|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
( Originally Published 1963 )
Household SILVER for many centuries indicated the wealth of a family. It is only since about 1850, when the electroplating process was developed, that flatware for the table and holloware pieces have been priced within the budget of the average family. Nineteenth-century plated silver as well as pieces of Early American and Federal silver are as good as money in the bank today.
Silversmiths found plenty of work to keep them busy at their trade during Colonial days. Their handiwork was not seen in the average household, where similar articles were made of brass, iron, copper, pewter, or wood. However, for those fortunate enough to accumulate silver coins, the silversmith served as a sort of banker and insurance agent too. He melted down the coins, made household articles from them, and identified these pieces with the owner's monogram, crest, or coat of arms. Usually the silversmith's own mark was stamped somewhere too. Colonial newspapers often printed descriptive notices of silver pieces that had been stolen.
Nowadays, knives, forks, and spoons are the first silverware that most families invest in, but in Colonial days it was mugs, beakers, tankards, candlesticks, and other useful household articles. Covered cups, inkstands and snuffer stands, sauce boats, salts, sugar boxes, casters and dredgers, creamers, porringers, bowls and salvers, and teakettles and teapots were other likely pieces. In 1962 the Museum of the City of New York arranged an exhibit of seventeenth-century silver made in New York City. Included was the work of thirteen silversmiths, many of whom had emigrated from Holland. The earliest piece was a communion beaker made in 1678 by Ahasuerus Hendricks. Another beaker made in 1684 was the product of Jurian Blanck, ]r., New York City's first native silversmith. By far the largest part of the exhibit consisted of household silver.
Similar silver pieces were made in all the other prosperous cities and centers of the Colonies and first states. Baltimore and many smaller towns were as well able to support one or more silversmiths as Newport, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In all, hundreds of silversmiths worked in Colonial America. They had learned their trade as apprentices in the countries of their origin-chiefly Holland, France, and England-and they established a similar system of apprenticeship here. Before 1800, more than 150 silversmiths were working in Boston alone. Most famous of all those in Boston was Paul Revere, but he was preceded by Jeremiah Dummer, Edward Winslow, and William Rouse, among others. Some of his competitors were Jacob and Nathaniel Hurd, Daniel Henchman, and William Cowell.
In England, craftsmen's guild rules required silversmiths to stamp their wares with hallmarks that indicated the maker, his town, the year, the reigning monarch, and the sterling quality of the metal. In America, the only mark customarily was that of the maker, either his initials or his last name. And the only guarantee that all of those Spanish silver dollars had been used to make the piece was the silversmith's integrity. His mark was in relief against a depressed oval, shield, rectangle, or some other shape. This practice continued into the early 1800's.
After 1830, either "coin," "pure coin," "dollar," or the letter C or D was usually stamped on the back. Any one of these markings guaranteed that the silverware was made of the quality of coin from the United States Mint900 fine, or 900 parts of pure silver out of 1,000 parts. However, it did not mean, as it would have a century earlier, that coins had been melted down to fashion the silverware.
After 1860, the word "sterling" came into use. When stamped on a piece of silver, it guarantees that the silver is .925 fine.
Silversmiths followed both the styles and decorations that had been current in their native countries. Feet, handles, and certain other parts were cast and then added by soldering.
A piece was often decorated with engraving, which might include both a design and an inscription. Engraving is done only on the outer surface and the inside remains smooth. Piercing is a form of decoration done by cutting a design through the silver. In America it was used most frequently on the handles of porringers and the raised edges of trays and salvers. Repousse or embossing produces a design in relief and is achieved by hammering. Gadrooning is a sort of reeding, notching, or carving of a rounded molding that was much used for borders. Fluting is just the opposite, the grooves being depressed instead of raised. Chasing is somewhat similar to embossing, but is in low relief or depressed. This also was done with hammers and chisels. Cut-card decoration, which was not used as much in America, consisted of a thin layer of silver cut out in an ornamental pattern and added to the piece, for example, around the knob on a cover or around a handle.
Although all of these decorative techniques were used to some extent in this country, silver for the most part was decorated simply. Simple, classic lines and excellent workmanship with minimum decoration were the rule. Instead of the coat of arms or the crest so much used in England and France to identify silver, here an initial or monogram was much more likely.
In Colonial silver, all kinds of candlesticks as well as tapersticks and candelabra, snuffers and snuffer stands, were important. So were drinking utensils, which included beakers (handleless cups), tankards with a handle and hinged cover, mugs, and two-handled candle cups with and without covers. Porringers were not limited to being "porridge dishes" or given primarily to children. This small dish, which is deeper than a plate or saucer and has almost upright sides and a flat bottom, was used for many purposes in Colonial homes. Those made in this country usually have only one handle and no cover.
Silver teapots were made for special customers in New York and in Boston and elsewhere in New England before 1700. By the mid-1700's, tea and coffee were important beverages and called for special equipment to use in preparing and serving them. Teapots were more general in America than coffeepots. Although a chocolate pot now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was made by Edward Winslow, Boston silversmith, in the early 1700's, American-made ones are rare. Both chocolate pots and coffeepots followed the general lines of teapots, but were taller and slimmer.
The first teapots were very small, because tea was both scarce and expensive. They were round or globular. About 1730, pots were still small but rather pear-shaped and with domed tops. Then about 1750 the inverted pear shape became popular, and about 1780 the straight-sided oval pot with a straight spout and simple curved handle became fashionable both in England and America. After 1800, teapots and coffeepots both became much larger. Tea urns with a spigot also appeared.
