IT is impossible to maintain that any one form of collecting is
better than any other-that it is more absorbing to the devotee, or seems
less foolish to the scoffer. There are certain elements in the collecting
of old silver, however, which differentiate it from all other forms of
Old silver is intrinsically valuable for its metal alone, and
intrinsically beautiful in its workmanship. Furthermore, the collecting of
old silver, because of the system of hall-marks, which will be explained
later, may be reduced more nearly to an exact science than any other
form of collecting.
In old furniture we look for style, age, and material, and in
Georgian furniture for the maker; in old blue china the salient points are
maker and pictorial subject; in silver we seek for the year of
manufacture, style, and history, but, above all, for the individual beauty and
usefulness of the piece. The value of old silver is real value.
The collection of old silver has been wide-spread for many years,
but its popularity is increasing rapidly, and whether as a fad or a
serious business, it is yearly gaining devotees who cannot be appealed to by
any. other form of collecting.
In no other line can the collector afford to be more conservative.
Not a single thing need be accepted merely because it is old; there are
enough things that are both useful and beautiful to be had, and the old
silver collection need not be large or comprehensive' to be
There have been silversmiths and silverware for so long that there
is silver in existence representing practically every period of history
back to the deluge. The amateur collector might as well recognize first
as last the immensity of the field he is starting out to delve in, and
decide to work one corner of it thoroughly.
As a matter of fact, leaving out of consideration for the time being
those enthusiasts who possess a personal hobby and recognize no other,
the average householder in America to-day, if he is interested in such
matters at all, is interested chiefly in the French, American, and
English ware. I am told by dealers that old French silverware is becoming
extremely popular for decorative purposes, and the ornate
beauty and fine craftsmanship of some of this French silverware more
than justify this popularity.
Americans would naturally be interested in American ware first, then
English ware. The American ware should be the more interesting
historically, except that the fascination of hall-marks is absent from it.One
cannot determine the exact year of its make, though the maker's name is
often given and serves as a clue. The American ware, moreover, is not
as artistic in form nor as fine in workmanship as the English ware. It
forms, nevertheless, an extremely interesting study, and considerable
new light has of late been shed on it.
This interest was manifest at an exhibition of American silverware
held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1906. The pieces shown
there were nearly all patterned more or less closely after the
contemporaneous English styles. Only a few showed distinct Dutch influence.
The earliest American silversmith of note was John Hull of Boston.
His partner was Robert Sanderson. They used a mark formed of their
fnitials as early as 1659. Another early silversmith was Jeremiah Drummer,
their apprentice. Another whose work was noteworthy was John Cony, who
was followed by a number of others during the eighteenth century, whose
work is well worth the study of such collectors as care to confine
themselves to a somewhat restricted field.
This discussion, however, will be confined chiefly to old British
ware. It was English silver and Sheffield plate which graced most of the
sideboards and cupboards of our great-grandmothers. Furthermore, while
the French silversmiths made use of a hallmark system similar to that
of the English, it was not as accurate nor as comprehensive, and the
historic classification of French silver is often difficult. It is the
English hall-mark and date system that, to me at least, makes the study of
English silverware so unusually interesting.
It is not my intention to be arbitrary. All silver is good silver,
but I think the average collector will do well to confine himself to
narrow limits, although those limits do not necessarily have to.be the
ones I choose.
Confining ourselves to English ware, then, we find several kinds:
ecclesiastical silver, college and corporation plate, purely ornamental
silver, and domestic ware. This last offers by far the best field for
the average collector. But from the beginning up to the present, many,
many styles of silver have been brought out, and one simply cannot hope
to come close to them all. To my mind, the English domestic silverware
dating from 1700 to 1850 includes all that one man can hope to know much
about or possess much of.
Now just what sort of silver was made during this time? How can you
tell a piece when you see it? And what is it worth when you possess
To begin with, there are as many different styles of silversmithing
and ornamentation as there are decorative periods in the history of
art. To know something of these styles is a prime requisite in determining
when and where a piece of silver was made. There is French silverware
strikingly typical of the Renaissance, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI,
and Empire styles, and all the rest of them, corresponding to the
contemporary styles in architecture, furniture, and decoration. So in England
there is the Jacobean, the Queen Anne, and the Georgian.
To be very brief, the eighteenth century marked the highest
development of the silversmith's art in England. The work of this century far
exceeds that of all others in variety and beauty.During this century
came the Georgian period-a period of stately houses and wonderful mahogany
furniture. It has always seemed to me as though the Renaissance spirit
had gotten its second wind about the time of the Louis in France and the Georges in England. Every imaginable kind of
tableware was manufactured in silver, and the grade was kept uniform by
An English author has divided the century into three periods. First,
the Queen Anne period from 1702 to 1714. The silver at this time was
rather massive than graceful, though the forms were good, and there was
little ornament. Second, the Larnerie period, from 1714 to 1727, named
from a famous silversmith. Silver pieces improved in form and took on
more ornamentation, until finally they became almost florid. In a
general way, this was the rococo period, which in France culminated in the
reign of Louis XV. Then followed the Classical or Georgian period proper,
from the early part of George the Third's reign to the opening years of
the nineteenth century. As was the case with furniture and
architecture, the style in silverware became Greco-Roman in type-Roman in France
and Greek in England, with a slightly modified style appearing in
America, which we know as Colonial. It is this Classic type of Georgian which
is perhaps the finest of all.
A study of the decorative styles in the silver of this period would
be well worth while; I have merely hinted at the bare outline of such a
study. As the styles changed constantly, though sometimes very
gradually, they indicate pretty distinctly the age of a piece of silver or
But the most exact method of telling the age of a piece of British
silverware is by the hall-marks. Indeed, this system has made the
identification of English silverware more accurate and complete than of
almost any other class of art objects. For record has been kept at the
Goldsmiths' Hall, London, for five centuries, of all annual date-letters and
of the registered silversmiths and their private marks.
Every mark on your old silver means something, and if you care to be
sure about its age or maker, a study of these marks and the system is
There are several authoritative books on the subject. In the limited
space of a single chapter I can give only a general idea of the system,
and must leave out much that would be helpful and interesting.
In 1337 King Edward III granted a charter to the Goldsmiths' Guild.
During the reign of Edward IV the Goldsmiths' Company of London, as it
came to be known, invented and put into practice an alpha betical
system of marks, changing each year. There were similar codes in the
provincial. assay offices. This system is one of the few bequests of the
Middle Ages which have stood the test of time practically without change. By
the provisions of this system we have not only a lasting index by which
to judge the age of gold and silver, but we have a guaranty of
genuineness and standard metal, for these marks were officially supervised and
the laws were strict.