Introduction: The Story of Sterling
Fine Sterling carries with it the same unquestioned authority as other authentic works of art…the inescapable authority of the genuine. Reproductions may frequently be mistaken for the original…but the genuine carries an assurance that is rarely confused with its imitators. This is true of people; of books; of paintings; of furniture; of gems; in an especial degree, it is true of silver. And this authority of the genuine contributes to the people whose lives it touches daily a sense of permanence, of continuity that can come from no other source. It is more than pride of possession. It is a reflection of the quality of the thing itself. A simple dinner served with things of permanent beauty becomes memorable. And coffee poured from a slender shining pot of silver is a libation to the the guest under the roof-tree, Too much importance, you say, to attach to material possessions? But they are part of the ritual of daily life. And to dignify them with permanence and beauty is to dignify daily life itself.- Jean Parker, The Story of Sterling published by The Sterling Silversmith Guild of America in 1937.
Ms. Jean Parker weaves a fascinating if slightly excessive argument for the use of sterling silver not just on formal occasions but in everyday life. The Story of Sterling was published by The Sterling Silversmith Guild of America, so it must also be seen as a marketing tool for the industry in its declaration that sterling silver is a necessity for one’s table. The slim volume details the history of silver and an explanation of styles. The second part of the book explains proper table settings for breakfast, lunch and so on and what pieces of solid silver are necessary to achieve the right look and smooth operation of your table.
In the introduction, Ms. Parker states that sterling silver is authentic, genuine, permanent, memorable and beautiful. It is unlike any other material used for the production of eating implements and goes beyond mere functionality, it is connected to ritual. Coffee poured from a silver pot is not simply a tasty drink according to the author; it is a libation- a liquid offering to the gods (0f silver?) or to your guest and demonstrates the dignity and esteem in which you hold yourself and them through your use of solid silver. Owning sterling is not a representation of consumer excess or capitalist endeavor says Ms Parker while at the same time she urges you to own it. Rather possession of sterling imbues its owner and his/her table with nobility and self-respect.
Generally, I agree with Ms. Parker’s intent, but I am less sympathetic to her conclusions. Her notions of capitalism, originality and authorship are in 2010 a bit antiquated. However, she does capture a sense of the difference of sterling silver and how its use on your table can make for a beautiful and memorable experience for you and your guest(s), transforming a simple meal or dessert into something special and rare.
She is of course correct that sterling has an intrinsic value in the metal itself beyond the design or style of the object made from it. In this regard, she rightly implies the connection of sterling to a sense of history and permanence. This idea resonates for me in particular and besides the aesthetics of silver is why I collect it. (For more on this concept and my relationship to it, see here and here.) Collecting antique silver links me to a past, a past seen in the patina of the piece, in its style, in its method of making and in its function. It conjures up the ghosts of those individuals who possibly used a particular implement in my collection. A monogram beyond decorative or skillful, can be a haunting, cryptic inscription- a bridge to the past.
What follows are two examples of tête-à-tête table settings, one for coffee and the other for tea with the various pieces of silver I use on such a table. The pieces employed are both sterling and silverplate. I am sure Ms. Parker would be horrified at the use of plate and genuine silver together on the same table, but plate although it does not have the intrinsic value of sterling can also be quite beautiful. Some 19th century plate can rival sterling in design and execution and it is often relatively more affordable than solid silver pieces.
Table Setting I: Coffee and…
The main feature of this table set for a tête-à-tête afternoon coffee is a pair of 1902 sterling bud vases by William Comyns, London which I bought during my visit to The London Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane at the end of March. They are the perfect size and style with their cherubs nestled amongst late Victorian swirls for my small round dining table. For this table, I filled them with purple alstroemeria and a greenish yellow solidaster. The complementary colors provide a nice contrast to the gleam of the silver and the neutral white table cloth and napkins. I always like to use a white linen cloth and napkins because it is a great backdrop for the silver and allows it to shimmer especially in candlelight.
The color of the flowers also corresponds well with the porcelain plates as well as the cups and saucers used on this table. The dishes were made by Lenox in the Mandarin pattern which was introduced in 1917. These are early examples (1917-18) as indicated by the manufacturing numbers on the pieces. The pattern has an oriental, japonisme, chinoiserie feel with its asymmetrical and colorful floral design with a yellow butterfly on a pale creamy yellow ground border with a gold rim and a white central area.
The table also presents an English silverplate coffeepot by Martin Hall & Co. from Sheffield, circa 1880-1890. The pot has an overall design of individual flowers in diamond shaped partitions which give the pot a rich, quilted look. It also has a lovely engraved griffin in the one cartouche of the pot that is perhaps part of the crest of the family who originally owned the piece.
The Martin Hall coffeepot sits on a 3 footed salver in Old Sheffield plate. This type of plating process predates electroplating, a method that continues to today. Sheffield plate on the other hand is a mechanical way of fusing a thin sheet of solid silver to a thicker core of copper by means of heating and rolling. The process was invented in the mid-eighteenth century by Thomas Boulsover and continued until 1860 by which time electroplating that had begun in 1840 had already superseded it. Electroplating gained dominance because it was much cheaper, easier and produced similar results as Old Sheffield Plate.
I have recently learned that the mark on this salver, an elephant head with the initials, GA, indicates the maker Robert Gainsford from Sheffield, England and dates this piece to circa 1808-1828. It is the oldest piece of silver in my collection and is quite beautiful with its shell motif along the rim and its 3 claw and ball feet. I use this item as an under plate for the Martin Hall coffeepot and sometimes to display a 19th century cut crystal decanter, but it also would be lovely to use as a server for 4 glasses of champagne.
