned Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”), by far the largest colonial silver mine. African slaves, wage laborers, and indigenous peoples conscripted into forced labor worked long hours in dangerous conditions in mines such as the one pictured, helping earn the site another, more sinister name: the “mountain that eats men.”