Antiques: Silver and its imitations


Most of the antique silver in the hands of dealers who specialize in this branch of antiques or of those who handle it as an adjunct, is either American or British.

Comparatively little is Continental. Therefore, discussion of the chief characteristics of such silver and marks used will be limited to that made by silversmiths of our own country and the British Isles.

Antique pieces of household silver carry one or more marks by which their provenance, age and indentity of individual makers can be established. In the case of English silver, these impressed emblems and ciphers are known as hallmarks, and can be read easily if one understands the significance of each mark in a set.

Hallmarks were required by law on English silver.

Antique silver spoons

American silver marks are simpler and do not follow any system required by law. For the most part, each piece bears the mark of its maker. There are some instances where this mark has been omitted; there are others where the mark has been almost totally erased by wear or by reworking a piece. As a random test, I inspected the antique spoons I have. Out of an assortment of sixty-three American-made examples, dating from about 1780 to 1865, 1 found only two unmarked, and three with marks so faint that they could not be deciphered.

As an example of reworking, I have a beaker made about 1790 that was later converted into a child's mug by the addition of a rococo handle and an allover repousse decoration showing a country scene. This conversion took place about 1850 and was done by Hammond & Co., New York silversmiths famous for this type of decoration. Their mark on the bottom of the piece almost but not quite obliterates the earlier one of M M enclosed in a rectangle. This was the mark of Myer Myers, the famous Jewish silversmith who worked in New York from 1745 to 1795. The mug is a handsome piece and the reworking took place so long ago that it rates as a late antique in its present state, but had it been left as it came from the hands of Myer Myers, its value would be considerably greater.

On American silver the maker's mark might be a single letter, two (or less frequently three) initials, or a name. For example, D with a pellet on either side was the mark of Jabez Delano, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1763-1848; P S in a rectangle, that of Philip Syng, Philadelphia, 1676-1739; and REVERE in a rectangle was used by the patriot Paul Revere of Boston, 1735-1818. On spoons, such marks are on the back of the handle, either on the shank near the bowl or at the wide upper end. On larger pieces, such as teapots, cream pitchers, sugar bowls, tankards, beakers and porringers, look for the mark on the base or the side.

Near the upper end of the handle was a favorite spot for the old silversmiths to put their mark on tankards and canns as silver mugs were originally called. Pieces with lids sometimes have two marks, one on the main part and the other on the cover. I have known of a few rare instances, notably a Paul Revere water pitcher that has been in the possession of its present owner's family since 1825, where the mark is inside on the. bottom. So if no mark can be found elsewhere on a piece of hollow ware, take a good look inside. A physician's flashlight with plastic tongue depressor is very useful for this since the light flows down the plastic extension and lights up the interior of a piece most effectively.

All dealers who specialize in silver have these and other authoritative books for reference in their shops, as well as standard ones dealing with European silver. They can also be found in the reference sections of most good-size public libraries.

In addition to these maker's marks, three others are sometimes found on American silver of the mid-nineteenth century, especially on spoons, and help to date such pieces. These marks are "pure coin," "warranted," and sometimes "warranted pure coin." Their use dates from shortly after 1847, the year when Rogers Brothers of Hartford, Connecticut, started the first successful manufactory of plated silver in this country. Made of a base metal and electroplated with silver, such ware looked like silver and sold for much less. Silversmiths, in self-defense and to show the superiority of their products, began marking them in one of these three ways, in addition to their regular touch marks. The mark "pure coin" referred to the centuries-old practice of melting silver coins for use as raw material.

My maternal grandfather, Bradbury M. Bailey, of Rutland, Vermont, was one of these late silversmiths. His working years were from 1852 to 1878. He marked his spoons in various ways-B. M. Bailey; B. M. Bailey, Rutland, Vt.; B. M. Bailey with one of the following additions, "pure coin," "warranted pure coin," or just "warranted." A very few, made just before he closed his silversmithing shop, bear "Sterling" as a designation of quality.

