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Old Silver

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THERE is a widespread and growing interest in all old silver, especially in such pieces as can be traced back to colonial origin. Salem, whose commercial prosperity was well established by the middle of the seventeenth century, has some wonderfully good pieces of colonial silver, many of which are family heirlooms.

The early American silverware, like our early furniture and architecture, is thoroughly characteristic of the tastes and mode of life peculiar to that period in America. It is simple in design and substantial in weight, thus reflecting the mental attitude of the people. Social conditions here would not warrant any imitation of the magnificent baronial silver which was then being made and used in England. Many of the pieces in these collections come to us hallowed by a hundred associations and by traditions recalling the lives of our forefathers in all their manifold phases. The sight of the silver communion service recalls the early history of our New England churches, and reminds us of the devotion of the people to the institutions about which revolved both the social and political life.

Only the identity of the maker is revealed by the hallmark on American silver. There is no trace of the date letter, so prevalent upon English pieces of the same period, although various emblems appear, which were used as trademarks, peculiar to the owner. In cases where the crown appears above the initials, it was merely a passing fad to copy the mark of certain English silver-smiths who enjoyed royal patronage.

The business of making silverware in the colonies seems to have been profitable from the first. The earliest silversmith of whom we have any record is John Hull, born in 1624 and dying in 1683, who amassed much wealth through his appointment as mintmaster . for Massachusetts in the old days of the pine-tree shillings. His name, together with that of his daughter Betsey, has been immortalized by Hawthorne.

That Captain Hull did not have a monopoly of his trade is proved by the fact that a beaker, which was presented to the Dorchester church in 1672, was made by one David Jesse. Also, a certain Jeremiah Dummer, brother of Governor William Dummer, was apprenticed to John Hull, to learn the silversmith's trade, in 1659, and sent out .much work stamped with his own name. He also taught his trade to his brother-in-law, John Cony, who engraved the plates for the first paper money that was ever made in America.

Most famous of all New England silversmiths was Paul Revere. Besides the historic associations connected with his name, his works are most attractive in themselves, showing an exquisite finish and great beauty of workmanship there are no certain marks to distinguish his work from that of his father, as each used the stamp "P. Revere."

Of the many silversmiths of New York, none are so early in point of time as these New England men whom I have mentioned. Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did a certain George Ridout come over from London, and set up business "near the Ferry stairs." He has left us beautiful candlesticks, marked with his name, and by these he is remembered. At about the same time Richard Van Dyck, tracing his lineage to the Knickerbockers, made very handsome flat-chased bowls, and Myer Myers, seemingly of similar origin, set his stamp upon finely proportioned pint cans, having an ear-shaped handle and a pine-cone finial.

At a later date, shortly subsequent to the Revolution, a silversmith named Tragees made beautiful sugar bowls with urn-shaped finials ; and Cary Dunn, who held a position in the custom-house, designed exquisitely engraved teapots, having the cover surmounted by a pineapple as the emblem of hospitality. These early makers stamped their names plainly upon their work, so that the task of approximating their age is thus rendered easy.

In most families silver spoons of various patterns have been preserved for generations. Some of these were brought from England with other treasures of family silver, and are excellent examples of seventeenth-century ware. Up to that time, teaspoons had been made with very deep round or pear-shaped bowls and very short handles. Toward the middle of the seventeenth century, they assumed more nearly their present form, having handles twice as long as they had previously possessed, and bowls oval or elliptical. The new style was sometimes dubbed the "rat-tail spoon," in derisive comment upon its long and slender handle. It will be observed that many of our earliest teaspoons were no larger than the present after-dinner coffee spoons.

It is probable that no other type of spoon possesses the interest, not to say the money value, of the old Apostle spoons, which came into fashion in the sixteenth century. At that time it was an English custom for the sponsors to present these spoons, as baptismal gifts, to the children for whom they made themselves responsible. A wealthy godparent would give a complete set of thirteen, but a poor man generally contented himself with giving simply the one spoon which bore the figure of the child's patron saint.

The complete set consisted of the "Master" spoon and twelve others. The "Master" spoon has upon the handle a figure of Christ, holding in one hand the sphere and cross, while the other hand is extended in blessing. A nimbus surrounds the head, in all these spoons. Each apostle is distinguished by some emblem. Saint Paul has a sword, Saint Thomas a spear, and Saint Andrew a cross. Saint Matthias carries an ax or halberd, Saint Jude a club, Saint Bartholomew a butcher's knife, and Saint Philip a long staff with a cross in the T. Saint Peter appears with a key, Saint James the Greater with a pilgrim's staff, Saint James the Less with a fuller's hat, and Saint Matthew with a wallet. Saint John has one hand raised in blessing, while the other holds the cup of sorrow.

Whole sets of these spoons are very rare. In fact, there are said to be but two whole sets in existence, with another set of eleven. One of these sets sold in 1903 for twenty-four thousand five hundred dollars, while another set of less ancient date brought five thousand three hundred dollars. A single Apostle spoon, bearing upon its handle a figure of Saint Nicholas, and upon its stem the inscription, "Saint Nicholas, pray for us," sold in London for three thousand four hundred and fifty dollars, a few years ago. This is said to be the highest price ever paid for one single spoon.

The oldest hallmarked Apostle spoon is dated 1493, while the most modern of which we have any record bears the date of 1665. It is probable that the custom of giving these baptismal presents began to go out of fashion at that period.

Other spoons of great interest, although not so old as the earliest Apostle spoons, are the curious little "caddy spoons," which came into vogue with the first popularity of tea drinking more than two centuries ago. The tea was at first kept in canisters, whose lids served as a measure. Then came into use the quaint and dainty tea caddy, with its two-lidded and metal-lined end compartments, and a central cavity to be used as a sugar bowl. A favorite and poetic custom of the old sea captains, upon visiting China, was to have their ships painted upon China caddies by Chinese artists, as gifts for wives or sweethearts at home.

Now since the sugar bowl was a part of the tea caddy, the use of the caddy spoon or scoop became immediately popular. All of these spoons have very short stems and handles, with bowls of fanciful design, perforated, or shell-shaped, or fluted. A few were made like miniature scoops, with handles of ebony ; while others were perfect imitations of leaves, the leaf stem curling around into a ring, to make the handle.

In this country, caddy spoons came into use after the Revolution. Until very recently, they have been neglected by collectors, and were to be bought at a low figure ; but all that is changed, and the price is from fifteen dollars upward in most cases, besides which the purchaser must take his chances as to the genuine worth of his bargain, as many imitations are being put upon the market. It is no proof of genuine worth that the spoon may be bought in an antique shop on a quiet street of some sleepy old seaport town. This is just the spot likely to be chosen for perpetrating a fraud. The most common counterfeit is made by joining a perfectly new bowl to the handle of a genuine Georgian teaspoon that bears an irreproachable hallmark. The unusual length of handle betrays the cheat, which can be further proved by the presence of a flattened spot similar to a thumb print, where the bowl joins the handle..

Still another fraudulent specimen has a false hallmark. These counterfeits were probably made outside of this country, perhaps not even in England. The hallmark is the stamp of a head that bears no particular resemblance to George III, for whom it is possibly intended ; a lion that may, perhaps, be near enough in design to pass for the royal British brute ; and signs and letters, half-effaced, which, in conjunction with the king's head and the lion, make up an imitation of the Birmingham hallmark. Of course it would not deceive, for an instant, the experienced buyer in a good clear light ; but the shops are often darkened to a kind of twilight, and the inexperienced amateur detects nothing wrong about the spoon, which is usually made after some uncommon and attractive style.

As this fraud is of recent date, no examination would be necessary for spoons known to have been in a certain family for some years. These spoons were made of Wedgwood ware, china, glass, agate, or tortoise-shell, as well as of silver. There are beautiful silver ones in the shape of a hand or of a flower. In two cases, I have seen the spoon made to match the caddy. One of these sets was of decorated china, and the other of tortoise-shell set in silver.

Another spoon, which passed out of date with the caddy ladle, was the so-called caudle spoon. It might be well to explain to the present generation that caudle was a preparation of wine, eggs, and spices which was commonly fed to invalids, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The caudle spoon, perforated or entire, but with a longer handle and smaller bowl than the caddy spoon, was employed to stir the mixture. It is now obsolete, as is the snuff spoon, another relic of the whimsical customs of yore. There was a season when it was stylish to carry a snuffbox, and to take a pinch one's self, now and then, or to offer it to a friend. The snuff spoon was used to avoid dipping the fingers into the powder, which would of course stain both finger nails and cuticle.

As the caddy was the companion piece of the caddy spoon, so the caudle bowl is associated with the caudle spoon. A Salem specimen stands six inches high, and has a capacity of three pints. It has two handles, and is embellished by a broad chasing at the base, and by fluted chasing about the body. The caudle cup used with it is severely plain, but has a good outline.

Tankards both with and without covers were in common use, toward the close of the seventeenth century. In size, they varied from a capacity of one quart to three. They were often fitted with a whistle, by the blowing of which the butler's attention could be called to the fact that the tankard needed filling. From this custom arose the old saying, "Let him whistle for it." The singular expression, "A plate of ale" comes from the fact that in old inventories, tankards are listed as "ale plates."

