Fish and Visitors: The Fish Slice

An history of the developement of sterling silver fish slices around the world.

Joseph P. Brady Silver Shop Historian

There have been specialized types of flatware-the sardine fork, the cucumber server, the hot cake lifter, etc.-made mostly during the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian ages, but the fish slice (along with its cousins the tart and pudding servers) is among the earliest of such individualized utensils. The eighteenth century laws that helped to enrich already rich landowners, and the Industrial Revolution, which created a rising middle class of merchants and professional people, created a new appetite for silver tableware that was not satisfied with just knives, spoons, ladles and forks. Specialized servers “in the French manner” we desired, and these broad-blade servers led to a revolution of their own at the table. Its form was largely dictated by its special function, yet this noble piece still manage to speak to us of elegance and grace. Saw-piercing, bright cutting, and elaborate cartouches make these blades their natural home.

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Figure 1

 

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 Figure 2

 The fish slice, then, is a broad blade or trowel shaped server, most often used for dividing and serving fish at the table, but the earliest examples were used to serve fried fish directly from the pan (fig1). These early servers, circa1740, use the name “slice,” but their blades are rounded and symmetrical. Elaborately saw-pierced, their main purpose was to drain unwanted cooking juices. As whitebait was commonly fried in the eighteenth century home, the early examples where called whitebait servers. More elongated slices, fish shaped but still symmetrical, appeared after about 1745, and these eventually evolved into the a symmetrical fin shape we see most often(fig2). The symmetrical shape still persisted, but such later examples were usually longer and slightly pointed. Further, the most familiar scimitar blade was rarely made before 1800. The earliest known example was possibly made in London, ca. 1780, by Joseph Steward II (pudding and cake servers appeared at the same time).

The scimitar blade made its first known appearance on the Continent around 1780, but on either side of the Channel there is a bit of a gap, from the early 1780s until the early 1790s, during which almost no such examples were produced. The study of existing examples would suggest that the scimitar shape made its return around 1790 and saw steady gains in popularity until, by circa 1800, it had become the preferred shape for the fish slice. The blade recalls the shape of a fish’s fin, but a suggestion has been made that, especially in its more elongated form, it resembles the outline of a headless fish. This would be very much in keeping with the manner in which the fish appeared at the table.

The baroque and rococo style saw-piercing of the earliest fish slices usually covered the blade from side to side, sometimes leaving a border of less than one quarter inch, with more metal removed than retained. A close examination of the scroll work will show, however, the blade is not at all weakened and the holes are quite strategically placed. The piercing often featured a cartouche or reserve to be engraved with an armorial device or a monogram. The piercing was often enhanced by bright-cutting, with one or more fish forming a central motif(fig 3); fishnet pattern backgrounds were not uncommon. The more elongated neoclassical slices and fin-shaped examples often featured fish backbone-style piercing, while others were pierced with stars or comma shapes, using a punch. During the latter part of the eighteenth century the blade might also feature a border of classical-style interlocking scrolls.

 

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Figure 3

 The piercing of Georgian fish slices took two forms. Saw-piercing by craftsman was the only method employed when they first appeared and was used throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bit the steam-driven equipment introduced by Matthew Boulton and James Watt in the late 1760s resulted in mechanical die fly-cutting. This expensive equipment, however, was afforded only by the more prosperous firms , such as the Batemans in London. Pierced examples in Sheffield plate, although not common, can be found today.

As far as slicing and serving at the table is concerned, however, a question arises: How much of the piercing was functionally necessary and how much was simply decoration? After the mid eighteenth century , was usually brought from the kitchen in a pot and transferred to a mazarine or onto a ceramic fish drainer. Indeed, Rabinovitch says that ” the need for a pierced server…becomes questionable.”

Bright-cutting, rather than saw-pierced, more commonly characterizes the decoration of America fish sliced, but many elaborate pierced examples of coin silver can be found. Chasing of the blade became more common in the Art Nouveau period, and early twentieth century examples were usually left plain.

 Joseph P. Brady

Beverly Bremer Silver Shop Historian

A History of the Epergne

There in the center of the dining room table, framed by two Corinthian column candlesticks with leaf-clad bypass branches, was a Georgian epergne.  Its shell feet and foliate scroll legs rose to support a wide open skirt of garland swags.  Eight scrolling arms held, alternately, hanging baskets and circular plates, and a saw-pierced column supported a boat-shaped center basket.  The large center basket and the smaller hanging ones overflowed with beautifully-arranged flowers, while the plates displayed arrangements of small fruits and berries (the tiny toothpicks holding the fruit and berries in place made it quite obvious that they were not intended to be served that evening.)  The epergne provides a great theater for the silversmith’s craft, but were my host and hostess aware of its original use?  Of course they were.  They were both serious collectors of Georgian and Early American silver.

