For me, the best aspect of this hobby is researching the relics that I unearth detecting. While many are familiar and quickly identified, sometimes I come across a piece that leads down a rabbit hole and I end up learning about some corner of history that I never even considered before that day. This particular crumpled little piece of silver is one such artifact and it brought me to the Brooklyn theater scene in the late 1800's.
But before I could get there, I had to employ one of the more advanced restoration techniques in my arsenal. You see, the relic was impossible to identify as it appeared out of the ground. Crumpled and bent over in several directions I could only see a hint of etched lettering in one corner.
It was clear that the artifact was sterling silver and the detailed scroll work along the edges hinted that it was a high-class item, but restoring a piece like this is more than tricky. When silver is in the ground for long periods of time, the freeze-thaw cycles work harden the metal. If you were to attempt to bend a piece like this back to it's original shape it would form deep cracks and fissures at the joints and very likely snap apart before the metal was made flat. The only way to combat this is to use a process called annealing.
First the piece has to be thoroughly cleaned. The annealing process subjects the object to high heat and any contaminants could discolor or even bond to the metal. Unfortunately the deepest folds prevented this and later on you can see there was some discoloration in those spots. Here's the relic after cleaning and where I started the process:
To anneal the metal, the object has to be heated up to around 2/3 of the melting point which for this was between 840-930°F. First I slowly heated up the relic in an oven to 350°F which is necessary to prevent damage from sudden thermal expansion should I go right to the gas flame. Once it was partially heated up, I held the relic over a gas burner flame until the metal took on a dull pink hue. Then, after a few moments to air cool, the piece was quenched in tap water.
Annealing and then quenching redistributes and eliminates dislocations in the crystal structure of the silver which relieves internal stresses and makes the metal more ductile. There is a limit to this effect however, so the metal can't simply be bent back all the way at once. The best results come from slowly bending the metal a millimeter or so at a time and then repeating the process over.
The above image is after about seven annealing cycles. Now it's starting to take the original shape and more of the lettering is visible. It's also become apparent that it wasn't originally flat, but had a convex shape. Unfortunately this makes some of the creases extremely difficult to work out since I can't use a rolling technique.
To completely unfold it took about 20 annealing stages. At the end it was allowed to air cool which hardens the silver and helps it maintain its shape so it won't be accidentally bent through later handling. Light buffing took off some of the discoloration from the heating process and the final result made the writing clearly legible:
The writing is "Walter Sinn, Park Theatre." The edge etching are absolutely stunning and it's clear that a lot of skilled craftsmanship went into making it. Initially I was thinking maybe this was a souvenir, but a quick search turned up a treasure trove of information and I'm now convinced that this was a personal item. As it turns out Walter Sinn and his father Colonel William Sinn were famous theater managers in Brooklyn NY around the end of the 19th century. There are dozens of newspaper articles about the plays and performances they organized and their success in the field. Colonel William Sinn took over the Park Theater in 1875 and turned what was at the time a failing theater into a thriving enterprise. He soon brought his son onboard and they managed the theater for 20 years; ending only because they were given management of a brand new stage, the Montauk Theater. I actually found a promotional pamphlet written about the Montauk Theater in 1895 that had a surprisingly detailed biography on Walter Sinn:
"Walter L. Sinn, the junior manager of the Montauk Theater, was born at Baltimore Md. He came to Brooklyn with his father when quite young, and for five years he studied at the Polytechnic. About fifteen years ago he was taken into his father’s office, fresh from his school books, but with a mind suited to the patience-wearing twists of business such as is rarely met in a youth of his age. His first work was in the advertising department. There there are scores of snags to disable the best man that ever coaxed a “notice” out of a newspaper or juggled the good nature of the best intentioned man for window space wherin to hang a lithograph.
From this he was assigned to look after the slipper advance agent-the excellent young man who would just as soon cut his tongue out as tell a lie in the ordinary relations of life, but who would outdo Annanias to wheedle an “advance” of fifty or more dollars out of a local manager, or to get to the next town in a palace car without paying a sou. Advance agents are a different class of men nowadays. Mr. Walter Sinn was next ahead of a company himself. He was agent for John E. Owens, the great comedian, whose memory remains evergreen in the hearts of his Yankee countrymen. He next went on the road with “Our Girls,” a success from Wallack’s Theater, in New York. Thus he acquired a knowledge of elementary branches of the theatrical business seldom placed within reach of any one man. This, however, was more due to the versatility of his temperament and inclination than to any favorable assistance thrown his way. It was his father’s favorite saying that his son should learn the business from the bottom and go up. “You can’t perch on the top round of the ladder and expect somebody to hold you there. You’ve got to learn how to fly,” he used to say to him. In this way the son in a few years became one of the ablest theatrical managers in the country. Four years ago his father took him in partnership.
Mr. Walter L. Sinn’s experience includes the building and remodeling of theaters. When the Park was rebuilt in 1890 it was he who had the general supervision of the work, his father going to Europe. In the case of the Montauk his artistic taste has proven of valuable aid in the selection of decorations, and especially in harmonizing the colors of the various trimmings, hangings, carpets, etc. He has also superintended the construction of the stage, its equipment with scenery and other appurtenances, the planning and building of the electrical plant, and the choice and arrangement of the lights and fixtures. To do this he has remained all summer in Brooklyn and denied himself a vacation.
As junior member of the Sinn combination he has entire charge of the firm’s business, his father merely advising. His duties are arduous. He looks after the advertising and the printing, the stage, the press, oversees the bookkeeping, attends to the correspondence and assists in booking attractions. No business conference is complete without him, and no contracts are closed without his sanction. In fact, father and son work very harmoniously together, consulting each other on every matter touching their theater; there is a strong affection between them, more like that of companions already bound by the steel links of paternal and filial love without its sometime restraint.
The younger Sinn is known from one end of the city to the other by business and professional men. He is Past Exalted Ruler of the Brooklyn Lodge of Elks, and a member of the Grand Lodge of that order; he has also taken all but one of the thirty-three degrees of Free Masonry, is a member of the Polytechnic Reunion and several prominent social clubs. His friends are many and steadfast; he is genial, and he is a bachelor."
---- Col. Sinn's Montauk Theater: A Description of Brooklyn's Latest and Handsomest Theater, c. 1895
The Park Theater no longer exists, having burned down in 1908. The blaze is believed to have been caused by faulty wiring and numerous newspapers covered the enormous fire that resulted. Several nearby building were also threatened, but ultimately saved when the fire was finally extinguished. However nothing was left of the Park Theater but the outer walls.
After the Sinn's move to the Montauk Theater the newspaper articles ceased, but I was eventually able to find that Walter Sinn died suddenly in 1896 and his father a few years later in 1899. A sad and abrupt end, but their work at the Park Theater was their legacy and it seems to have been without equal.
Since I found this artifact well away from New York City and the fact that Walter Sinn wouldn't have had any opportunity to live at this particular homestead; it seems likely that he lost this item during his travels and it was found by a local. One of the other sterling pieces I found was a thin and ornately engraved strip of silver which matches the pattern and would have originally been around the edge possibly indicating that this was a case or compact of some sort.
I like to think that this was a gift from the elder Sinn upon his son being made a partner in the theater, but it's impossible to say for sure. Without a doubt this was custom made for Walter Sinn and was probably a cherished item he carried around on his person. Just the sheer volume of history that this thin little piece of silver brought up was astounding and I don't think I could hope to find a more incredible and tangible link to someone from that corner of time.
Truly a once in a lifetime find.
Max Cane is an avid detectorist and historian specializing in 18th century sites, but exploring all sorts of historical structures. At both ruins and existing homesteads he recovers, preserves, and researches the artifacts that settlers lost long ago.
Lost homesteads and structures are all around us and virtually every section of woodland I investigate has at least one hidden amongst the trees. I'm continually amazed by just how many there are waiting to be found and the history that they represent.
If you would like to read more, I have many previous articles in my archive! Click the below link to browse through them: