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Silver, always a symbol of wealth, was at one time actually that. Having no banks, the people with extra coins took them to a silversmith to be turned into useful household articles. Thus, the money of their day brought not only wealth but utility and beauty into the home. From a silver coin to a spoon was a common transposition.
Silver followed the changes in styles and can be found in many pleasing shapes and forms. Early American silver reflects the lives and times which produced it. Its simplicity of line and graceful forms exhibit a delightful charm.
Surface decoration was in good taste as well as superb workmanship. In making hollow ware the metal was rolled into sheets and beaten with a mallet into the desired shape. The surface decoration, if any, was then added to the article. Ornamentation took several forms: engraving, which consisted of marking with a sharp tool that removed a portion of the surface; chasing, done with tools without a cutting edge by displacing the metal through pressure; repousse, a relief decoration accomplished by hammering instead of by slow pressure, as in chasing; and piercing a pattern.
The word "sterling" began appearing on silver around 1,965 to denote silver up to standard. Some silver before that time was of equal quality, but it was not until the term sterling came into use that the buyer was assured of the exact quality purchased. Pure silver is considered 1000 parts fine, while coin silver is 900 parts fine; sterling silver is made up of 925 parts pure silver and 75 parts copper for strength.
Sheffield plate looked like silver on the surface but actually was a sheet of copper surrounded on both sides with thin sheets of silver. This was the poor man's silverware. Sheffield was made in nearly all the same styles as silver popular at the same time.
The Sheffield that has survived the ravages of time has worn down considerably through constant handling and polishings, often to a point where the copper shows. Once this happens there is nothing that can be done, for it has lost its value and is practically worthless. Some people have worn Sheffield replated by modern means, but of course once this is done it is no longer Sheffield, but just an old article which even lacks patina.
Electroplating was invented about 1840. It became popular immediately because it brought plated silver within the price range of average people. Previous to that time silver was strictly a luxury item.
The plating did not have to be thick, .001 of an inch was sufficient just as long as it was of uniform thickness all over.
Several bases were used for silver plated wares: nickel silver (an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel), copper, and white metal. Often you will find the letters EPN, EPC, or EPWM On the bottom of plated silver indicating which metal was used for the base. Unless Sheffield or plated silver is in EXCELLENT shape it is a poor buy, regardless of the price.
Sterling silver can never be worn away to expose another metal for it is all silver and therefore is a lifetime investment.
If you cannot afford to buy fine old sterling or authenticated coin silver, it might be wiser to purchase sterling reproductions from one of the several firms which have been continuously pro ducing the same good quality over a century or more, than to buy items in which the silver is already worn or wearing off.
In silver, just as in everything else, you should buy the best you can afford, keeping in mind the style, age and condition.
Early silver possesses a soft lustrous color and texture which is unmatched in modern pieces and should never be buffed. The patina acquired by the passing of the years through usage and polishings is best cleaned by the use of any good quality silver polish (the author prefers a paste polish) a soft cloth or celonese sponge, along with some good, old-fashioned "elbow grease." Never use the quick-cleaning methods involving chemicals, for that destroys the oxidation (the black coloring in the fine depressions of the design) and gives a harsh, tinny color to the silver.
The beautiful appearance of fine silver enhances the room in which it is displayed, and improves any meal, no matter how simple. Owning and using silver is well worth the little effort needed keeping it polished.