By the eighteenth century entertaining had developed into a grand art, and the English epergne can claim a strong link to seventeenth century France and the great changes in manners which began with the French Court.  This revolution greatly affected the silversmith’s output, and led to many of the articles common to the twenty-first century table.  For example, foods that had previously been eaten from a common bowl with either fingers or bread came to be eaten with spoons and forks from individual plates, and by the late 1600’s there existed different plates for different foods.  Further, individual chairs replaced benches at the table.  Before the close of the century silversmiths found themselves making large matching services for their aristocratic patrons.  A new emphasis on decorating the table led to the development of the centerpiece.

The earliest ancestor of the epergne was the surtout, a center tray holding casters, salts, oil bottles, etc., made in silver, silver-gilt, gilt bronze, ceramic, and combinations thereof.  A closer relative, introduced a bit later but which coexisted with the surtout, was the fruitier, and it usually replaced the surtout toward the end of the meal.  The fruitier was a tiered centerpiece with bowls for sweetmeats, which sometimes held sugar casters.

The word epergne is taken from the French epargne, meaning economy, and originally bore the more anglicized spelling aparn.  The English epergne economizes in two ways.  First, in the saving of precious space:  The prevailing custom of service at the time required that much of the food be put on the table at once.  Guests entering the dining room found the food in place, usually in covered entrée dishes (the dishes sometimes made with a hot water chamber), one or two kinds of fish, and one or two soup tureens.  Further, around 1760 it became fashionable for the host to carve the bird or joint of meat at the table.  The second way in which the epergne economized is that it made for the thrifty use of rare nuts, fruits, condiments, and other luxuries from the tropics or the East.  Guests would serve themselves from the epergne, and delicacies that were not eaten were left on the centerpiece, rather than being wasted when the plates were cleared.

Records show that the epergne first appeared on the English table around the 1720’s, but there are no extant examples from that period.  An inventory of Whitehall, circa 1725, mentions an “aparn containing one table basket and cover, one foote [sic.], four salt boxes, four small salts, four branches, six casters, four sauce boats.”  The earliest epergnes were large and elaborate, with a wide center column, often with heavy cast feet decorated with masks, supporting detachable arms with flat plates, hanging baskets and candle sockets.  Examples in the rococo style were still great in overall size, but light in look, with more pierced decoration.  The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw epergnes in the neoclassical taste, and examples with silver frames and glass bowls appeared around 1770.

There are references to silver epergnes in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Virginia. For example, the inventory of the estate of General Thomas Nelson of Yorktown lists a “Silver Epergne weighing 92:19,” and Richard Corbin of Laneville purchased from the London jeweler and goldsmith Richard Davis “an Elegant Epergne wh Branches and Large Bason [sic.] at Top.  Thomas Jefferson gave a glass epergne to Martha Burke Jones when, in 1809, she married John Wayles Eppes.

Epergne in the rococo taste, sterling silver, Maker’s mark of Emick Romer, London, circa 1763
Epergne in the rococo taste, sterling silver, Maker’s mark of Emick Romer, London, circa 1763

During the Georgian period many foreign artists and silversmiths emigrated to England, and these foreign-born “English” silversmiths left their mark on the history of the epergne.  One such example is Emick Romer, who was born in Halden, Norway.  He was apprenticed in his native country in 1749, and emigrated to London in the 1750’s.  He appears to have entered his first mark in Goldsmiths Hall circa 1758.  

 

Epergne in the neoclassical taste, sterling silver, maker’s mark of Thomas Pitts, London, circa 1789
Epergne in the neoclassical taste, sterling silver, maker’s mark of Thomas Pitts, London, circa 1789

A talented English-born silversmith known for his fine epergnes is Thomas Pitts.  Pitts was apprenticed to Charles Hatfield on December 6, 1737 and turned over to David Willaume II, son of a prominent French immigrant silversmith, in February of 1742.  His freedom is recorded in 1744, although he does not appear to have registered his first mark as an independent worker until 1758. 

