Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Antiques And Arts News Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Silverware



Before there was any banking system of much account in this country, silverware was regarded as a good investment. From the West Indies and other trade routes Spanish dollars poured into the seaports and river ports of New England, and when a person had acquired a store of this coinage he was apt to take it to the local silversmith to be fashioned into porringers, tankards, teapots, or other articles that were at once useful and beautiful. Everybody tried to build up a silver collection, because if worse came to worst, it could be easily converted into cash. During hard times and wartimes a lot of fine old silver was melted down. It was also done when the owner wished to have more up-to-date pieces of silverware to display on his sideboard.

In working silver dollars into different articles, the silversmith first melted them in a crucible and cast the silver in solid pieces by pouring it into iron molds. Then, after forging the plates on an anvil while not quite red hot, he reduced them still further and to a uniform thickness by passing them several times through steel rollers. Pure silver, which is rooo parts fine, is too soft for everyday use, but coin silver is only goo parts fine, and can be worked into durable silverware; though it should be noted that it is not up to the present-day sterling standard, which is 925 parts pure silver, to which copper is commonly added to impart stiffness and wearability. The sterling standard has been fixed for many years by federal law and never varies.

The silversmith had four ways of working his metal -by hammering, stamping, casting, and spinning. The method used depended on the type of article to be made. He had to decide which one was best for the particular job from the standpoint of durability and beauty. In making a piece of hollow ware composed of several parts, he might use different methods for the different pieces. He had to be not only a highly skilled craftsman, but an artist besides.

In making a plain teapot, for example, there were many things to be considered and many steps to be taken. In the first place, the silversmith had to decide what form it should take, choosing a design that would permit the tea to brew properly. The spout had to be shaped so the liquid would pour easily, and care had to be taken not to place it so low down that the tea would rise in it and spill. The teapot also had to be made to allow easy cleaning and have strength and balance.

With all these considerations in mind, the silversmith formed the body first by cutting the plate in a circular form, placing it on a block of soft wood with a con cave face, and beating it with a convex hammer until it had been brought to a form much like that of a saucer. He then placed it on an anvil and beat it a while with a long-necked hammer with a flattish face. He next raised it to the proposed form by forging it on a long slender anvil called a "stick" with a narrow-faced hammer, which spread the metal perpendicularly from the bottom, or laterally, depending on the position in which the hammer was held when it came in contact with the metal. When it had been brought to the desired form it was planished all over by beating the outside with a small hammer while the piece rested on a small steel head inside. During these operations the silver was occasionally annealed by heating it in the charcoal fire, but, except for the first forging, it was wrought while cold.

An ordinary teapot consisted of about fifteen pieces, most of them rolled and forged as described. The knob, the spout, and the handle were either cast or the two parts composing them were cut from the plate and shaped by stamping them with steel dies. The various parts were then soldered together with an alloy composed of about three parts of silver and one of brass and copper. But before the spout and handle were added, the body was polished on a lathe, first with a file, then with a scraper, and afterward with pumice stone. It was next removed from the lathe and held against a rapidly revolving brush charged with fine brick dust and sweet oil. Then, after the handle and spout had been soldered in place, the teapot was annealed and placed in pickle, that is, in a weak solution of oil of vitriol. On removal it was scoured with sand and water and finally burnished with a steel instrument.

All these steps were necessary to make a simple teapot, but in addition the silversmith stood ready to decorate the piece by chasing or engraving. Chasing was done with small tools and punches tapped with a hammer. Flat chasing is impressing the design on flat surfaces, while in repousse chasing the decoration is brought out in high relief by forcing the silver out from the inside and modeling the details from the outside by pressing back parts of the raised surface. Engraving is another form of hand decoration produced by cutting into the surface of the metal with engraving tools. John Singleton Copley's portrait of Paul Revere in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows the youthful silversmith-he was thirty when the picture was painted-sitting at his work table holding a teapot, his engraving tools spread out before him.

