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Antique Silver Terms
Bright-Cut. A type of engraving on metal in which the design is lightly cut so as to produce a reflecting surface. This popular decoration was used by silversmiths in the late eighteenth century, especially on spoons.
Buckles. Shoe and knee buckles were popular in the eighteenth century, and are highly prized by collectors today. Many silversmiths made buckles and they are often found with the marks of prominent makers.
Can. A drinking vessel with a handle, and usually with a rounded bottom and molded base.
Caster. An article resembling a modern pepper and salt shaker, but usually larger. It was first used for sugar, later for salt. Casters were made in various shapes and sizes, often with a finial.
Caudle Cup. A two-handled bowl-like cup, sometimes with a cover. It was used for various beverages but mostly for caudle, a drink of wine or ale, heated, and mixed with bread, sugar, spices, and sometimes eggs.
Chasing. Decoration on the surface of silver made by tools without a cutting edge. In chasing, the metal is displaced by pressure. (Cf. engraving which removes part of the metal with a sharp tool.)
Coffin-End Spoon. A popular type named for its handle which resembled a wooden coffin of about i8oo. Originally these spoons may have been given as gifts to pallbearers, but "funeral" spoons were earlier and more elaborate. The term "coffin-end" probably came from the shape of the handle rather than a connection with funerals.
Cut-Card Work. A decoration of silver cut from a separate piece of metal and applied as a design. Some cut-card work was simple and some intricately pierced and lacelike. Many fine tankards have cut-card decoration at the base.
Engraving. Decoration on the surface of silver made by a sharp tool. This popular type of decoration was used for names, initials, monograms, and cyphers, as well as for floral and conventional motifs. Paul Revere was an expert engraver, but many silversmiths had to have their engraving done by others. (Cf. chasing, which is decoration by pressure and without cutting.)
Flatware. Spoons, knives, and forks. (Cf. hollow ware.)
Hollow Ware. Such silver articles as teapots, coffeepots, pitchers, porringers, and bowls. (Cf. flatware, spoons, knives, and forks.)
Mark. An insignia on silver by which makers are identified. Names, initials, or such devices as a heart were used.
Mug. A drinking vessel resembling a tankard but usually smaller. It may have a cover. Mugs, cups, and cans are all drinking vessels with handles and the terms are interchanged. Perhaps the most popular name today for any small drinking vessel with a handle is "mug."
Porringer. A dish used for various solid foods and also for liquids. This was one of the most useful articles ever made by the early silversmiths. Almost every Colonial household had a porringer of pewter if not of silver. Porringers were given to brides and babies as gifts and were cherished and passed down in families. They are often mentioned in old wills, showing how important they were. Most of the early silversmiths made porringers and, because they were popular over such a long period, it is still possible to buy interesting silver ones with good marks.
Posset. A beverage made from curdled milk mixed with hot wine or ale, spices, and small pieces of bread or oaten cakes. It was often drunk from a caudle cup.
Rattail Spoon. So called for the narrow raised silver piece at the back of the bowl. The device may have been used to give strength. Many silversmiths employed the rattail motif decoratively in finely wrought designs.
Repousse. Relief decoration usually on thin silver, the design being raised by hammering from the inside. Many of the earliest two handled cups have repousse decoration on the lower part.
Spoon. A utensil of great antiquity, possibly first made of shells, horn, or wood. The earliest American type is known today as the Puritan spoon although it was not so called when it was first made. It is rather crude with a large rounded bowl and a straight handle, thin and rather long. It is not beautiful as are later spoons but prized for rarity.
Sterling. A type of modern silver that is 925 parts fine. Pure silver is i,ooo parts fine and too soft for general use. The word "sterling" is believed to have originated with a German tribe called Easterling, famous for the purity of its silver in the Middle Ages. Sterling was the standard for English silver, but American smiths had no laws to compel them to make silver of this standard. However, most of them were honest and tried to make high quality silver to compete with that of English contemporaries. About 1865 a law was passed requiring all silver to be stamped Sterling, if it was 925 parts fine; otherwise it could not bear the stamp. At that time there was so much plated silver being made that it was necessary to use the stamp to distinguish the two types.
Tankard. A drinking vessel with handle and lid and having a thumbpiece to facilitate the raising of the cover. Most tankards are large but some rare small ones have been found which are believed to have been made for women or children. Designs varied with locality and silversmith.
Thumbpiece. A decorative device to raise the lid of a tankard. It was simple or elaborate and often with an unusual motif-animal or bird, even the eagle. The study of the designs of thumbpieces is endless and fascinating.
Trifid-End Spoon. An early type of spoon with two notches or indentations at the tip of the handle. This was not popular over a long period because the notches wore down and caught in linen as they were sharp. This style was followed by the rounded handle.