 

Epergne, sterling silver and glass, in the neoclassical taste, maker’s mark of Matthew Boulton, Birmingham, circa 1808
Epergne, sterling silver and glass, in the neoclassical taste, maker’s mark of Matthew Boulton, Birmingham, circa 1808

Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham, England, factory, the Soho Works, produced epergnes in both sterling silver and old Sheffield plate.  These pieces usually combine silver or silverplate with glass, and are in the later, more architectural version of the neoclassical style.

 

The Victorian period saw the epergne relieved of its grand position of server.  The “new” style of serving, service a la russe, saw each course brought in separately, leaving more room for the display of flowers.  The late nineteenth and early 20th centuries saw a brief and limited revival of epergnes in the rococo and neoclassical styles, with some very good American examples made by the Gorham Company.  Still, these were intended for use as decorative objects, not for serving. 

Though a lot of epergnes must be viewed today behind the glass of museum showcases, there are, fortunately, many in private hands that are still brought out for special occasions.  I would love to take nutmeg offered by the outstretched arm of an epergne, or be served my dessert from its center basket the way our ancestors might have been, but I’ll settle for enjoying the beauty of the object and the lovely flowers arranged in it.

 

Joseph P. Brady

Silver Historian, 2009

 

References:

 

Bayne-Powell, Rosamond, Housekeeping in the Eighteenth Century, John Murray, London, 1956

 

Blair, Claude, editor, The History of Silver, Macdonald & Co., London & Sydney, 1987

 

Brady, Joseph P., “The Epergne,” Silver Magazine, November/December issue, 1997

 

Davis, John D., English Silver at Williamsburg, the University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1976

 

Flanders, Judith, Inside the Victorian Home, W. W. Norton & Co., New York & London, 2006

 

Grimwade, Arthur G., London Goldsmiths 1697 – 1837, Their marks & Their Lives, third edition, Redwood Press, Ltd., 1990

 

Hughes, Bernard & Therle, Three Centuries of English Domestic Silver, Frederick A. Praeger, New York & Washington,  1952

 

Stein, Susan R., The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, New York, in association with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1993

 

Wyler, Seymour B., The Book of Old Silver, Crown Publishers, New York, 1965

 

 

Asparagus Servers, their Origin and Use

Sterling Influences: Early Spring Stalks

Asparagus, in earlier centuries going by such names as “sparrow grass” and “sparagrass,” was cultivated by the Romans as early as 200 BCE.  Though consumption waned during the Middle Ages, it was revived during the reign of Louis XIV.  Thomas Jefferson sowed asparagus seeds at Monticello, and noted in his writings the vegetable’s first appearance each spring.  Mary Jefferson Randolph’s directions for cooking the dish were quite detailed, from scraping the stalks and correctly tying the bundles, to timing the cooking so as to bring out their “…true flavour and colour,” noting that “a minute or two more boiling destroys both.”1  The appearance of this harbinger of spring was cause for much celebration, and specialized servers were designed to enhance the experience.

 

"Yoked" asparagus tongs, London, circa 1846 (# 24437)
"Yoked" asparagus tongs, London, circa 1846 (# 24437)

The earliest asparagus servers date from the mid 18th century, and were scissor-like tongs with narrow corrugated arms.  As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, asparagus servers widened, taking the form of bow-back tongs with a collar or yoke – a form more commonly seen on the market today.

 

 

Individual asparagus tongs, London, circa 1909 (# 64809)
Individual asparagus tongs, London, circa 1909 (# 64809)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hinged asparagus tongs fitted with a spring appeared in England, on the European Continent and in the United states by the mid 19th century, and by the late 19th century American silversmiths were making a very practical fork-shaped asparagus server.  These asparagus forks usually, but not always, had blunt tines, to prevent tearing of the delicate stalks, as well as a shovel-like curve. 

 

Asparagus fork, St. Cloud by Gorham (# 70570)
Asparagus fork, St. Cloud by Gorham (# 70570)

 

Specialty silver trays were eventually made for the serving of asparagus:  These were rectangular or oblong in form, with a pierced liner which kept the stalks from sitting in liquid.  And although it is quite correct to eat asparagus with the fingers, individual asparagus tongs were introduced in the 19th century, by silversmiths catering to either the self-conscious or to those Victorians wanting to demonstrate Man’s superiority over all other creatures.

Asparagus Tray, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1915
Asparagus Tray, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1915 (# 61472)

Hot or chilled, served plain, marinated, or with a rich hollondaise sauce, asparagus has been celebrated for centuries.

 

— Joseph P. Brady, Silver Historian, 2009

 1   Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler, p 61