It is generally agreed that the silversmiths achieved their best results by hammering the metal, though spinning and stamping silver have been known and practiced since the earliest days of the craft. Spinning is a method of shaping pieces of hollow ware by revolving a flat disk of silver over a wooden or metal form and spreading the silver around it until it assumes the desired shape. Pieces fashioned in this way do not permit the craftsman to impress them with his own individuality as does working with a hammer; it is the difference, albeit a subtle one, between the handwrought and the machine-made article. Besides, as a result of frequent annealings, necessary in the case of handwrought silver to keep it workable and prevent cracking, old plate pre sents a fine white appearance superior to that of modern manufacture. Connoisseurs prefer handwrought silverware.

The silversmiths were versatile men and sometimes carried on other trades, some being clockmakers, bell founders, cabinetmakers, and blacksmiths. Silversmiths were often called "whitesmiths" because they worked in a metal of lighter hue than the blacksmiths did. There was nothing strange in a silversmith being also a blacksmith. It took a lot of strength to hammer out the cold metal in fashioning plate. One cannot help but notice the large, powerful hands of Paul Revere in the Copley portrait just mentioned. Yet occasionally women took it up. Minerva Dexter of Middletown, Connecticut, was a lady silversmith of the eighteenth century. It has been doubted whether she personally worked with hammers, anvils, punches, beak irons, and other tools of the trade, but she may very well have been a brawny creature.

Silver spoons were among the most treasured possessions of the colonial housewife. They were usually the first pieces of silverware she acquired. In the sketch of his life and habits, Boston-born Benjamin Franklin tells a delightful anecdote of his frugal and affectionate wife, who could scarcely have made a prettier apology for indulging in the luxury of purchasing her first piece of silverware.

We have an English proverb [he writes] that says, "He that would thrive, wmst ask his wife." It was lucky for me that I had one as much disposed to industry and frugality as myself. She assisted me cheerfully in my business, folding and stitching pamphlets, tending shop, purchasing old linen rags for the papermakers, etc., etc. We kept no idle servants, our table was plain and simple, our furniture of the cheapest. For instance my breakfast was for a long time bread and milk (no tea), and I ate it out of a twopenny earthen porringer, with a pewter spoon. But mark how luxury will enter families, and make progress, in spite of principle: being call'd one morning to breakfast, I found it in a China bowl, with a spoon of silver! They had been bought for me without my knowledge by my wife, and had cost her the enormous sum of three and-twenty shillings, for which she had no other excuse or apology to make, but that she thought her husband deserv'd a silver spoon and China bowl as well as any of his neighbors. This was the first appearance of plate and China in our house, which afterward, in a course of years, as our wealth increas'd, augmented gradually to several hundred pounds in value.

During the British occupation of Boston, provisions became so scarce during the summer of 1775, and the plundering expeditions sent out by General Gage to procure fresh food were so unsuccessful, that he decided to arrange for the removal of a large number of the inhabitants from the town. Accordingly, notice was given that the names of those who wished to leave would be received, and notwithstanding the restriction that no silverware was to be carried away and no more than five pounds in cash by each person, more than two thousand people handed in their names within two days. But many persons of property who would have been glad to leave were afraid to do so, because they knew the soldiers would take everything they left behind. Of those who departed, many women quilted silver spoons into their garments, and coin was smuggled out of town in the same way.

Collectors often speak of the tiny silver bowls with eared handles holding only a spoonful of liquid as "wine tasters," but George Munson Curtis has pointed out that this is a misnomer, because our ancestors were not wine tasters. They drank from tankards, beakers, and caudle cups. The miniature silver containers were dram cups, so called because they held a dram or spoonful of medicine, and people used them to dose themselves. Dram cups were appraised in colonial inventories at less than spoons. They were made of pewter as well as silver.

During the latter part of the seventeenth century and the early part of the eighteenth the most popular spoon was the rattail, which took its name from a ridge bearing a fancied resemblance to the tail of a rat that extended from the handle halfway down the back of the bowl. Although it appeared to give strength to the spoon, it actually contributed little and was probably used merely as a decorative device. The early rattail spoons had oval bowls and the ends of the handles were notched or trifid. Later the handle tips became round, the bowls egg-shaped. In one form and another the rattailed spoon was popular for a long time.

