As Seen In Vogue A Century Of American Fashion Silver – Gift of a Lifetime

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Silver – Gift of a Lifetime

For centuries, household silver has indicated the wealth of a family. It is only since about 1850, when the electroplating process was developed, that flatware for the table and hollow-ware pieces have been priced within the budget of the average family. But nineteenth-century plated silver as well as pieces of early American and Federal silver are as good as money in the bank today.

The history of American silver parallels the social development of the country. The first silver used by the Colonists in New England was simple and useful, but as the country grew and prospered, the demand for more and finer pieces increased. By the time of the Revolution, wealthy Colonists were living as graciously as their contemporaries in England, and after we became a nation, the work of American silversmiths reached great heights, which continued into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

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. 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, salt containers, sugar boxes, creamers, bowls, tea kettles and teapots were other likely pieces.

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. At about the same time that napkin rings became a polite necessity, it became the custom to give engraved cups or mugs with handles as gifts to newborn babies.

The early silversmith learned his trade in every detail. He melted silver coins, rolled the resulting mass of silver into a flat piece, and then raised it with his hammers to some beautiful form. If he did not do all the work himself, he had at hand a workman whom he had trained to do at least part of the process for him. But the master craftsman required the finished product to be of such quality that he could be proud to put his stamp upon each piece, either his initials or his name. He stood back of every article that left his shop. Silver-making was highly specialized.

But silver in its pure form was too soft to fashion alone so it had to be alloyed with a base metal in order to harden it. The choice for the most compatible base metal was copper. Craftsman in Easterling, England discovered that 75 parts copper to 1000 parts of total weight produced the following ideal qualities: strength, malleability and depth of color. After 1860, the word “sterling” (short for Easterling) came into use. When stamped on a piece of silver, it guarantees that the silver is .925 fine. The silversmith was an important member of the community. It was to his shop that the prosperous man took his coins and had them melted down and fashioned into household articles-spoons, tankards, and porringers. After melting the coins, the silversmith refined the metal, and poured it into a skillet to form a flat block of silver. The block was hammered out to the desired thickness and worked into whatever article the patron ordered.

Today most silver is made by machine but much of it copies the good designs of the past. There are some craftsmen who still fashion silver by hand, but labor costs are so high that it’s not cost effective for mass distribution. But what about reproductions of old silver? Certainly there is good reproduction silver on the market. The best is faithfully copied from known old pieces by important early makers. Some reproductions bear the name of the modern maker and the name of the silversmith from whose work the design is copied. There are some excellent copies of bowls, pitchers, and teapots from those made by Paul Revere who, when not making midnight rides, was considered one of the finest silversmiths in Colonial New England. Next to having really old pieces made by early craftsmen, an honest copy in high quality silver is desirable.

There are plenty of catalogues and internet websites picturing designs and pleasing patterns which have stood the test of time. The simple thread pattern, the shell design, and the unornamented designs of the late eighteenth century can be bought today. Few fancy patterns stay long in vogue and in after a few years it is often impossible to add pieces to a fancy set. Simple patterns, however, seem to last through the years.

Today some dealers in antique silver have added fine copies of old pieces to their stock. These copies are marked as such and are for those who prefer old silver but do not want to pay the price for it. These copies make excellent gifts for weddings and christenings, and their quality is so high that they become heirlooms of the future. The internet makes it easy to find silver in all categories. So if you are trying to build your own collection or if you want to give a gift that will last a lifetime, you should consider silver.

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