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How to recognize & identify antique silver: A guide from 1947
From House & Garden’s 1947 Dictionary of Design: Evolution of silver from 1700-1890
Sliver was not generally owned by the man in the streets in the seventeenth century; it was a special luxury of the aristocracy and the wealthy tradesman. The fact that it was a refinement of living led to its being fashioned by the best artist-craftsmen of the day.
Because they lavished their talents upon it, the beautiful forms they created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and America, have been preserved and copied, with modifications, into our own time.
During Charles II’s reign, there was a shortage of silver and the silversmiths melted down coins (as they did over and over again during the early days of the American colonies) to fashion knives and forks and spoons for the table.
To prevent the wholesale turning of the coin of the realm into pitchers and knives, in 1697, English silversmiths were required to use a standard of silver higher than sterling. Less alloy resulted in softer metal, which limited decoration, led to simple outlines. Such ornamentation as there was, generally took the form of “cut-card work.”
Leaves were cut from thin sheets of silver and applied to the bodies of pots, particularly around joints at spouts and handles. Other typical decorations were the large gadroon border or band and concave fluting used vertically around the bodies of tankards, bowls, etc.
Until the eighteenth century, tea was drunk without sugar or milk. Sugar bowls first appear during Queen Anne’s reign (creamer not until the days of the Georges). Sugar was scarce, so sugar bowls had covers.
The more favored types of teapots and kettles were round with straight spouts, or pear-shaped with duck-necked spouts. The tall shape of coffee and chocolate pots was adapted from the shape of earlier, Chinese porcelain teapots.
The saltcellar was an important social symbol (at a great lord’s table, it was infra dig to sit “below the salt”). Saltcellars were massive, stood as high as 16 inches.
Trencher salt dishes were more modest in size. The name arose from the fact that you dipped salt from them, with your knife, put it on the trencher, or board, on which your meat was served.
There were also casters, another name for muffineers, which were used for salt or spices to be sprinkled on muffins. Some of these had scroll handles; all were either cylindrical, octagonal, pear-shaped or a fusing of these forms. The word “cruet” applied originally only to the bottles used to hold various flavorings.
Later cruet sets included both bottles and three casters, one for sugar, one for cayenne pepper and the third for Jamaica pepper. Sauce boats were originally bowl-shaped, with two pouring ends.
In general, entree dishes were designed with a cover which could be used as a separate dish. The only decoration on these was the simple decorative mount around the top and edge of the cover. Many had ingenious warming compartments, into which hot water was poured.
The majority of salvers were simple, engraved only, with a coat of arms in the center. Shaping and ornamentation of the edges were closely related to furniture design, so that you will find them with the Chippendale mount, the shell and piecrust edge, etc.
The earliest tankards were iron-bound, wooden pitchers, in which water was carried from the pump to the house. On silver tankards, ornamental, horizontal bands are a reminiscence of the earlier hoops.
Flat covers, common until 1710, were then superseded by domed tops, though the body of the vessel remained plain.
In New Amsterdam, they were made after English types of the latter half of the Seventeenth Century, with characteristic corkscrew thumb pieces. Engraved designs were handsome on lids and sides, and there was frequently a foliated border above the base molding.
The beaker shape is a descendant of the horn cup. Beakers were never vastly popular in England, where tankards were preferred. In England, the caudle cup was used only at home; in New England, in church as well. (Caudle was a warm drink of thin gruel mixed with wine or ale, spiced and sweetened.)
The cups are almost all plain, undecorated except for lettering. Porringers originally were probably for soup or broth, and the geometric handle designs are peculiarly Colonial, with the keyhole pattern being introduced as early as 1725.
The spoon of the Middle Ages had a short, hexagonal, straight handle topped by a knob.
Toward the end of the Seventeenth Century, bowl and handle began to be made from two separate pieces of silver, and the bowl developed from fig-shape to oval. The handle took on a trifid (three-cleft) shape which soon developed into a more elegant, wavy end.
Subsequently, the handle end up-curved with a mid-ridge and concave space on either side of it, a long, grooved tongue, or rat tail, on the back of the bowl.
About 1730, the rat tail was replaced by a rounded drop where the handle meets the back of the howl and the handle end; by about 1745, with the Onslow pattern, the handle bends back. The ridge of the stem shortened, later disappeared.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Old English pattern of this period was of thin silver, enriched with bright-cut designs in Neo-Classic motifs. Common decorations of bright cutting were feather edges, medallions, flowers and sheaves of wheat.
For knives, pistol handles, plainly designed, were popular about 1765, when ornate scrolls and leaves took over. After this, straight-handled knives were made to correspond with the spoons of the period.