The drop or double-drop spoon which succeeded it had a conventionalized shell or other design in place of the rattail, and both the handle and the bowl grew more pointed. Another distinctive change occurred in the curve of the handle, which before i76o bent forward a little at the end. This became a backward bend. Ornamenting the bowl and handle, which began about this time, was not done by hand, as some have supposed, but by dies which were impressed upon the metal with hand screws or drop hammers.

The spoon with the coffin-shaped handle, which was in fashion during the first decade of the last century, was followed by the fiddle shape. This last type often had a shoulder just above the bowl. No matter what the ruling style might be, each had its variations, though the silversmiths in making spoons usually adhered to the established sizes.

Pre-Revolutionary spoons generally came in three standard sizes, namely teaspoons, porringer spoons, and tablespoons. The old teaspoon was smaller than the one we are familiar with today. The porringer spoon was not so large as our dessert spoon, and the tablespoon had a shorter handle than its modern namesake.

Silver forks are rare because the colonial silversmiths did not make many. Truth to tell, our ancestors ate with their knives and fingers in a way we would not dream of doing today. In a book published in 1868, the author, in commenting on American social life and domestic manners, says:

Silver forks were first brought into general use about twenty-five or thirty years ago. Those previously used were the common three-pronged steel forks, or twopronged ones, either of them sufficiently inconvenient for carrying loose food to the mouth. Another improvement, about as old, in table furniture, is the invention of balanced knife handles, the weight in the handle keeping the blade off the table cloth when laid down; a little thing but very promotive of cleanliness.

Mrs. Anstice Updike Lee of Rhode Island was impressed by silverware she saw in Connecticut when she visited the state in 1791- In the spring of that year, accompanied by her brother, she rode to Hartford on horseback, the roads being too muddy for vehicles, and put up at Bull's Tavern, where she was delighted by the fresh Connecticut River salmon. She was asked to tea at the home of Colonel George Wyllys with President Stiles of Yale College.

The mansion I admired; and the manners of the Colonel's family combined urbanity with dignity [Mrs. Lee said later]. The room where we sat was spacious, and there was a greater display of silverware than I had ever seen before. There was a large mahogany table in the parlor, and under it stood a finely-wrought silver chafing-dish, and a silver kettle on it; there was also a large silver tea urn. On the table stood a large silver waiter and a large silver teapot, silver sugar-dish, and silver cream pot. This was surrounded by a richly ornamented set of China service; in unison with that were elegant chairs, carpets, and mirrors. It was impressive evidence of an ancient family of wealth.

The eighteenth century was a far more luxurious period than the preceding century and to meet the requirements of the times the later silversmiths made a much wider variety of articles than their predecessors, whose work was limited to a comparatively few objects, such as tankards, flagons, mugs, caudle cups, beakers, and porringers. Among the things made by the later craftsmen were snuffboxes and patch boxes, candlesticks and candle snuffers, shoe buckles and knee buckles, salt cellars and pepper shakers, cruets and trays, sugar tongs and nutmeg graters, saucepans and sauce boats, cream pitchers and basins, hatbands and thimbles, inkstands and sword hilts. Gold objects included buttons, rings, hair combs, toothpicks, and beads. Trinkets for feminine use in gold and silver were standbys of the trade.

The majority of silversmiths, particularly those in the small towns, kept very few ready-made articles other than spoons and gold beads on hand in their shops. Silverware represented hard cash, to say nothing of the work that went into making it, and many silversmiths simply did not have the money to tie up in manufactured stock. Almost everything was made to order. As the silversmiths in the large and prosperous towns, like Newburyport and Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; and Norwich, Connecticut, got the cream of the trade, the country craftsmen as a rule had to content themselves chiefly with making spoons and jewelry and only occasionally received commissions for making more consequential pieces. It was not that they did not have ability, because after serving a seven years' apprenticeship they had the skill, but because persons of wealth in the small towns were prone to place their orders with the famous silversmiths in the more populous centers. Many a country silversmith had to turn his hand to other things to make a living.

