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( Originally Published 1963 )
Candlesticks continued to be made in various heights and not necessarily to match tableware patterns, even though lamps were used for illumination. The pair of candlesticks on the mantel or sideboard and the candelabrum on the serving table in the dining room could as well have been plated as sterling silver. Styles and decoration followed the changes that became fashionable during the nineteenth century, from classically simple lines and decorative motifs in the early years to heavy, allover rococo after the 1860's.
Tea and coffee services became almost as important as cut glass after 1870. They were made in many patterns other than those that matched flatware. A plated silver tea service made in the 1870's repeated, in its handles and covers, the rectangular lines of furniture made in that decade, and the decoration on the silver pieces was as shallow as the carving on the furniture. This tea service consisted of a teapot of generous size, a large sugar bowl with cover, a milk pitcher or creamer, and an uncovered bowl for dregs. A covered butter dish and perhaps other serving dishes often were made to match the tea service.
Sugar and creamer also were made in matching sets. Some sugar bowls were made with colored glass liners. After 1900, sugar bowls became smaller.
Some of the more attractive serving pieces that had come into wide use by the 1890's combined silver with glass. A cut or pressed glass jar for jelly or marmalade might have a silver cover. A glass pickle jar usually came in a plated silver stand with a handle for carrying it and a long-handled fork or tongs attached to one side. Cracker jars of satin glass or other art glass or china often were fitted with silverplated covers and handles. Covered butter dishes of either sterling or plated silver usually had glass linings, and many a pottery baking dish could be slipped into a silver container with a cover before it was brought to the table. Silver stands were made to hold pottery egg cups.
Although serving dishes with glass or pottery linings became common in late Victorian years, a much longer history can be traced for the many different pieces of silver and- various kinds of plate that were designed to keep food hot. For this purpose either a hot-water jacket or a central hot-water compartment was fitted into the body of the silver piece, or a hot-water chamber into the base. Large dishes for bringing various kinds of meat to the table often had not only a hot-water compartment in the base but also a cover or hinged lid. Dishes equipped in this manner were made from 1760 on, and the Victorians also liked their vegetable dishes to have hot-water compartments. In fact, in the 1850's Victorians showed a preference for a toast rack with a hot-water chamber in the base. Chafing dishes first appeared during the 1700's, and by 1800-earlier in England-tea or coffee urns were made to fit over a spirit lamp. Any of these old serving dishes that a person is lucky enough to discover becomes, after it has been polished, a practical as well as a distinguished addition to outdoor dining, now so popular everywhere.
There are many other odd pieces to be on the lookout for. They may be quite black when you find them, but polishing may reveal that they are sterling silver. This is true of buttons and buckles, toys and rattles, dresser sets and toilet articles with silver backs, covers, and handles, teaballs and teastrainers to rest on a cup, inkstands and snuffer trays, knife rests, and buttonhooks for buttoning shoes.
The toothpick, which it was considered polite to use after meals, might be silver, gold, or ivory. More complicated but not much larger than a toothpick was a 2 1/2-inch-long silver-plated cylinder. Turn one end and a toothpick emerged; turn the other and an equally small scoop appeared, evidently meant for cleaning wax from the ears.
Whether flatware or a tea service is sterling silver or plated, the pieces that seem odd today are the ones a person usually finds. Considerable interest is shown in nineteenth-century plated silver. There is quite a ready market for various serving dishes. Many of the old ones are no longer being made in either sterling or plate, and some that are being made were more charming in their Victorian form. A plated silver syrup pitcher, for example, with a small bunch of grapes as the knob is a delightful piece that can be sold if you don't want to keep it. First, however, be sure to find the plate into which the bottom of the pitcher fitted. A half-dozen sterling silver butter pats will be snapped up by anyone smart enough to think of having thin glass disks cut to fit into them, so they can be used for ashtrays at each place setting.
Before offering any silver articles for sale, it's important to clean them with care, at least enough so that you can distinguish markings. Plated silver, unless it is very worn off, looks somewhat like sterling. However, stand a piece of sterling and a piece of plated silver side by side and study them. It will not take you long to recognize which one is which without turning the pieces upside down to examine the markings.
Old coin and sterling silver are not harmed by normal use and proper care, but will acquire a beautiful patina from much handling and careful polishing through the years. Even when they were new, a surface bloom gave them a warm, rich gleam or tone quite unlike that of contemporary sterling silver. The original tone of even nineteenth-century silver mellows to a warm, rich glow.
Sheffield plate also has a soft patina, although it is not as rich as that of sterling silver. Much of the old, true Sheffield plate still has its good coating of silver and little or none of the copper base shows. A piece of Sheffield plate is heavier than the same piece made of coin or sterling silver. Electroplated silver, made after 1850, is heavier than pieces of Sheffield plate and also of sterling.