It was not until the close of the Seventeenth Century that forks were used in England. Table and dessert size were three-tined until the middle of the Eighteenth Century, later four-tined. Stems closely follow the designs of spoon handles.
During the Georgian era, England harbored French Huguenot refugee silversmiths, and silver gained an ornateness frowned upon during the High Silver Standard days of Queen Anne.
Here began the Rococo (roc et Coquille, or rock and shell). Obviously, the source of design was shells, scrolls and, in time, foliage in asymmetric profusion.
This style originated in Italy, but was brought to its highest flowering in France, where its best-known practitioner was Jules-Auréle Meissonnier, Master of the French Guild of Silversmiths, his florid designs influenced Paul de Lamerie, leader of the Rococ school in England.
Cream jugs at this time were all derived from the pear shape, with the addition of the cow creamer with a bee on its back for the handle of the cover.
Teapots, too, took on a pear shape, inverted, while coffee and chocolate pot were mounted on bases, had duck spouts and gadroon bands around rim and foot.
Salt bowls stood on little feet, had plain or molded rims. The sauce boat was no longer a double-lipped bowl, but had one pouring end a scroll handle at the opposite end.
About 1765, a radical change took place in English silver design which was inspired by the architecture of the Adam Brothers, which, in turn, was based on the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Shapes copying Greek and Roman vessels and ornamentation is also Classic in inspiration. (e.g., festoons, rams heads, vine leaves, lions feet and masks.)
Though silversmiths settled in Virginia as early as 1608, according to Captain John Smith, they came for the purpose of discovering gold, and not to pursue their craft. The first practicing silversmith of whom there seems to be knowledge, John Mansfield, came to Boston from London in 1634.
John Coney, one of Boston’s great silversmiths, marked his silver with his initials, and below them a coney — a kind of rabbit. (He engraved the plate for the first paper money ever made in America.)
Paul Revere was the third son of Huguenot silversmith named Apollo Rivoire, who learned his trade in Guernsey, came to Boston in the first half of the eighteenth century, and apprenticed himself to John Coney.
From his father, Paul Revere learned his trade, which included engraving. He also fashioned many of the carved wood frames for Copley’s portraits, and cast bells and cannon at his foundry. When Washington was in Boston, he repaired his teeth!
In America, where the English hallmark system was not used, it is only possible to date a piece of silver approximately unless it can be identified by some written record.
The working period of the silversmith who marked it with his name, the form of the vessel, and sometimes, particularly in the case of church silver, the date of gift may help.
Some of the oldest silver in America is in Southern churches like St. Anne’s at Annapolis, where there is a service bearing the Royal Arms and the date 1695.
Philadelphia became the leading silver-making center in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Charles Willson Peale, the Philadelphia painter, was originally a silversmith.
In New England, silver was bought both for its usefulness, and for the purpose of reconverting it into money in need arose.
In Baltimore, assay marks designated the standard of silver used. There are 71 different emblems, in addition to the words ‘premium’, ‘standard’, ‘dollars’, ‘dollar’, ‘pure coin’, and ‘coin.’
In Philadelphia, when it was our richest and largest city, as well as the nation’s capital, owning silver was a badge of gentility. In Virginia, it was one of the traditional and accepted furnishings of a gentleman’s house, sent to England from time to time to be melted down and remade according to the current fashion.
Antique silver from early American eras
During this Revolutionary and Federal period, tea urns, used for hot water or tea, came into use. They were usually heated by a piece of red-hot iron in a center pocket.
At about this time, the first tea “sets” were made. Also, slab-sided, sheet silver tea pots, accompanied by a stand on feet, to protect the table from heat.
About 1805, the stands were replaced by ball feet on the pot, sugar and creamer. Creamers were tall, conical or helmet-shaped, the former with a square base. All were decorated with bright cut and many with the pineapple finial. which is supposed to denote hospitality.
One measure of affluence in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. both here and in England. was the size and variety of meals. Tea was a very important one. Tea and coffee, greatly reduced in price from the high levels of the preceding century, were served lavishly.
Silver services for them were made larger than ever before. Victorian ladies liked to load their tea tables with sweetmeats and preserves, cakes and jellies. These called for elaborate series of silver dishes and servers.
The Victorian era saw the development of a great many special pieces of silver. Families prided themselves on their array of such elegancies as fish carvers and fish knives and forks, dessert forks and knives and the like.
With the elaborateness of the service came considerable elaboration of decorative detail. which was in keeping with the trend in furniture. Interest in design was stimulated by a series of exhibitions (the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the second one in 1862, and the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin, 1853).
