In my recent blog post Silver Desire: The Strawberry Fork 1908, I discussed how strawberry forks one of the food specific utensils developed in the late 19th century went out of fashion by the 1930’s. After doing more research, I have found some other reasons that contributed to the what I am calling (with I agree some drama) The Twilight of Silver Utensil Madness.
In the later 19th century more and more food specific utensils were designed and produced for silver patterns. It is important to note that this event is a distinctly American phenomenon. It in part occurred because the price of silver itself dropped after the Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859 in Nevada which allowed and enabled a wider consumer audience to purchase silver goods than there had been previously.
Silver manufacturers also produced more food specific flatware in order to increase their sales and sell psychologically social status and class to the emerging middle class. Patterns could have from 101-146 pieces such as utensils for raw oysters, fried oysters, poached eggs, terrapin, ice cream, asparagus, strawberries, oranges, lemons, bonbons, nuts, olives and on and on almost to infinity. For me, it expresses a certain madness, but the madness of tremendous creativity and the nascent consumer culture. Some of the most beautiful and intricate patterns were produced during this zeitgeist moment.
It also strikes me as a strangely 19th century Victorian kind of madness, in which the Western world (and here I realize that such a proliferation did not occur in Europe) desired and needed to subjugate and classify the world. So, perhaps the appearance of an infinity of utensils is part of this need to secure and define each food by how it was eaten and what socially prestigious and sanctified tool was needed to accomplish this task.
Such moments in cultural history never last, nor perhaps should they. An important event in the coming twilight of this madness occurred in late 1925 under the auspices of Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department. (It is interesting to note that Hoover was a part owner of a mining company whose holdings included silver mines.) Two things were happening at this time. There was a silver shortage and silver manufacturers were experiencing the downside of their infinite utensils and numerous patterns: labor costs to cut the dies used to make silver flatware and the burden of huge inventories. The silver trade suggested new standards for the manufacturing and retailing of flatware. The new standards were: Each pattern would be limited to 57 pieces. The introduction of a new pattern could occur only once every 2 years. Patterns were to be discontinued 5 years after their initial appearance. These new guidelines pertained directly to sterling pieces, but obviously the quantity of pieces available in plate flatware also, I believe, must have followed suit.
While I assume silver manufacturer’s continued to perhaps distribute older patterns in their inventories, the new standards certainly contributed to the end of the madness. Another reason of course were changing dining habits. What were once rare and specialized foods were more readily available in the 20th century and therefore one need not make an elaborate display of their eating with a specific and rarified silver implement.
A final consideration is the rise of stainless steel flatware. Stainless was introduced in the 1930’s to supersede silverplated knife blades and stainless cutlery began to appear in commercial settings. Oneida, a silver manufacturer that was making plated flatware since 1901, introduced the first successful stainless flatware patterns for the home in the early 1950’s. And of course, stainless was more affordable than sterling and did not need polishing like sterling or plate pieces. Also, plate flatware could often lose its silver coating.
The horrors of the Great War brought the 19th century to a tragic and violent end and ushered in a different world. The seeming innocence and progress of the 19th century was over or shown to be an illusion as indicated by European direct colonial dominion expanding from about 35% of the world to about 85% of it by 1914, the horrors of the American Civil War, the brutality of slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath, the subjugation of women who only gained the right to vote in 1920, the medicalisation and persecution of same-sex desire and the exploitation of the working class. The creation of some extremely beautiful silver patterns with an infinity of pieces was part of this cultural period which despite its part in an emerging consumer capitalism and desire for social status represented a moment of superb aesthetic creation. With the advent of the 20th century especially post-1918 the twilight of silver began although its prestige and use of course has continued to a degree in the 20th and 21st century. Wedding silver is still a viable market for the industry, but silver as an everyday event with elaborate dining and a myriad of utensils is sadly (at least for me) not part of our computer age.
Here are some examples of 19th century silver madness from my own collection: