Gilded treasures belonging to university founder Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping and railroad magnate and one of the wealthiest Americans of the 19th century, are among the items featured in All That Glitters: Silver and Gold at Vanderbilt, currently on display at the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives.
Known as “the Commodore,” Vanderbilt made the $1 million gift that founded Vanderbilt University in the spring of 1873.
The exhibit includes the Congressional Gold Medal that Vanderbilt received from the U.S. government in 1864 for donating his largest steamship, the Vanderbilt, to the Union Navy during the Civil War. Also featured is a miniature house crafted in 24-karat gold—a gift from his first wife, Sophia—and an intricately carved solid gold cigar case given to Vanderbilt by a grateful stockholder. Sterling silver pieces that belonged to the Vanderbilt family made by silversmiths of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries also are on display.
Curated by Molly Dohrmann, former manager of public services for Special Collections, All That Glitters explores how artisans working in precious metals express significance in their works through embellishment. The items in this exhibit were designed in silver and gold and selected because they memorialize events of singular importance.
The 23-karat gold Nobel Prize awarded to Dr. Earl Sutherland Jr. is included. Sutherland won the Nobel Prize in Physics or Medicine in 1971 for his discoveries regarding the mechanics of hormonal action. He was a professor of anatomy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and conducted research at the university from 1963 to 1973.
Other unique treasures featured in the exhibit are a silver charm bracelet worn by a succession of Lady of the Bracelet recipients; this honor was bestowed upon a Vanderbilt senior in recognition of her service and leadership in a tradition dating from the late 1920s to the mid-1970s. An 1861 silver half dollar discovered when the Kirkland Hall time capsule was opened in 2023 is also included.
“It’s not often these rare items are exhibited, but in a year of Sesquicentennial celebrations, we are delighted to put on display these beautiful and historic artifacts from the vaults of Vanderbilt University,” University Archivist Kathleen Smith said.
All That Glitters: Silver and Gold at Vanderbilt is on display through June 30, 2024, at Special Collections and University Archives, 1101 19th Ave. S. The exhibit is free. Viewing hours are Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.