M. Swift & Sons: Tradition vs. Economics and the Craft of the Gold Beater

© Amanda Quinby

In February Matthew Allen Swift celebrated his one hundredth birthday. A remarkable achievement in itself, what is even more noteworthy is that Mr. Swift is the still active owner and president of M. Swift & Sons, a gold leaf and foil manufacturer in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1864 Mr. Swift’s grandfather, the first Matthew Swift, emigrated to this country from England. He came from a family of gold beaters and brought his skills to Hartford because, according to his grandson, he knew he could find work there. The city had a thriving gold beating industry and, in fact, the still extant though much changed Gold Street was named for its concentration of gold workers. But the industrial cities of New England in general supported the craft and other members of the Swift family found work in Springfield and Providence.

In 1887 the first Matthew Swift started his own gold leaf manufacturing company on Love Lane in Hartford. The company is still located there as is the original white clapboard building in which the intrepid entrepreneur both lived and worked during the company’s infancy. The current Matthew began working in the business in 1915. After finishing high school in 1921 he joined the company full time and has continued the family tradition of working with gold for over eighty years. Not only as an executive or chief administrator, Mr. Swift was active in the company as a worker, the last of his line to practice the rapidly disappearing art of beating gold by hand. In 1928 a new plant was built at 10 Love Lane and at that time gold beating machines began to be incorporated into the manufacturing process, gradually replacing the practiced artisans of earlier centuries.

While the process has become automated the essential technique of producing precious metal leaf remains constant. As Mr. Swift described it, “now, or two thousand years ago, it hasn’t changed.” Or even three thousand years. In 1978 Mr. Swift toured King Tutankhamen’s tomb. He described a 14th century B.C. hieroglyph depicting a gold beater using a large stone to flatten the gold. Today that Egyptian image is found on the logo for the American Society of Gilders. It connotes both the antiquity of the gilding craft as well as its unchanging traditions. The Swift Company has preserved their pre-mechanized leaf manufacturing room, creating a sort of private museum for the preservation of the tools and techniques of gold beating.

Gold leaf is an amazingly fragile substance. It disintegrates at the touch of a human hand and special squirrel hair brushes, known as gilders tips, are used to transfer the leaf from gilders pad to project. It is the malleability of the metal that allows the creation of such thin sheets of what is essentially very thin foil. The process practiced by M. Swift and Company are basic to the industry but, as Mr. Swift said, “Procedures vary in different countries and many gold beaters have their own secret ways of doing the work.” This is part of the allure of the craft.

The first step in the process is to cast the gold into bars – twelve inches long, one and a half inches wide and one quarter inch thick. During the Middle Ages coins were the source of gold and the number of leaves gained from a standard gold coin of a region determined the thickness of the leaf offered. Cennino Cennini, in his early 15th century treatise, Il Libro dell’ Arte, “The Craftsman’s Handbook,” suggested that a reputable gold beater “ought not to get more than a hundred leaves out of a ducat, whereas they do get a hundred and forty-five.”

Gold coins have long been out of common use and the gold used to create Swift’s twelve inch bars now comes from a variety of sources including mines as well as the federal government. The gold is then put through a rolling machine to create a ribbon of the same width as the original bar but compressed to 1/1000” thick and over 300 feet long. The ribbon is cut into squares and placed between skins or in the present day, acetate. The 12th century German artisan monk, Theophilus, specified “Byzantine parchment . . . four fingers wide and equally long,” dusted with red ocher and burnished to prevent the leaf from sticking to the layers. The powder now applied to the skins is called “brime,” made primarily of finely powdered calcium carbonate and is traditionally dusted onto the skins with a hare’s foot.

A stack of these layers of gold and skins creates what is called a “cutch”. Machine beating may allow for over one thousand layers per cutch but hand beaten cutches were generally less than three hundred layers. The layers are bound in parchment to prevent excessive movement and beaten with a heavy, convex faced mallet until the leaves of gold have spread to the edges of the cutch. The mallet used for this first beating is around sixteen pounds. Though heavy, Mr. Swift described the technique of using his wrist and allowing the hammer to bounce a bit so that the beater does not experience its full dead weight with every swing.