When our large Western mines, such as the Comstock Lode in Nevada, began to produce silver in large quantities, a standard of 925 parts pure silver to 75 parts copper alloy was adopted for commercial silver and has continued ever since. About this time, too, American silversmithing changed from a handcraft to factory production. So, with the few exceptions of spoons obviously made by hand, any silver bearing the sterling mark dates after 1874 and is too late to be considered antique.

Shortly after silver electroplating became commercially successful in the United States, several makers of pewter or Britannia teasets took advantage of this new scientific development and began to plate their hollow ware. Tea and coffee services and related pieces so made are not, by strict interpretation, collectible antiques.

All of this plated ware was marked, either on the back or bottom of each piece, with the maker's name, and either "triple plate" or "quadruple plate" was added as an indication of quality. In a teasets, on the bottom of each piece a number is also frequently found, as, for instance, "1790" on a tea service marked "Rogers, Smith & Co., New Haven, Ct.," which is one of my family possessions. Collectors should be warned that such a number is not, as some wishfully think, the year when it was made. It is merely the style number of the particular design, by which the manufacturer identified it in his illustrated catalogue. For example, my teaset was purchased new in 1868 from the Bradbury M. Bailey already mentioned.

Plated tea- and coffeepots made before 1850 have carved wooden handles, usually of maple dyed black to simulate ebony. Metal-handled ones equipped with small mother-of-pearl insulators date between 1850 and 1870. This refinement is not found on cheaper pots or on those of a later date.

Early plated tea and coffee services were usually made In restrained classic urn shapes or in the English or French baroque designs of the eighteenth century. They were never loaded with the allover engraved decoration which came later, along with the widespread vogue for casters, cake baskets, tureens, ewer-shaped water pitchers and goblets without which no prosperous household of the 1870's was properly equipped.

Later the American plated-silver manufacturers outdid even the Victorian, and their designs seemed to have been inspired by about everything, including the kitchen stove or a stable lantern. Most plated silver made after 1870 is not only not collectible; it is not worth harboring unless one wants a few examples to show how bad American taste could be at times and the extremes to which makers went in catering to it.

English silver has one distinct advantage over our own. It is marked much more uniformly and clearly, for each piece bears a set of symbols called hallmarks, which tell where it was made, the year of its making, and the identity and working years of its maker, and that it was assayed for quality of metal.

These hallmarks were so called from the fact that the marking was done first at the guild hall or office in London of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, and later also in government assay offices maintained in London and other principal silversmithing towns of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

The history of English hallmarks goes back at least five hundred years. Books on the subject should be consulted for details and tables of marks. Here, at the risk of oversimplification, just a few cogent highlights are given to indicate what proper reading of a set of marks can tell about a piece. The hallmarks were clearly impressed and are easy to find. They are usually on the side, edge of base, rim or under side of a piece. Knives, forks, spoons and the like are marked on the back of the handle.

As early as 1300 an Act of Parliment required that each piece of silver plate be submitted by its maker to authorities of. his guild for marking. Incised with a small steel punch, such marking was proof that the piece was the work of an accredited master silversmith. In 1327, the London Company of Goldsmiths was granted a royal charter. To it were delegated police powers for regulating its members and enforcing purity of metal. Gradually these became a code that governed the silversmithing craft.

By 1478, records show that the Goldsmiths Company adopted a series of three marks that had to be impressed on each piece of silver and done under its supervision. Sale of unmarked silver was illegal and penalities for such black marketing were severe. The marks were a leopard's head (crowned until 1850 and uncrowned after that year), a date letter and the individual device of the maker. The leopard's head was proof that the piece bearing it was the work of a member of the Goldsmiths Company. Later it became the mark designating London-made silver. The date letter, changed annually, recorded the year when a piece was made. The maker's touch was at first a device, such as a key or a fish, taken from the sign that hung over each craftman's shop. The date letters ran through the alphabet, with J, V, W, X, Y and Z omitted because of possible confusion. At the end of each series a new and different design of letter was adopted.

