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American Silver Styles

( Originally Published 1940 )

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The styles of early American silverware were dominated by New England. New England styles, in turn, were an imitation of the prevailing modes of the mother country, the more so inasmuch as silver is essentially a luxury item. In order to follow the style trends of Colonial silver design it is sometimes necessary to look at the influences shaping English taste.

By the time New England's colonists had time to turn their attention to the accumulation of silverware, a Puritan had mastered the England from which they had fled. Cromwell's Commonwealth ( 1649-1660) brought a new set of churchly oppressors to England. To English and Colonial decoration it brought a certain reticence of form and ornament. The relatively austere style of silverware resulting found ready acceptance and extension among New England's early silversmiths. During this era forms were uncomplex. Simple flat-chasing was most common.

When the Stuarts returned to power in 1660, in the person of Charles the Second, a reaction occurred in England. Silverwork was suddenly enriched with a luxuriance of new ornament. The revived trend toward ornament continued in the reign of William and Mary. Repousse work and a variety of cast ornaments were popular.

In 1697 England experienced a shortage of coin-silver which produced a new silver law. Whereas, by the Sterling standard, each twelve ounces of coin had to contain eleven ounces, two hundredweight of pure silver, each twelve ounces of silver-plate had to have eleven ounces, ten hundredweight of pure silver. The law was intended to discourage the making and accumulation of silver-plate so that silver coinage would be more plentiful. In practice it apparently had the opposite effect. It meant that the silver used by the smiths had to be of a much harder alloy, for silver of the new standard was of an impractical softness. It was necessary to make silverware thicker, increasing the cost of the individual pieces. This was hardly calculated to discourage the investment in silver-plate as a form of personal wealth. The result was a new period of austerity in design, influenced by a somewhat different cause than Puritanism.

In all considerations of style we must remember that silver pieces were distinctly for display purposes. They were lined up in elegant array upon sideboards and mantels. Under this circumstance ornament of too delicate or subtle a nature possessed little value, which explains the predominance of repousse and cast ornament over engraving. When engraving is found on early silver the chances are that it was done largely for identification. Usually such engraving was heraldic, or the plebeian substitute for heraldry, called "Cyphers," a form of complex, reversed monogram.

Fluting achieved its greatest excellence in about 1700, during the thin-plate era. It was at first a simple, vertical repousse work and then took a spiral form.

Between 1725 and 1750 the rococo style had its hey-day in England. In America it extended until 1770. Then the classic revival, which dominated furniture and architecture at this period, made itself felt in silver as well. The classic revival in terms of American silver, meant a period of lightness, elegance, formality, and upright, structural lines. This was an era of expansion, manifesting itself in beautifully formalized tea-pots, coffee-pots, chocolate-pots and punch bowls.

Much of the early silver has been preserved through the custom, on the part of pious parishioners, of presenting or willing pieces of plate to their churches. Often, though not always, such plate was intended for use in the various ceremonies attendant upon worship. Catholic, Lutheran, Puritan, and Quaker churches possessed silver. There is a record of some early silver made for a New York Synagogue by Myer Myers, a superb silversmith, then acting head of the Gold and Silversmith's Society of New York City.

Many of the products of the early silversmiths were objects no longer made or used today. The various tankards for ale or mead were notable items. Supposedly these tankards or beakers were modifications of the drinking horn of Viking fame. The assumption is probably a little too general as such utensils appear to have many possible origins and backgrounds other than the horn.

Two early English-American drinks claiming special vessels were caudle and posset. Caudle was a mixture of warm wine or ale with sugar, breadcrumbs, spices, and occasional eggs. Posset was the same thing with the addition of curdled milk. Both were served in small two-handled cups, still known as "caudle-cups."

The porringer, another familiar item of early silver, is a small bowl with a single, flat, horizontal handle. It was probably used largely as a serving dish.

The tankard is a large container for the drinking of ale. It has one handle, and a cover which opens by means of a thumbpiece. For some reason it was made in Scandinavia, Germany, and England, but not in Holland. The silversmiths of New Amsterdam adopted it from the English colonists, giving it a new, sturdy form. The early tankards of Massachusetts were from five-and-a-half, to six-and-a-quarter inches high, with flat covers. As time passed they were made taller and slimmer, their covers became domed and were ornamented with finials.

Cups without handles were called beakers. Standing-cups were stemmed drinking cups, or goblets. These were not used for household purposes after 1700, being relegated largely to sacramental purposes.

Spout cups were novelties; cups with spouts, like tea-pots, for giving drinks to children or invalids.

While salt was still a luxury, and hence the object of much ceremony, the great-salt, or standing-salt, was an important object. It was placed between the right-elbow of the host and the left-elbow of the guest of honor. The cheapening of salt brought the individual salt-and-peppers. These came in the late 18th century and were frequently in sets including sugar and at least two kinds of pepper.

Spoons were, of course, basic implements; but the fork, an Italian notion, did not come into general use until after 1700.



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