A Brief History of Silver
The process of extracting and refining silver dates from the third millennium BC, and the metal was well represented in the wealth of Mesopotamia, Babylon, Egypt, classical Greece and ancient Rome. Silver’s unique properties have made it a wonderful medium for the decorative arts, and its intrinsic value as a precious metal has made it the ultimate and everlasting recyclable. As fashion changed over the decades and centuries, silver has been melted and reshaped into new forms, and in times of economic crisis, for individuals and nations, it has been converted into coin. Its reflective qualities have made it an ideal material for the display of power, wealth or reverence, in palaces, cathedrals, temples and the great houses of Asia, Europe and the Americas.
It was during the Renaissance that silver began to become important for display: An impressive show of silver objects was a telling measure of a person’s wealth and social standing. In the English court, New Year’s gifts of silver were customarily exchanged, and silver was of foremost importance for state occasions. At the same time, silver was the preferred material for the wealthiest aristocratic and merchant classes. The social, rather than the economic, aspects of silver were taking shape.
Etruscan spoons dating from 700 BC are not unlike the ones we use today, and knives were always present at the table, but it was in 16th century Italy that forks began to replace fingers for conveying food to the mouth. As the fork’s popularity spread to France, great changes in manners began. Foods that had previously been eaten by dipping fingers or bread into a common bowl 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. This revolution, of sorts, greatly affected the silversmiths’ output, and before the close of the 17th century silversmiths found themselves making large matching services for their wealthy patrons. It was the beginning of table silver as we know it today.
In the 18th century silver more and more became the tangible evidence of wealth, and men a women carried their hard-earned and carefully hoarded coins to the silversmith to be made into usable objects. Theses pieces retained their intrinsic value while being used for celebrations, daily routines or mere display. It is from the American colonies that we get the term American Coin Silver. Although this phrase is commonly linked to simple pointed-end, round-end or fiddle-back spoons, early American silversmiths were, like their English and European counterparts, producing church silver, tankards, beakers, tea sets and tea caddies, trays and salvers, porringers, braziers, candlesticks, etc. The word coin as it pertains to these articles of American silver mainly defines the source of the raw material: Until the 19th century, coins provided the silver makers of nearly all countries with raw material when bullion was scarce, but since silver was not mined commercially in the United States until the 1850’s, coins were the American silversmith’s major resource.
At the beginning of the 19th century, silver services were comparatively simple. However, rising middle and merchant classes on both sides of the Atlantic, as well rich industrialists in the United States, created a great demand for silver objects. The urge to display affluence, along with impetus given by exhibitions in 1851 and 1862, led not only to more ornate styles but a wide range of new serving and individual pieces. This Victorian explosion of tableware seems to have begun simply enough, with the fashion for separate fish knives. Followed, of course by the addition of the fish fork. By the 1870’s, dinner consisted of from five to eighteen courses, and, as one etiquette book stated, the guest could expect “a bewildering array of glass goblets, wine and champagne glasses, numerous forks, knives and spoons.”
Silver manufacturers were soon trying to outdo one another, with one American maker offering 20 different types of individual place setting spoons, 12 different forks and ten different knives. In addition to individual dinner forks, medium forks, dessert forks, fish forks, oyster forks, lobster forks, terrapin forks, salad forks, berry forks, pie forks, fruit forks and ice cream forks, there were specialized forks for serving beef, sardines, bread, olives, asparagus, pickles, etc. The list of specialized forks, spoons, flat servers and knives is almost endless, and reflects, in part, the spiritual need of Victorians to demonstrate the superiority of Man over all other creatures.
Nineteenth-century silver manufacturers had placed great emphasis on industrialization and modern manufacturing techniques, but the early years of the 20th century saw a move to widen the gulf between artist and industrialist. The Arts & Crafts Movement, which saw its beginnings in Europe and spread quickly across the Atlantic, put emphasis on the individual craftsman. The movement saw the important role that craft can play in the “humanizing” of society. The workers in this tradition have aspired to lofty goals, taking the silversmith back to role of artisan. The period between the World Wars brought about great stylistic changes, with the introduction of “Modernism”, later termed the “Art Deco” style. As we begin the 21st century, these objects too are finding their place in museums and private collections.
Though we may lament that much old silver has been lost to the whims of fashion or the loss of fortune, we must also remember that the nineteenth century saw a taste for collecting antique silver: Pieces once melted and refashioned began to be collected for their aesthetic appeal. The same period saw a burgeoning spirit of inquiry and research, and as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, scholarly publications and exhibitions brought new information, and exciting pieces of silver, to light. Silver has a past, a present and a future, and, in many ways, it lives in all three.
Joseph P. Brady
Silver Historian, 2007
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