A fourth symbol was added to the set of hallmarks in 1538. This was the lion passant, which in the language of heraldry means "walking lion." It was placed between the date letter and the maker's touch. Like the other three, it is still in use, and always faces left. This lion passant was additional proof that the piece bearing it had been tested for quality and conformed to the legal standard.

After this the individual silversmiths gradually changed their touches from trade-mark-like devices to the first letter of their surnames or to those of their first and last names, mounted on a small shield or other shape. This appears to have become the common practice by 1610. There was no further change in the character of hallmarks until 1697, From then to 1719, a figure of Britannia and a lion's head erased (severed at the neck) replaced the leopard's head and the lion passant to show that the metal used in making pieces so marked contained more pure silver and less alloy than the current English coinage. This was required by a law designed to prevent silversmiths from converting coins into pieces of domestic plate, since this practice had created a serious shortage of metallic currency.

In 1720, use of the leopard's head and the lion passant was revived, but occasional pieces of plate made of silver of greater purity were still marked with the Britannia and lion's head punches. The head of the reigning sovereign, fifth and last punch in a series of hallmarks, was added in 1784, when newly made silverware became subject to a luxury tax. The American Revolution and her other wars had cost England a great deal, and this silver tax was enacted to provide additional revenue. The sovereign's head was inserted in the set of hallmarks between the lion passant and the maker's touch, and continued to be used until 1890, when the excise tax on silverware was repealed.

At first, silver made elsewhere in England was subject to the same regulations and bore the same hallmarks as that produced in London. By about 1565, the earliest of the silvermaking centers outside of London established individual town marks that replaced the leopard's head. By the early seventeenth century there were a total of forty-nine localities in Great Britain and Ireland that had their own distinct town marks. Most of them were never important silver-producing centers and ceased after comparatively short span of activity.

Antique silver hall marks There were, however, six places in England, two in Scotland and two in Ireland where silver was made in sufficient quantity or late enough so that examples bearing their special town marks are likely to be found in American antique shops.

They and their town marks were Birmingham, an anchor; Sheffield, a crown; Newcastle, two castles above one castle; York, five lions passant on a Greek cross; Chester, the word STERLING until 1700, three lions and three wheat-sheaves until 1778, and since then, three sheaves of wheat and a dagger; Edinburgh, a three-towered castle, and after 1746 the thistle as a separate touch; Glasglow, a complicated oval design consisting of a, tree, a bird, a fish and a bell; Dublin, a crowned harp; and Cork, either STERLING or STIRLING. Both variations of spelling were also abbreviated.

Such are the principal facts concerning hallmarks on English silver, reduced practically to an outline. No attempt has been made to deal with the individual marks of even the most outstanding of such craftsmen as Paul Lamerie, or to tell anything about that interesting group of women silversmiths, like Hester Bateman, who flourished in England for over a century.

Because of the quantities of silver made in England over such a long period, large amounts of it dating between 1760 and 1830 have been imported for some years by our dealers in antique silver. Probably as much more will be brought over in the years to come. Because this silver has been plentiful and prices for it within reason, making copies and then marking them with forged hallmarks has not been as widely practiced as some people believe.

When it has been attempted, the quality of the workmanship, as in most other fakes, is so inferior as to be easily detected by anyone accustomed to handling antique silver. But every so often a good piece of English silver, definitely old, turns up with the genuine mark of a desirable maker, yet is questionable. It is a forgery that can be detected by simply breathing on the hallmark. Moisture generated will bring out the lines of an inlaid piece of silver bearing the hallmark, which was taken from the back of a damaged spoon or similar item and skillfully inserted in a good but unmarked piece.

London Hall marks

Since all dealers and many collectors know of this trick, such faking has not been as profitable as it once was, and I doubt if much of this inlay conterfeiting is being done today. Certainly no dealer of reputation knowingly buys or sells such a piece. Consequently the best protection for the average collector is to patronize established dealers whose judgment he respects.

