For centuries, we’ve been attracted to silver and gold. These metals connote affluence; wealth and prestige. We continually see metallic influences in ready-to-wear, interior design, even our cars and phones! Sterling silver with its soft, buttery patina epitomizes this draw.
Sterling Silver flatware is highly collectable. The pattern variety is endless, over 1,000 patterns have been designed and manufactured in the US alone!
It’s fun to collect a series of pieces or place settings of different patterns to create table interest. I like to mix a variety of styles to add uniqueness to my table. Serving pieces are where sterling silver REALLY gets interesting! Most of the most unusual pieces were developed in the Victorian era, with their affinity towards excess. (More on this later) A cracker spoon, almond scoop, lettuce fork!? My favorite? The food pusher! This is one interesting piece of silverware. In Victorian society it was rude for anyone, even children, to touch food with their hands. Children were given food pushers to help them push their dinner onto their forks!
I buy most of my sterling in antique shops, loving the thrill of the hunt. I actually prefer monogrammed pieces imagining the story behind each, who owned it. How did this piece come to be sold? What happened to the rest of the set? Honestly, the odder and more fascinating the piece, the more I want it on my table!
You can also purchase pieces on several reputable sites. These sites are also a great way to educate yourself, researching the patterns you’ve found.
There are also multiple great books on Sterling Silver patterns –
Patterns often reflect the economic and social situations when they were made –
Edwardian – Styles were soft and elegant.
Mid 18th Century Rococo Silver – flamboyant, inspired by England’s court of George II and France’s Louis XV.
Federal Style – Popular during the founding years of the United States, classical and symmetrical. Think Paul Revere, one of the most famous silversmiths, and how utilitarian his designs were.
Victorian Era – (1840 – 1900) THIS IS WHERE STERLING SILVER REALLY GETS INTERESTING! Patterns indulged in grand excess showing a mixing of historic styles, with strong Asian and Middle East influence. Victorian homes had a clear separation between public and private rooms. The Dining Room was the second most important room in the home, after the Parlor. Both rooms allowed homeowners to “showcase” their home. By the 1830’s the factories of the Industrial Revolution were mass producing sterling silver patterns and the individual silversmith artisan slowly faded. Sterling silver could be “stamped” from sheets of sterling with stunning perfection on both front and back. Due to this mass production, Victorian patterns are the majority found today. This time of affluence and excess found sterling flatware with very specific functions. Most of us are familiar with ladles however, silversmiths made ladles for specific purposes; bullion, cream, gravy, oysters, punch, etc. There were different spoons for nuts, berries, bon bons, claret, mustard, and chocolate, pointed spoons to eat grapefruit, small demi-tasse spoons. Imagine just how complicated setting the dining room table was?
Art Nouveau – Most popular between 1890 and 1910, rebelling against the Industrial Revolution with natural motifs and flowing asymmetrical curves inspired by the curved lines of plants and flowers.
Arts and Crafts continued this trend with toned down ornamentation. Pulling from Medieval, Romantic, and Folk influenced, the Arts and Crafts movement is essentially anti-industrial. Beginning in Britain, it was strongest from 1880 to the 1920’s.
Art Deco – Rose to prominence in the first half of the 20th century influenced by Cubism and more modern styling. Think NYC’s Chrysler Building, THE monument to Art Deco.
SO WHERE DID THIS ALL START?
American silverware has been made since our beginning, first starting out as “Coin” Silver. Sterling silver was rare in colonial America. From around 1830 to 1850, silver was often marked CD, Coin or Pure Coin. It doesn’t necessarily mean coins were melted down, (although they often were) but that the silver was the same purity as coins then circulated. These silver items were hand made.
However, the Victorian era with its affinity towards excess, layered with the Industrial revolution, launched Sterling Silver onto the map. “Sterling” silver was born around 1860, and more widely after the Civil War. A piece marked “sterling” means it is 925 parts pure silver out of 1000 parts metal. This is a U.S. Government mandate. The “sterling” mark was required on sterling silver produced after 1907.
Silver of other countries is controlled as well, although English and American silver has to have a higher % of pure silver. English Sterling, like American is 92.5% Silver, 925 out of 1000 parts. In Europe, this formula varies by country. German silver is 80% pure, Russian, 84%, etc. The attached link is a great resource for researching your American or foreign silver……….http://www.925-1000.com/index.html
The discovery of a very rich silver deposit, The Comstock Lode in 1859, made Sterling Silver affordable for the middle class. Sterling Silver flatware was one way the middle class could show they had “arrived”.
Sterling vs Silver Plate
In 1847, Rogers Bros. Silversmiths developed silver-plate, an electroplating process of binding sterling silver to a base metal. This brought silver to most of the classes. However, as Sterling Silver flatware will last a lifetime, silver-plate will usually last only 20 years, until the finish has worn off. I have a few silver-plate pieces and you can definitely tell the difference.
Unfortunately for sterling flatware collectors, Silver hit $50.00/ounce in 1980 and many antique pieces were lost to smelting. (As comparison, today finds silver at $18.04/oz.) Many unique and handmade pieces were lost. This fact has increased the antique value of sterling which has remained.