Silver displays in these exhibitions proved that Victorian silversmiths were capable of producing pieces of real artistry, worthy to take a place beside the family silver made in earlier centuries.
Identify antique silver with these diagrams
Tea, Coffee service: Novelty pots and creamers
- Teapot with Globular body, straight spout. (English 1720)
- Chocolate pot by John Coney cut card leaf ornament at junction of spout and body.
- Simple pear-shaped teapot made by John Coney of Boston.
- Inverted pear sharped teapot by Benjamin Burt — The lid has a pineapple finial.
- Chocolate pot with fluted decoration.
- Coffee pot by Paul reverse, set on three shell feet.
- Creamer made by Nathaniel Hurd.
- Teapot with duck neck spout by Adrian Bancker of New York.
- Cow creamer (English 1765) — pours from the mouth.
Coffee pots, sugar containers
- Coffee pot by Issac Dighton; handle at right angles to spout.
- Octagonal coffee pot with duck-neck spout. (English 1720)
- Tea caddy with short neck and slip-on cover. (English 1720)
- Sugar tongs, scissor type.
- Hot water jug with reed-bound handle. (English 1760)
- Teapot made by John Burt of Boston.
- Tea kettle with spirit lamp stand made by Jacob Hurd.
- Octagonal sugar bowl made by Jacob Hurd.
- Sugar bowl made by John Coburn of Boston.
- Strainer with pierced decoration on handle.
- Chippendale sugar tongs, engraved spring tongs.
Complete tea service
- Complete tea service with teapot, creamer, sugar basin. All set on ball feet decoration is a single engraved band. (English 1805)
- Sheet silver Octagonal teapot made in Philadelphia. (about 1785)
- Fluted, sheet silver teapot by Paul Revere — the lid has a pineapple finial.
- Sugar vase with bright cut decoration by Ephraim Brasher of New York.
- Sugar bowl made from a hoard of Spanish doubloons.
- Sugar basket of pierced silver with blue glass lining. (English 1780)
Hot water jugs, creamers, strainers
- Toddy strainer by Paul Revere — handles long enough for use on punch bowl or tankard.
- Creamer and sugar bowl by Paul Revere, based on the urn forms made popular by classical antiques.
- Cylindrical sheet silver teapot with black wood handle. (1775)
- Creamer by Hugh Wishart of New York; square, grooved handle.
- Tea service on ball feet by High Wishart of New York. (1800)
- Boat shaped sugar bowl by J.R Lownes of Philadelphia. (1796)
- Vase-shaped urn by Paul Revere with ball and claw feet. (1800)
- Tea caddy pineapple finial. (English 1790)
- Hot water jug inspired by antique vases. (English 1780)
Teapot and tea urn
- Teapot of inverted pear shape set on a circular foot. (1830)
- Tea urn decorated with engraved swags of flowers and leaves.
- Coffee pot heavily decorated with floral motifs.
Floral tea set
- Tea set with overall floral decoration and tulip finials (1840).
- English Sheffield plate teapot, modified rococo.
- Cylindrical caster the top is attached by a bayonet fastening.
- Octagonal trencher salt with incurved sides. (English 1725)
- Pierced octagonal caster. (English 1713)
- Caster with plain scrolled handle. Made by William Cowell.
- Sauce boat of early type with a lip at each end. (English 1725)
- Trencher salt with gadrooned borders and line of punched floral design.
Queen Anne silver salvers, dishes, trays
- Salver made by John Le Roux for the Van Rensselaers (1723)
- Pierced silver chafing dish by John Coney
Queen Anne silver tankards, mugs, punch bowls
- Bell-shaped beaker with flat, scrolled handles. Made by John Dixwell.
- Caudle cup with fluted decoration. Made by William Cowell.
- Porringer with pierced handle of the keyhole type.
- Two-handled cup with fluted decoration by Edward Winslow of Boston.
- Punch bowl with scalloped rim, called a monteith. (1700)
- Tankard by C. Van Dyck of New York. (1715)
Queen Anne silver knives, forks, spoons
- Rococo decoration on spoon and fork by John Coney of Boston
- Trifid-end spoon by Arnolda Collins of Newport
- Knives had a plain pistol handle, the fork also had a pistol handle, and usually two tines rather then three.
- A ridge runs down the inside center of the stem, and a rat-tail prolongation of the handle strengthens the joint between handle and bowl.
Georgian silver cruets, sauceboats
- Sauce boat with hoof feet, shell leg joints. (English 1745)
- Rococo cruet frame with three casters and two glass bottles. (1750)
- Muffiner by the famous French Huguenot silversmith Paul Lamerie. (English 1732)
- Octagonal caster with scrolled handle, made by John Burt. (1732)
- Three-legged saltcellar, made by Daniel Parker.