From about 1750 to 1850 a special group of English craftsmen produced hollow-ware pieces, trays and the like, of a less costly material known as Sheffield plate. Today this ware is equally as collectible as silver. In making it, the craftsman started with a small block of copper. Fused to the upper and under sides of it were thinner blocks of silver. By repeatedly passing the block under heavy pressure between polished rollers, it gradually became a thin sheet of metal with silver top and bottom and copper between, in layers like these of the thin plywood so much used today for the sides of large packing boxes. From these sheets Sheffield plate makers fashioned a wide range of graceful table and sideboard pieces, candlesticks and other items that followed the designs of similar silver pieces. The copper core, of course, showed at the edges; and to cover it, silver-wire beading or heavier gadrooning was applied with solder.

Nearly a hundred English makers of Sheffield plate are known. Fifty-one were located in Sheffield, and seventy-four in Birmingham. They continued their work until the easier and less expensive method of electroplating superseded it. Marking Sheffield plate was not required until 1784. After that date, each maker recorded his mark and impressed it on his wares. They were of the trade-mark sort, with maker's name or initials most favored, although small individual punches resembling those of a hallmark were sometimes used. For a check list of these marks, giving makers' names, dates and location, Wyler's Old Silver can be consulted once again with profit.

Much of the antique Sheffield plate found today will have considerable copper showing because the silver has been worn away by repeated polishing. The only remedy is to replate the entire piece. Objects that have been so restored are not as valuable as those left in original condition, but they have by no means lost all merit as collectible antiques. They have simply been rejuvenated by the only method possible.

There are also reproduction pieces, done within the last thirty or forty years, by electroplating on a base of copper. They are marked "Sheffield" and sometimes bear a maker's name, but should not be confused with antique Sheffield. They are just good usable copies. The only pieces that rate as collectible antiques are those by makers whose names are found in the check lists of old Sheffield-plate craftsmen.

One sometimes finds a piece of antique silver that was repaired years ago by a workman who was either lacking in skill or was unwilling to take the trouble necessary to do a neat job. As a result, an overdose of solder was applied to a handle that had come loose, or a leak was so slathered over with solder as to cover part of the engraved decoration. In buying a piece of old silver, it is usually well to avoid one marred by such sloppy work, though one must expect to see frequent traces of legitimate repairs. These do not affect the value of a piece if skillfully done.

Occasionally, too, one finds pieces that were converted many years ago from one use to another. Transforming tankards into small teapots by cutting a hole in one side and adding a tubular spout was a change frequently made about the middle of the nineteenth century. As a result, the value to present-day collectors of many a fine tankard was reduced to only a quarter of what it would have been otherwise.

There is little the average collector can do for himself in repairing antique silver. For example, taking a dent out of the side of a bowl is not just a simple job of tapping it with a light hammer. It requires skill and a number of special silversmithing tools. Even removing toothmarks and dents from bowls of American coin silver spoons requires more knowledge and skill than the average collector is likely to possess. Too often an amateur in trying to correct a minor blemish on a piece of old silver succeeds only in marring it further. My advice is to do nothing more than polish old silver. Leave all repairs to an expert.

Basic antiques

Finding antique

American fireplace
American mirrors
Baltimore furniture
Common clocks
Queen Anne furniture
Romantic furniture
Sanderson & Salem
Secret drawers
Small sideboards

Glass American
Glass knobs
Sandwich salt dishes
Vermont glass company

Look of antique

Metal wares
Antique Andirons
Birmingham brass
Pewter, Brass, Copper

Chinese influence
Penny banks

Porcelain, Earthenware
Adam Caire
Antique dishes (Dutch)
Yang Stai

Prints & Paintings
Advertising lithographs
Robert Fulton
Samuel F.B. Morse

Drawers & Beds
Furniture hardware
Pewter, Silver, China
Tables & Chairs

Silver & Imitations
Huguenot silversmiths
Silver towns
Women silversmith

Textiles & Needlework
Pennsylvania panels
Quilting bee
Rugs hooking