The accompanying sterling sugar and creamer are in Gorham’s Strasbourg pattern featuring simple curving embossed decoration and dates from the 1960’s. The sterling sugar spoon is in Durgin’s Chrysanthemum pattern which was introduced in 1893. The wide bowl of the spoon is beautifully decorated with high relief flowers that create an undulating edge.
The forks used in the table setting are silverplate pastry forks with a wider outside tine for cutting through thick pastry crust. They were made by the Kann Brothers Silver Company of Baltimore, Maryland. The forks feature a monogram of Perkins ‘92 indicating an outside date of 1892 for their manufacture. Typically aesthetic in style, the handle features an asymmetrical design of flowers, a diagonal geometric decorative band and a bird.
The sterling coffee spoons are in the multi-motif Japanese pattern by Gorham. The pattern was introduced in 1871. The handle features a closed fan with a swirling ribbon and a dragon fly. The background is stippled, a technique reminiscent of Japanese metalwork. The pattern is a result of the opening of Japan in the mid 19th century and the influence of the decorative arts of Japan on many of the major silver manufacturers of the period such as Whiting, Tiffany, Wood & Hughes and not just Gorham.
The cake knife or saw used to cut the pear tart to be served is silverplate by Holmes Booth & Haydens in a pattern named Corinth that was launched in 1879. The blade is engraved with stylized flowers in a swirling design.
The pie server like the cake saw is also silverplate. It was made by 1847 Rogers Bros. in a pattern called Lorne that began in 1878. The paddle of the server is engraved with a detailed hummingbird flying amongst leaves that look like Lady Finger palm fronds.
The cake plate for the pear tart is in silverplate and manufactured by the Meriden Silverplate Company after 1921 according to its mark. The pattern of the 10” server is Chinese Chippendale and features around its outside edge a series of seated Chinese figures housed in little pagodas. The piece is also slightly pierced around and between the pagodas and decorative swirls.
The napkins rings used for this tête-à-tête afternoon coffee are both English sterling and were purchased at The London Silver Vaults during my visit at the end of March. The first is hallmarked Sheffield 1871. It is decorated with an engraved vine with leaves and a beaded edge. The second ring was made in Chester in 1902 and features an embossed vine of grapes and leaves against a hammered background.
The table is softly lit by a 4 light candelabra in English silverplate by Horace Woodward and Company, Birmingham. It is dated circa 1884. It features a classic design with reeded and beaded detail. Standing 16” tall, it casts a subtle, yet bright light over the table. In candlelight the gleam of silver is quite striking, yet also mellow and delicate. And of course everyone looks better in the warm glow of a candle.
Table Setting II: Afternoon Tea
The featured piece of this table setting for a tête-à-tête afternoon tea is an English sterling tea strainer made by Walker & Hall and hallmarked Sheffield 1935. It is a stunning piece with its reticulated work and delicate beading along both its handle and pierced bowl. The strainer was also bought at The London Silver Vaults. It sits on a lovely creamy white, delicate porcelain cup and saucer rimmed in gold by Haviland Limoges, France with a mark used between 1894-1931.
The dessert plates are aesthetic transferware pottery with enameled birds, flowers and a butterfly enameled in yellow, raspberry pink, blue and green. The main flowers appear to be chrysanthemums. The rim of the plates are accentuated with a nice arcade transfer in brown and a faded gold edging. The plates have no manufacturer’s mark, only a registry number which dates them to 1886.
The silverplate teapot sitting on 4 scrolled feet is decorated with a medallion in an imitation of classical antiquity of a bearded soldier wearing a Roman styled plumed helmet. The medallion is framed by elaborate engraving which includes bell flowers. The pot was made by Reed & Barton circa 1870.
The sterling teaspoons in this table setting are in the Chrysanthemum pattern by Shiebler. This pattern was launched in 1885. The motif is in the aesthetic style with its graduated chrysanthemum flowers on a basket weave background.
The sugar shell like the teapot features a medallion motif of a classical female head, a gorgeous twisted shank and a scalloped gilt bowl. The piece was made by Wood & Hughes, a prominent 19th century New York City silver manufacturer. The spoon dates to circa 1865.
The pastry forks, the sugar and creamer, the cake knife, the pie server, the candelabra, the napkin rings, the cake plate and the pair of bud vases are the same items used in Table Setting I.
Conclusion: How will you set your table?
Setting a lovely table is quite easy though it seems that it is done less and less in our fast-paced, technologically obsessed 21st century world. A simple sandwich or a piece of pastry purchased at a good pâtisserie and served on a beautiful plate on a table with fresh flowers is all that is needed to create a lovely atmosphere for you and your guest. And your guest will appreciate the (little) trouble you have gone to in order to make them feel welcome in your home and at your table. So whether your taste is antique or modern, set a well-styled table. I guarantee you and your friends will enjoy it.
As Ms. Parker states in The Story of Sterling, “There is magic charm in the stateliness and sparkling beauty of a well-set table. Snowy linen, flickering candles, graceful flowers, fine china and crystal…all have a part in the lovely picture…but nothing is quite so important as the proud resplendent Sterling, and its correct arrangement.” I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Parker, but she needs to loosen up a bit. Put together various styles and periods of silver, in both sterling and plate and arrive at an intriguing table display for you and your guests to create that magic charm.