Tableware and serving and decorative pieces of silver plate never gain a patina similar to that of sterling or even Sheffield plate. In fact, plated silver always has a colder, whiter, almost lifeless color. That is, until the silver coating. begins to wear off, and then the plated piece looks spotty. A badly spotted or worn piece of plate can be freshly coated with silver by a professional silversmith and will look as good as or even better than when it was new.
This can be a worthwhile investment if you plan to use or display the piece in your home. If you prefer to sell it, leave it in the condition you found it.
Another form of plating produces the so-called German silver, one of many names for nickel silver. This is a white alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel used as a cheap substitute for silver. The proportions in which the metals are used to make German silver may vary. However, the more nickel it contains, the slower the piece will be to tarnish (it can't be polished as successfully as other plated silver). The quantity of nickel also determines how closely the piece resembles one of sterling silver.
German silver is heavier than sterling silver. Most of the pieces I have seen have a distinctly gray tone, which is rather dull. German silver has been used for many years for handles and other parts of dresser and manicure sets and decorative pieces, as for candy dishes. A good deal has been imported, but some amount has been made in the United States. German or nickel silver is not always marked, although pieces made in this country seem usu-ally to be stamped "Nickel Silver" along with the name or mark of the company.
Sterling silver lasts more than a lifetime. It should be as serviceable for this generation as for the one that bought it 100 to 150 years ago. It will emerge from correct polishing as beautiful as the day it was made-more beautiful, actually, because of its patina. Some pieces may have slight dents but they do not reduce values.
Most of the silver known to have been made in Colonial days is displayed in museums, restorations, and private collections. Should you come across a teapot, communion cup, or mustard pot that, after being polished, shows the mark of William Rouse, Bartholomew Le Roux, Joseph Lownes, or one of their colleagues, you can feel certain it is extremely valuable. Collectors will bid-and pay-high prices.
Such a find would be exceptionally lucky. But then so would finding an Apostle spoon. This is a very old English silver spoon, made in sets of a dozen with an apostle depicted on each spoon. They were presented as christening gifts. Even one Apostle spoon is worth a considerable amount of money, and settlers from England may well have brought some with them to this country. Eighteenth-century spoons such as rat-tail or coffin styles made in America are other possibilities, not as valuable as Apostle spoons but probably to be sold for more than any other old spoons. Eighteenth-century silver made in this country is scarce, for some families had it melted down and remade in the more rococo styles of the nineteenth century. There is a good deal of nineteenth-century sterling and plated silver to be found -and a market for both.
Silver does not decrease in value, but neither does it increase as much as might be expected. Premium prices can be based only on workmanship or rarity. Thus, nineteenth-century coin and the later sterling silver do not bring as high prices as you might anticipate. At present, coin silver teaspoons sell for about $3 each, tablespoons for about $4. Spoons that are badly bent, dented, or misshapen will bring less money.
Pieces of sterling silver flatware made after 1860 can be sold for only slightly more than the same pieces would cost to buy today. Serving pieces that are less commonly made now but are still useful can be sold for slightly higher prices. Patterns that have been discontinued also should bring a slight premium. A great many of the sterling silver flatware patterns made between 1860 and 1900 have been discontinued by manufacturers, and there always are people who want to fill in an old set. You may stumble on possible buyers, or prefer to dispose of pre-1900 flatware quickly by selling it to one of the dealers who specializes in stocking old patterns.
Sterling silver holloware, candlesticks, tea and coffee services, pitchers, serving dishes, and the like, made in the nineteenth century can be sold, but most of it for only slightly more than contemporary pieces. There is a market also for plated silver pieces. A four- or five-piece tea or coffee service of plated silver may be blackened and need resilvering, yet in either condition it can be sold for $35 to $50. Most of the plated flatware-forks, knives, spoons -is unlikely to be in good enough condition to be sold unless you run into a collector.
There is no real market for napkin rings. Surprising as it may seem, it's usually possible to sell children's cups, even blackened ones of plated silver. Some people collect them because they are small and easy to display; others, because they are nice containers for bouquets of small garden flowers.
Many triple- and quadruple-plated serving pieces can be sold readily. A syrup pitcher with its plate might bring $10 to $15, depending on the condition. A pickle jar in its plated silver stand ought to be worth close to $10; a covered butter dish that needs resilvering, perhaps $7.50.
Old Sheffield plate is more valuable than early electroplate. A Sheffield sauce boat made before 1840 will be worth $25 to anyone who appreciates this product. A tray, approximately 16 by 25 inches, can be sold in most parts of the country for $50 to $75.
Boston and other cities where silversmiths were kept busy during Colonial days are not the only places where a person can expect to find old silver. As families moved westward in the 1800's, silver was one thing that could be taken along. After all, silver frequently represented a family's assets, even if it was silverware and not coins. Really old silver and Sheffield plate may be found almost anywhere in the country, far away from the place where they were made.
After 1850, when the making of household silverware and tableware became an industry instead of a craft, New England became the largest center of its manufacture. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are still important, although Maryland is an exception that keeps New England from maintaining a monopoly.