- Sauce boat with molded foot. (English 1735)
Georgian silver salvers, dishes, trays
- Salver of octagonal outline, made by Jacob Hurd.
- Chafing dish of pierced silver, made by John Potwine of Boston.
- Chandler family coat of arms forms a decorative centerpiece for this salver by Paul Revere.
- Tray with owner’s coat of arms used as decorative spot in this tray. (English 1735)
Georgian silver tankards, mugs, punch bowls
- Caudle cup with bell-shaped body, made by George Hanners.
- Dome-top tankard by Jacob Hurd. Scrolled handle with strapwork hinge.
- Two-handled cup made by Peter Feurt. (1730)
- One of a set of twelve camp cups made for George Washington by Edmund Milne of Philadelphia.
- Caudle cup with deep neck and reed lip by Edward Winslow of Boston.
- Porringer with pierced handle of the keyhole type, by Edward Winslow of Boston.
Georgian silver knives, forks, spoons
- Old English pattern with feather edge decoration on the handle. By William Holmes Jr. of Boston.
- Salt spoon with shell bowl by Paul Revere.
- The Onslow patter is the first one in which the handle turns down instead of up towards the blow. The handle is terminated with a scroll.
- Made by Paul Revere, a rococo scroll motif decorates the back of the spoon.
American Revolutionary silver
Antique American cruet, sauceboats
- Boat-shaped saltcellar on an oval base by Caleb Swan of Boston.
- Octagonal pepper pot by Paul Revere.
- Oval saltcellar of pierced silver of blue glass liner. (1775)
- Mustard pot of pierced silver with blue glass liner. (English 1790)
- Cruet of pierced silver with glass bottles. (English 1790)
- Simple drum-type mustard pot with hinged lid. (English 1810)
American Revolutionary silver salvers, dishes, trays
- Tea tray engraved with the Washington coat of arms
- Entree dish with gadrooned border made by Paul Revere (1810)
- Entree dish with hot water compartment filled through the spout, which also houses the wooden handle. (English 1795)
- Sheffield plate salver with elaborate floral border.
American Revolutionary silver tankards, mugs, punch bowls
- Punch bowl made by Paul Revere for the Sons of Liberty.
- Pear-shaped tankard by John Stow of Wilmington. (1775)
- Mug from the Presbyterian Church, New Castle, Del. (1816)
- Mug hooped like a barrel. By Paul Revere.
- Two-handled chalice from Price George’s chapel, Dagsborough, Del.
- Porringer with pierced handle by Paul Revere.
- Dartmouth college punch bowl by Daniel Henchman. (1771)
- Tankard by Paul Revere. The domed lid has a pineapple finial.
American Revolutionary silver knives, forks, spoons
- Fiddle pattern spoon with pointed bowl by Davis Palmer & Co.
- Spoon by Joseph Loring with bright cut decoration on handle.
- The stem of this spoon is decorated with a beaded edge.
- The straight handled knife was decorated to match the spoons and forks with which it came in sets.
- An embossed wheat sheaf was a favorite decorative motif made by Edward Watson of Boston.
Antique silver cruet, sauceboats from the Victorian era
- Caster with decoration deriving from the old cut-card technique of applied silver plates.
- Revolving cruet with engraved glass bottles. Decorated silver frame.
- Two napkin rings — one fancy, one plain.
Victorian silver salvers, dishes, trays
- Fruit dish of classic elegance. Going back to Roman braziers.
- Plain circular fluted butter fish.
- Piecrust salver with rococo leafage and scallop shells made by Richard Sibley.
- Dish cover, undecorated except for the ridges.
- Rustic decorating supporting a scalloped fruit dish.
Victorian silver tankards, mugs, punch bowls
- Small mug chased with a band of moss rose design.
- Baby’s cup in pearl finish silver.
- Simple beer mug with moustache protector.
- Covered pitcher with elaborate fruit and flower decoration.
Victorian silver knives, forks, spoons
- Venetian macaroni spoon. Decoration influenced by use.
- Spoon of simple shape handle engraved with moss rose.
- Knife without decoration except for threaded outline around handle.
- Knife rest.
More examples of antique silver
Beautiful decorative antique silver coffee and tea set
Detailed antique silver
Decorative silver serving tray
Antique Victorian silver tea set
Decorative antique silver napkin holders – rings
Antique silver candlesticks
Antique silver vases and Victorian toast racks
Antique silver from England (1730s)