The largest Salem specimen has a capacity of one quart only, and is beautifully chased around the body and upon the cover in a rose-and-pineapple design.. This chasing is much worn, not only by the passage of time, but also by the pitiless polishing of the methodical New England housekeeper. This is a straight-sided tankard, with a well-curved top, which necessitates a long and tapering thumb piece. The handle is large and well-tapered, extending well above the rim. All these specimens belong to the Revolutionary epoch.

The style of silver made and used in this country during the first half of the nineteenth century is well typified by the sugar, creamer, and teapot contained in an old-time collection. The teapot and sugar bowl are adorned with a pineapple finial. This style was originated by Cary Dunn of New York at the close of the Revolution, and won immense popularity. The pineapple, which is its most notable decoration, has always been accepted as the emblem of hospitality ; while the primrose pattern about base and body is neat and tasteful. The lines in these designs are less severely simple than in some, but are excellent, nevertheless.

Another favorite style of this same period is shown in a graceful little pitcher in another collection, having for sole ornament a rosette where the handle joins the body. Rosettes were high in favor in the early part of the nineteenth century, and were shown in the furniture of that day as well as in the silverware.

Another charming pitcher which stands upon three legs is a veritable prize, literally as well as figuratively. During the War of 1812, our Salem privateers seized many a valuable cargo. Among the confiscated treasures was this dainty little silver pitcher, handsomely engraved, and bearing the coat of arms of a prominent English family. In the division of the confiscated goods, this article fell to an ancestor of the owner, who received it by inheritance.

Another interesting bit of silver, belonging to the same period as the pitcher, is a cruet stand. Fifty years ago these were in common use upon the tables of our ancestors. Fashion has relegated them to the sideboard or to the top shelf, where the old-fashioned, high silver cake basket keeps them company in exile. To the same period belongs the teapot showing a rosette bowl, and mushroom-shaped finial, which was among the bride's presents at a wedding in 1804, while the sugar and creamer included in the same collection belong to a later date, as they were bridal presents received in 1867. The beauty of the lines in these two specimens falls far short of the standard set by American manufacturers of colonial times.

Still in use and highly prized is the wonderful old bowl which is in another collection. For many years this bowl was lost, and though diligent search was made for it, it was not discovered until one day the owner and some friends, riding through a rural district, stopped at a well in a farmhouse yard for a drink. Close at hand a pig was eating from a peculiar-looking receptacle, which, though blackened and mud-stained, yet showed an interesting contour. Negotiations were entered into with the house owner for the purchase of this receptacle, and it was secured for twenty-five cents. When polished, it was found to be the long-missing bowl, which has since then been called the hog bowl.

Other specimens still preserved include a tall sugar bowl, mounted upon a standard, which is more than a hundred years old, as are the tongs used with it, with their delicate acorn-cup pattern. In the larger piece, the rings which form the handles pass through the mouth of a dog's head, upon each side. The feet which support the standard suggest the work done in the furniture of that day by Chippendale, Sheraton, and their followers. To the latter days of the eighteenth century belong an endless yet interesting variety of patterns of porringers, salvers, sugar bowls, perforated baskets for loaf sugar, tea and coffee pots, and innumerable table utensils.

Another article which is now found but rarely is the nutmeg holder or spice box. The interior of the lid was roughed for use as a grater, and few were the "night caps" but had a final touch added through its use. While the usefulness of the spice box and the snuffbox has long since passed away, yet they are treasured because of the pictures they bring to the mind's eye of the old days of the Georges. No product of the present can outvie the charms of such old silver.

All things colonial, whether house or accessory, are distinctive, and to the designers and craftsmen of that period the world owes a debt that no amount of tribute can ever wholly repay. Colonial is synonymous of the best, and objects created during its influence are always of a higher degree of perfection than the best of other periods. Looking about for a reason for this, we are confronted with the realization that the work of that time was carefully planned and carefully finished, craftsmen giving to their output the best their brains could devise, and allowing no reason, however urgent, to interfere with the completion of a certain object as they had originally planned it to be. There in lies the real reason of the superiority of things colonial. Later-day artisans sacrificed quality to quantity ; they complied with the demand of public opinion, and as that demand became more urgent, carelessness of detail became more marked. The simplicity of the colonial era gave way to the highly decorative and often ugly ornamentation characteristic of late nineteenth-century manufacture, and it was not until a few craftsmen found courage to revive colonial features that the beauty of that type of construction was truly appreciated. Today, colonial influence is again dominant, and it is a relief to note that in modern homes it is usurping in favor its hitherto prized successors. It is only to be hoped that its influence will be lasting, for surely of all types it is the most worthy of emulation.



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