Not only the first teapots were small but also the first cups and silver teaspoons. They usually were displayed on silver or china trays. Creamers and sugar bowls also were made of silver, and before tea sets or services became general, odd pieces were assembled for tea-drinking occasions. The matching set of teapot, sugar bowl, creamer, sugar tongs, and strainer, with hot water kettle and tray, began to appear in the early 1800's and gradually became popular. These tea services usually included an uncovered bowl called a dregs bowl. Tea caddies were made of china for a good many years, then of wood and other materials, but only rarely of silver.
Among the more interesting pieces of antique silver are small boxes made for tobacco and snuff and containers for condiments. Seventeenth-century salt dishes were the round saltcellar with three applied feet, the larger trencher, and a standing salt that stood 5 inches high and was shaped something like a spool. Trencher salts were oval, rectangular, or round. In the 1800's footed salts became popular and some of these had colored glass linings. Pepper boxes with a cover and handle also were made of silver. Pairs of salt and pepper shakers, however, did not appear until after 1875, and at first were not common in silver.
Casters or dredgers were shakers with pierced tops used to sprinkle sugar, pepper, mustard, spices, and, in fact, any powdered or liquid condiment for the table. They were less likely to hold salt. Casters frequently were made in sets of three, one much taller (approximately 9 inches) than the other two (about 3 inches high). The tops or domes of these casters were pierced in a decorative pattern. In some sets one of the two small casters had only simulated holes. Casters changed shape much as teapots did. That is, early ones were cylindrical. The later octagonal shape eventually was modified to vase shape.
Sugar bowls were small because sugar, like tea, was scarce and expensive. Sugar boxes, usually oval and much decorated, had hinged covers that could be locked. Mustard pots with handles often closely matched dredgers or caster sets.
In the late 1700's small spoons were made for open salt dishes. These ranged from 2 inches long with a bowl 1/2 inch wide, to 3 inches long with a 3/4-inch bowl. Identical spoons with longer handles-5 1/4 inches-and 7/8-inch bowls were made for mustard pots. Spoons were the first pieces of table silver in common use. When tea-drinking became fashionable, fairly small silver spoons called teaspoons were called for. Not that the spoon is not an old implement. It's mentioned in the Bible, and silver or bronze ones were made by the Greeks and the Romans. At various times spoons have been carved from wood, bone, horn, and ivory, and even into the nineteenth century of tin and pewter as well as silver. By the early 1700's in England, well-to-do families set their tables with soup and dessert spoons as well as small teaspoons. Two hundred years of change and development between the 1700's and the 1900's led to the form of the twentiethcentury teaspoon, which is a comfortable one to use. The size and shape of the bowl, the style of the handle, the way the tip of the handle turns, and the placement of the initials, ornamental engraving, or decoration are as important clues to the age of silver spoons as the mark of the silversmith.
Silver spoons were made in America before 1700. In the 1700's and 1800's, teaspoons underwent many changes.
Smaller teaspoons began to appear before 1750, and as a general rule, after 1790, spoons were thin and light. In fact, they were so thin that teethmarks often show on them and the handles may be bent from use. It is not at all uncommon to come across teaspoons made between 1800 and 1860. Some of them, even those made in the early 1800's, will have script initials or a monogram on the back. Because spoons made during this period are so thin and perhaps out of shape, don't think they are tin or pewter. All of them will have the silversmith's name or mark on the underside, usually somewhere along the handle. And after polishing, they will have the unmistakable patina of pure silver.
Many spoons of special design were introduced in England during the Queen Anne period (1702-20), and eventually most of them made their way to this country. These included basting spoons with handles up to 18 inches long, and serving, stuffing, and gravy spoons, which had perforated bowls to strain off unwanted bits of giblets and the like. Marrow scoops were small and narrow. Tea caddy spoons, used to measure the tea that was put into the pot, had bowls in various shapes such as a shell, bird's head, or cap, and stubby handles. Mote spoons were slender with very pointed handles and presumably were used to skin motesleaf particles-from the surface of a cup of tea.
Long-handled forks with two tines were indispensable in the kitchen for cooking chores for centuries before it was considered good manners to use individual forks at the table. In Italy, where forks were first made, people made fun of anyone who used them, and the same thing happened later in other European countries. Paul Revere is said to have fashioned some silver forks in Boston. Most of those made here, and in England before 1800 had two or three tines. It was the early 1800's before the four-tined forks were generally seen and used. In handles and decoration they were similar to spoons.
It was the eighteenth century, too, before individual table knives came into general use. Originally, a knife was as much a weapon as an eating utensil, and had a sharp point. Then, as forks became generally fashionable late in the seventeenth century, knives were made to use with them and the blades were rounded. In the eighteenth century, knife blades were broad, flat, rounded and curved outward at the ends.
The earliest knives and forks had silver handles with the so-called pistol grip. This style was popular in England from the mid-1700's. Chiefly for forks but also to some extent for knives, the shell, thread, and fiddlethread were the decoration for handles during the early 1800's. Named patterns, as they are known today, did not become common until after 1860.
Knives and forks with bone handles and steel blades were widely used during the 1800's. At various times before 1800 and thereafter, ivory, mother-ofpearl, and, occasionally, porcelain handles were fashionable. Mother-of-pearl handles for dinner knives and for fruit knives and forks (the knives had decorative blades) were a Victorian fancy, and are well worth looking for.