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( Originally Published 1963 )
Silver-gilt was not made to any extent in this country, although some old pieces may be found. (When silver articles are gilded, they are called silver-gilt or vermeil. Technically, vermeil may be silver, bronze, or copper that has been gilded.) Silver sugar bowls sometimes had gilded interiors and the bowls of fancy spoons sometimes were gilded. Table ornaments of vermeil, in particular, were high fashion in France from about 1764 to 1843, and especially during the Empire period. Some vermeil was imported from France and may still be found.
Almost as valuable as solid silver are old pieces of Sheffield plated silver. Sheffield, England, has been a famous center for metal and cutlery since the fourteenth century. The special process named after the town dates back to 1742 when Thomas Boulsover, a cutler, found that silver and copper could be fused by heating, then rolled out into a thin, smooth plate that could be worked as could solid silver. Old Sheffield plate is made from two sheets of silver bonded to one of copper, with the edges bound in silver. The sheets of silver in Sheffield plate are thicker than the covering of silver deposited by electrolysis on modern plated silver.
Articles of Sheffield plate were displayed proudly on sideboards, mantelpieces, and dining tables. The same pieces and the same styles that were used for silver also were produced in Sheffield plate. Candlesticks and candelabra, teapots, tea and coffee services, trays, serving dishes, and tureens were the principal large pieces. Baskets for cake and fruit, cruet stands, and epergnes were handsome and now owned by far more people than when they were made only of silver. Inkstands, small boxes for tobacco and snuff, buckles, and buttons also were used and worn proudly. Buttons were made in tremendous quantity.
Gadrooned edges were as general on Sheffield plate as on silver. Shells and three feathers were common decorative motifs and an initial or a monogram was usual. A few firms are said to have produced quite distinctive pieces that borrowed little from silver ones in design or decoration. All firms were noted for their good workmanship.
The making of Sheffield plate was a thriving industry for about 100 years. Some small amount was made in America, but most of the early Sheffield plate to be found in this country was imported. In the early 1800's, the fusing of silver on copper spread to France, Germany, and elsewhere in central Europe as well as Russia, but the quality is not considered to be as high as that of the Sheffield plate made in England. It's not unusual to find candlesticks or other household pieces of European plate in this country. However, the silver-on-copper ware made in Europe during the nineteenth century seldom seems to be stamped with maker's marks-certainly I have never seen any marks on pieces made in Germany.
During a ten-year period from the 1770's into the 1780's, London silversmiths succeeded in preventing firms that made Sheffield plate from marking their ware. Before the early 1770's and after 1784, identification marks similar to those stamped on silver were used, Some pieces also had the word Sheffield stamped above the hallmark.
In the 1840's, the making of Sheffield plate began to die out. It's interesting that within thirty years or so, in England, antique collectors began acquiring pieces of Sheffield plate. In 1911, action was taken and it was established in court in Sheffield that the term "Sheffield Plate" could be applied only to pieces made by the method of fusing practiced in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Antique Sheffield plate probably represents a lost art. These pieces wear surprisingly well. However, articles with thin spots where the silver has worn down or been cut by repeated use of a carving knife so that the red copper base is exposed are called "bloody." Such pieces bring a lower price than one with its silver coatings unblemished.
Sheffield plate was less expensive than solid silver. However, it was not as much cheaper as pressed glass was in comparison to cut glass. Therefore, when the newer process of electroplating was developed in the 1840's, it displaced the Sheffield plating method in just a few years. Electroplating proved to be a far cheaper process of covering a base metal with silver (then, as now, sterling cost about three times as much as the same piece in plated silver.)
Some of the early plated silver was made by coating brass with pure silver. However, when the comparatively thin coating of silver wore off, the yellow of the brass showed, much to the owner's dismay. Some kind of white base metal, therefore, came into general use. The make-up of the base metal has varied according to manufacturer and general practice during the last century.
Only an article that is 92.5 per cent pure silver could be marked "Sterling." Plated- silver, however, was made in several grades. Currently, plated silver is either standard or first quality, the latter term meaning that the pieces have a heavier coating of silver than standard ones. Quite an amount of nineteenth-century plated silver is stamped "Triple" or "Quadruple" plate. Such pieces, if they have been exposed, may be charcoal-colored and take a good deal of polishing to restore their silver tone. Of course, even triple or quadruple-plated pieces that were used daily for a good many years will have spots where the silver coating has worn down to the base metal. It's worth the hard polishing that a darkened piece of plated silver needs to see just how it will look. Many of the triple- and quadruple-plated pieces are in surprisingly good condition and need only minimum polishing to look their best.
In the United States, plated silver has been made in quantity since the 1850's. Some American silversmiths made both sterling and plated silver after 1860. The same types of decoration as well as the same forms were made in plated and sterling silver. Different patterns, however, were worked out for the two distinctly different products.
Early-nineteenth-century silver relied on classical form and decoration, as did furniture. Later, extremely rococo designs and patterns were popular for both sterling and plated silver. Elaborate repousse was done even on tableware. Patterns often were based on quite naturalistic flowers and foliage, and in Victorian days an occasional fruit motif was used. Garlands, drapery, and figures also were worked into some of the elaborate Victorian patterns. Patterns of silver-plated flatware may have been somewhat simpler than those designed for sterling flatware. However, silver-plated holloware was as ornate and decorated as sterling silver.