Some of the best work of the early silversmiths went into the fashioning of drinking vessels of one kind or another-beakers, caudle cups, mugs, cans, tankards, and punch bowls. It was an age of potent drink for powerful men, but the inevitable reaction set in, and as a result of the temperance movement during the first half of the nineteenth century a lot of splendid old plate of the finest workmanship was melted down and made over into spoons and other articles of a nonconvivial character. Just how fine the old drinking vessels were may be seen by surviving examples belonging to many New England Churches. It is true that some silverware was made expressly for religious purposes, but much of that which was used had seen domestic service before being donated to the ecclesiastical societies.

The Congregational Society of Norwichtown, Connecticut, has a two-handled cup made by John Dixwell (I68o-I7I5), one of the early Boston silversmiths, who was a son of the regicide judge, Colonel John Dixwell, who lived in New Haven for many years under the name of James Davids. But this is not the only association that gives interest to the cup. It is inscribed THE GIFT OF SARAH KNIGHT TO THE CHH. OF CHRIST IN NoxmcH, 1772. This was Sarah Kemble Knight, Madam Knight, the author of the famous journal of a trip from Boston to New York in I7o4.. She lived for a number of years in Norwich, but is buried in the ancient hillside cemetery in New London, near which Benedict Arnold stood and watched the town burn during the Revolution. From the gray stone marking the grave of this remarkable woman I copied the following brief inscription:

Here Lieth the Body
of Mrs. Sarah Knight
Who died Sept the 25
1727 in the 62d Year
of Her Age

She was survived by her only child, Elizabeth, who, when she died a few years later, left a large amount of silverware, jewelry, and other property. It is quite possible that some of the following items from the inventory of Elizabeth's effects may have been inherited from her mother.

A negro woman, Rose; man, Pompey.
Indian man, named John Nothing.
Silver plate, amounting to 234.
A damask table-cloth, 80s.
Four gold rings; one silver ring; one stoned ring.
A pair of stoned earrings; a stone drop for neck.
A red stone for a locket; two pairs gold buttons.
A diamond ring with five diamonds (prized at 30).

The punch bowl which Paul Revere made for the Sons of Liberty in 1768 is the most valuable piece of colonial silverware in America. When the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired it by public subscription for $56,00o it was stated that the Liberty Bowl would have been worth the money had it been merely a battered relic instead of in almost perfect condition.

Another famous New England punch bowl is the one made for Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire by the Boston silversmith, Daniel Henchman ( 17 3 o-17 7 5), a contemporary of Revere. It belongs to Dartmouth College.

Quite apart from their beauty and charm, it is the historical associations attaching to many old silver pieces that add greatly to their value. In many instances the historic interest is heightened by the important part which the early silversmiths played in the public affairs of their day.

The first New England silversmith of whom there is any record was John Mansfield ( r 6o i-i 674), who arrived in Boston in 1634. No example of his work has been identified, nor is it known whether he trained any apprentices or not, but it is thought likely that he may have taught the art of working in silver to John Hull (1624-1685), who reached Boston the following year. In 164o another English silversmith, Robert Sanderson (16o8-i693), arrived. In 1652 he became the partner of John Hull. That year Hull was appointed mint master of Massachusetts and began coining the famous Pine Tree shillings and sixpences. The arrangement was that Hull should have one shilling out of every twenty for his services, which enabled him at the time of his daughter's marriage to give the girl her weight in shillings. The minting of these coins, the first made in America, was continued by Hull and Sanderson for thirty years.

Jeremiah Dummer (1645-17 18), who achieved prominence as a silversmith, learned his trade under Hull, as did Timothy Dwight ( i 654-i 6q r ), another Boston silversmith. Dummer's brother-in-law, John Coney (1655-1722), was either an apprentice of Hull or of Dummer. Anyway, he was outstanding. One of his apprentices was the father of Paul Revere.

There were scores of silversmiths at work in New England during the eighteenth century. Names well known to collectors are John Burt, John Coburn, Jacob Hurd, John Noyes, John Edwards, and Edward Winslow. All these were Boston silversmiths and most of them had sons to carry on their businesses. Others in other places were William Moulton of Newburyport, Samuel Vernon and Jonathan Otis of Newport, Pygan Adams of New London, and Jacob Sargeant of Hartford.

