Ask McGehee

James Conning was a New York-born jeweler who had established himself on Dauphin Street in the 1840s. Early advertisements assured customers of a “large and elegant assortment of watches, jewelry and silverware – warranted good, or no sale, ” while also promising “all the new and fashionable styles.”

Just how much of Conning’s silverware was made locally has been the subject of much study and debate over the years. Research indicates that Conning – like countless other jewelers around the South – imported ready-made silver pieces from New York, and then stamped each with his mark as the retailer, not as its creator. His shop would have handled custom engraving and special orders.

Historian Edward Patillo found “no indication that antebellum Alabamians believed their silver had been made in local stores. That has been a modern assumption.”

Later ads show Conning offered a wide variety of items besides tea sets and flatware. Newspaper ads stated that here could be found “double barreled shotguns of all sizes and lengths, gilt and silver-plated swords, flutes, accordions, ladies’ gilt card cases, gold pencils, feathered fans and regalia for Odd Fellows (a masonic order).”

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From Goblets to Sabers

Conning began offering military regalia as early as 1845, just in time for the start of the Mexican War. Those headed for conflict could stop in and choose from a selection of swords, buckles and braids for their uniforms.

His array of military items only increased during the following decade, and by 1856 he ran an ad noting the arrival of the latest “sashes, belts, caps, pom-poms, buttons and all the trimmings appertaining to the military.”

With the start of the Civil War, Conning’s supply chain from the north was cut off, and his shop began making swords locally. In June of 1861, he established a sword factory on St. Francis Street, with 14 workmen under the direction of a German metal worker named Jacob Faser. A classified ad that month promised “highest prices paid for shark skin, ” which was needed for sword handles.

Faser is credited with designing a “regulation” sword, which Conning retailed as a field officer’s sword. It was described as every bit as equal to those being used by Northern troops at the time.

A newspaper article published that August stated, “Mr. Conning, finding the jewelry business rather dull these days, has devoted himself energetically to the new enterprise of manufacturing swords.” The reporter described these as “entirely of Mobile manufacture, from the blade to the scabbard, and are not only highly finished but of excellent temper … he is now completing a lot of 150.”

Correspondence from Faser survives in which he exclaimed, “We sell the swords as fast as we can make them.” Despite the booming business, Faser eventually left due to money issues,  and the total number of swords produced by Conning’s factory may never be known. Some Conning swords bear his name, while most were only stamped with a serial number.

When all hostilities ceased, the market for swords dried up. By 1866, Conning’s nephew, William Conning, had joined James in the jewelry business back on Dauphin Street. 

Both partners died in 1871: James in January from pneumonia and William from an unnamed illness aboard a New York-bound train that October. James’ brother-in-law, John Pippen, took the firm under his name.  That business lasted only until 1880 when the owner joined the Connings in Magnolia Cemetery.

Silverware marked by Conning continues to be prized by local collectors (see above left). His swords even more so.

text by Tom McGehee • Photo by Todd Douglas

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