For Theophilus this was enough and though he does acknowledge the need to decide “whether you want to make the gold completely thin or moderately thick,” he makes no reference to further beating. But precious metal leaf has become progressively thinner through the ages and, as Cennino’s gilding material was thinner than Theophilus’s, so too is contemporary leaf thinner than that of quatrocento Italy.

After the first beating the gold, now approximately four inches square, is quartered and placed into a “shoder”. Though the term is different the materials and process are the same as for the cutch. The beating is repeated, this time with a slightly lighter mallet of around ten pounds, again until the gold leaf has gained the size of the skins. It is quartered once more and placed in a “mold”. This is the final beating and the mallet used at this point has been lightened to about six pounds. The leaf is then removed from the mold and cut to size, traditionally 3 3/8 inches square. The tool used to cut the leaf is called a waggon, a tool that looks like a miniature sled with sharpened reed runners. Finally, the now nearly transparent gold is placed between sheets of tissue in books of twenty five leaves of gold per book.

During the beating process the leaf is transferred from cutch to shoder to mold to book using long wooden tweezers called pinchers or tongs. The presence of oil and moisture on human skin causes the leaf to adhere to fingers thus necessitating the use of the pinchers. A gilder can take advantage of that oil, especially during dry weather when the leaf refuses to cling to the gilder’s tip. Brushing the tip lightly over the face usually picks up enough oil to coax the leaf into compliance but during the leaf production process pinchers are essential to prevent damage to the fragile leaf.

While the creation of gold leaf is not an especially complex process and automation has allowed for decreased reliance on human labor, the number of commercial gold beaters in this country has now been reduced to two. Some former leaf manufacturers have shifted their focus to other gold products such as dental gold. But the decline of the gold beating industry is due less to labor concerns than it is to a confluence of economic, technological, and social forces beginning during the Depression.

In the early 1920s gold sold for $20.71 an ounce. The pressures of the Depression prompted President Roosevelt to raise the price of gold to over thirty dollars per ounce. This was the first in a series of government decisions that induced the price of the precious metal to rise to prohibitive heights. Until the 1970s the value of the U.S. dollar was linked to the gold standard. During the Nixon administration that linked was severed. The price of gold immediately soared, eventually peaking at over $800 dollars an ounce during the Reagan years.

Typically associated with wealth, gold was also used for a range of common purposes from titling grade school textbooks to lettering the sides of railroad cars. At one time Swift gold was used for the huge lettering on thousands of rail cars as well as the relatively diminutive titles on millions of text books. As the price of gold rose, industry and artisans, mass producers and craftsmen were forced to seek alternatives to the now very precious material.

Coupled with the increasingly prohibitive cost of gold was a change in aesthetic values in society at large. Technology and the machine began to influence style and design choices. An excellent example of how this trend influenced the use of gold leaf is in the sign industry. Neon, chrome and electrically illuminated plastic are now standard methods of commercial signage. These materials have effectively replaced gold on glass and the gilded lettering associated with turn of the nineteenth century and earlier public advertising.

While the economic pressures combined with changes in public taste combined to exert enormous pressures on the company, Mr. Swift’s response to the question of how M. Swift and Sons managed to survive and prosper was simple. “We just didn’t want to give up,” he said. And there are some things for which there is no substitute for gold. There is a beauty, a soft luster to the metal that has yet to be matched by any imitations, no matter how technologically advanced. Because it is non-reactive to just about everything, there is also a durability factor that is often taken into consideration when selecting materials for some projects. Gold remains the material of choice for building domes. Swift gold leaf is found on state capitols from Denver to New England, including Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Finally, aesthetic trends are ever mercurial. Post-modernism in art and architecture has encouraged a return to traditional materials; sometimes used in new ways or combined with modern materials. But the need for gold leaf no longer seems in danger of imminent demise. Crafts such as book binding and gilded picture framing have undergone a renaissance in recent years and it seems likely that Mr. Swift and his company will continue to meet the demand for gold leaf even as the craft of the gold beater evolves in the 21st century.