Perhaps the most remarkable record for longevity in the silver business is that of the Moulton family of Newburyport, who for six generations, covering a span of nearly a century and a quarter, handed on the business from father to son. William Moulton (1664-1732), who founded the business in r6qo, was a black- and whitesmith. Finding a demand for his silverware, he taught his son Joseph the craft, who in turn taught his son William, and so on. There were three Williams and three Josephs in direct line of descent who were silversmiths. Nor did the business die when the Moultons were through. Two apprentices of the last Joseph carried it on. One of these was Anthony Towle, and the Towle Silversmiths are still making silverware in Newburyport today, carrying on the traditions of fine craftsmanship which began with the first Moulton two hundred and sixty years ago.

Paul Revere is, of course, the most celebrated American silversmith. This is not because of his nocturnal ride immortalized by Longfellow, but because he was a genuine artist in silver whose work was not only unsurpassed by his contemporaries, but also measured up to that of the best English craftsmen of the time. It is significant that during World War II the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company of London paid tribute to Paul Revere and his work. Revere's companion on the midnight ride was also a Boston silversmith, William Dawes, who helped to spread the alarm. Revere, in addition to pitchers, punch bowls, teapots, candlesticks, and flagons, made silver dental plates "of real use in Speaking and Eating." He was a versatile man, and eventually gave up silversmithing to become a coppersmith and bell founder, but his greatest work was in silver.

It is only within the last half century or so that collectors have taken any interest in old American silver. Before that, it was generally assumed that practically all the silver to be found here was English, but most of it was actually American. This seems to have been first pointed out by Dr. Theodore W. Wolsey in an article in Harper's Magazine in 1896. Interest was further stimulated by the magnificent exhibition of silverware at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 19o6, which was a revelation to most of those who saw it.

One reason, perhaps, why people had been misled into thinking that there were scarcely any silversmiths in this country was because the craftsmen of the period followed more or less closely the changing fashions in English design. Yet they were not slavish copyists, but adapted the designs to American taste, which demanded simple lines and good proportions. Fortunately, these silversmiths were fancy free and did not try to follow the elaborate and flamboyant ornamentation that was characteristic of some of the silver made abroad in the eighteenth century. Another factor which may have thrown people off the track was the high quality of the workmanship. Apparently people could not believe that such excellent work could be that of provincial silversmiths.

Old silver is identified by the hallmark of the maker. In England it was the official mark of the Goldsmiths' Company which was stamped on gold and silver articles to indicate that the standard of purity set at the Goldsmiths' Hall had been adhered to by the maker. There were no laws in the colonies establishing a standard, perhaps because the silversmiths were men of integrity and standing in their communities, and it was felt that regulations to prevent fraud were unnecessary. The silversmiths proved worthy of the faith that was placed in them. In marking silver they used their names or initials, often with the device they had adopted as a trade-mark. John Coney of Boston used a rabbit, a cony or coney being a rabbit. The word coirr was also sometimes used. It was not until about 1865 that the word STERLING was first employed as a hallmark. It is now required by law and indicates that the metal is up to the government standard for what is often called "solid silver."

It is not surprising that New England, which in the early days produced more silverware than any other part of the country, should still be the center of the trade. The manufacture of sterling is practically confined to Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. In 1917 the New England silversmiths formed a guild, The Sterling Silversmiths Guild of America, with the following companies as members:

The Alvin Corporation, Providence, Rhode Island.
The Gorham Company, Providence, Rhode Island.
International Silver Company, Meriden, Connecticut.
Lunt Silversmiths, Greenfield, Massachusetts.
Reed and Barton, Taunton, Massachusetts.
The Towle Silversmiths, Newburyport, Massachusetts.
R. Wallace & Sons Manufacturing Company, Wallingford, Connecticut.

These companies still make many of the old patterns first used by the colonial silversmiths and now as then New England silverware is a good investment.