Often tucked away in unlikely places and sometimes scattered in more than one hidden spot throughout a house are remnants of the set of flatware that American families gradually accumulated after 1860. The purchase of flatware by place settings is a recent fashion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, flatware was bought by the dozen of each piece. Furthermore, the number of different pieces then considered essential to set a table for company is amazing to present-day brides and housewives.
Patterns of the earliest sets of flatware included five different forks-oyster, fish, dinner, salad, and ice cream or berry; four knives-dinner, luncheon or dessert, fish, and butter spreader; four spoons-soup, bouillon, tea, and demitasse or after-dinner coffee; and, finally, a dessert spoon and fork. In other words, a place setting required fifteen pieces of silver, with each knife, fork, and spoon shaped quite differently from the others. Demitasse spoons were made in flatware patterns, but often were chosen in another pattern or design. These small spoons with colored enamel decoration on the handles were popular at one time, and usually are lovely.
To round out the place settings of silver, a greater array of serving pieces was made too. These, of course, were made in the same patterns. Tablespoons were all right for serving vegetables, but a berry spoon, deeper and rounder, was essential for serving a fruit dessert. There was a differentshaped spoon for serving pudding, too, and a small spoon with its bowl often shaped like a shell to keep in a sugar bowl. Serving forks and ladles were made in at least two sizes, and there were large serving tongs as well as smaller tongs to put in the bowl of lump sugar. Then there were special servers for fish, pie, and cheese, and both a knife and fork to serve cake. Grape scissors to be used to cut small clusters from the large bunch graced the sideboard. Nut spoons were likely to be fancy, but smaller spoons for various condiments and a long, slenderhandled olive or pickle fork were made in most of the patterns.
Some patterns also included orange or grapefruit spoons. These had bowls in a much more exaggerated shape than are made nowadays. The bowl was longer, deeper, and narrower than that of a teaspoon and tapered to a point. One edge of some of these nineteenthcentury spoons was sometimes serrated, the better to dig out the sections of pulp.
A few kinds of spoons were regional. One example is the Cafe Brulot spoon essential in and around New Orleans. A lump of sugar was placed in this spoon and soaked with brandy, which was lighted over the coffee.
By the 1890's, every member of a family had his own napkin ring made of either sterling or plated silver. These were almost always identified with an initial or monogram, usually placed within a garland or scroll. If the napkin ring had been a gift on a birthday or some other special occasion, the date was often added, usually in script lettering. These napkin rings were cylindrical and quite wide-1 1/2 to ? inches (a recent fad is having them cut and shaped into cuff bracelets). About 1910 napkin rings became narrower, about an inch in width, and looked even smaller because they were nipped in at the middle. Decoration was sometimes applied. A small, inch-wide napkin ring of plated silver made around 1910, for example, was encircled with the stems, leaves, and buds of the large, open poppy that ornamented it.
At about the same time that napkin rings became a polite necessity, it became the custom to give cups or mugs with handles as gifts to newborn babies. These were made of either sterling or plated silver. They averaged between Z and 3 inches high and at least one side was decorated. Often the handle was quite fancy too. Names and dates usually were engraved on the cups.
First popular during the 1880's and 1890's were souvenir spoons made in the sizes of teaspoons or demitasse spoons. Souvenir spoons still are being made, but few if any of the presentday ones compare in workmanship to those made before 1900. Nineteenthcentury souvenir spoons almost invariably were sterling silver. Handles often were decorated with fine, colorful enamels. Sometimes the bowl was vermeil. Both the handle and the bowl were decorated with designs appropriate to the city, historical site, or other specific place where the spoon was purchased. Usually the name or title was engraved somewhere.
A small demitasse spoon that was a souvenir of Boston is a typical example. Appropriate motifs were used on both front and reverse. The bowl depicted the Old State House in detail but had only the word "Sterling" on the underside. The flared end of the handle displayed the State House and, successively under it, Paul Revere on his horse, a pot of beans with that word across it, and "Boston" with the letters spelled out vertically. On the reverse of the handle were Faneuil Hall, Old South Church, and Bunker Hill monument. A dozen demitasse spoons from as many places was the goal of many a young lady in the 1890's.
Not only resorts and cities such as Boston that were already considered historic by 1890 had their souvenir spoons. Many less likely places did too. New London, Connecticut, Rochester, New York, Springfield, Massachusetts, and many less notable cities and towns offered visitors the opportunity of buying a souvenir spoon of good quality. Almost anywhere a person went, whether it was for a ride up the Hudson River ("Steamer Hendrick Hudson") or on vacation ("1000 Islands" in flowing script on the bowl), it was possible to buy a decorated, sterling silver spoon as a memento of the occasion.
Some souvenir spoons were so fancy that they had a movable part. For example, one had a handle topped by a windmill with arms that could be rotated. Sometimes handle ends were fashioned in the shape of a bird or an animal, less often a figure. These may have been copied from the sixteenthcentury style in Europe of terminating handles of the larger spoons made at that time with a figure, often a biblical personage.
Tea and coffee services as well as other pieces for serving or display always had been made from sterling silver. Later, all of these pieces were made to match the patterns of flatware. Such things as spoonholders or spoon dishes, celery dishes, and bread trays were made too. Cake plates and baskets, pitchers for water, wine, and syrup, covered vegetable dishes, and tureens also became general. Most of these pieces were made in plated as well as sterling silver after 1860. Serving trays in various sizes and shapes were sterling, plated silver, or various plated alloys. Many attractive small dishes were made to hold candy or nuts. These were made in various styles, open or covered, footed, or flat like a basket with a handle.