On the days when I am Mary Poppins for my goddaughter, we often take a stroll through the neighborhood after lunch and a visit to the playground. As we roll down city streets I imagine I am the Flâneur and she is the Petite Flâneuse out for an urban jaunt. On our almost daily sojourns we invariably stop into a few local thrift shops. The thrift shops in this part of town are particularly good. There is a Housing Works Thrift Shop, The City Opera Thrift Shop and Vintage Thrift on 3rd Avenue near East 23rd Street.
One day while perusing the wares in Vintage Thrift, I spotted a petite sugar and creamer with its own matching under tray behind the counter. Now, behind the counter can mean prohibitively expensive or just overpriced. But this establishment seems to really know its merchandise and prices it accordingly. The silver items on the floor are usually bog standard plate, nothing special with a thick layer of black tarnish. This sugar and creamer trio on the shelf behind the jewelry vitrine, however, was something different and perhaps a thrift store treasure.
I asked to look at the trio. All 3 pieces were hallmarked with what looked like a finial or chess piece inside a circle inside a square. Below this mark was the number 39 or 89. As I did not have my jeweler's loop, it was hard to discern exactly. If the number was 89, there was a chance that the trio was a lower grade of silver- 89% by weight of silver to 11% other metals usually copper instead of 92.5% by weight of silver to 7.5% of copper which is the standard for sterling. Or 89 0r 39 could simply refer to the pattern number of the sugar, creamer and tray and then the trio would certainly be silverplate. But silverplate from where? And made by whom?
That night when I returned home, I did some research online. I looked at Russian silver hallmarks which sometimes uses an 89 to indicate the purity of silver. I sifted through silverplate marks as well, but nothing turned up that resembled the marks on the thrift shop piece.
Although the maker and the date of manufacture were still unknown to me, I returned to the thrift shop a few days later with my loop. The mark was indeed a finial shape but with the loop I now saw 2 faint facing “B”s on either side of the shape and the number below it was indeed 39. The sugar, creamer and tray were, therefore, definitely silverplate by a “B” manufacturer. I decided to take a chance and buy the item; it was in extremely good condition and was marked a fair price.
The sugar, creamer and tray are exquisitely petite. The tray measures a mere 7x4.75 inches and the sugar and creamer are only approximately 2.75” in diameter. The interior of both pieces have an elegant gold wash. All the items in the trio have a lovely undulating edge that looks like a swirling silver ribbon. The handle of the creamer is constructed of 2 pieces of metal that resemble the cut tendrils of a vine. Its elegant curve echoes and complements the rippling profile of the creamer’s circumference.
Besides the edge detail all 3 pieces of the set have a nicely detailed chased decoration that in its wavy lines complements the swirling profiles of the trio. This chased embellishment resembles waves as they crash on the shoreline and then recede creating a bubbling foam. Or it evokes a stylized shell. Either way there is the suggestion of water and the sea. This decoration seems almost late Aesthetic or proto-Art Nouveau in its curving forms and lines as well as its references to nature.
With some further research I discovered that the trio is German silverplate made by the B Bohrmann Factory in Frankfurt-am-Main. The mark of the finial and the 2 “B”s seems to indicate a date from 1871 when the factory was founded along with the German Empire after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War to 1894 when the mark appears to have changed to a complete spelling of the name “Bohrmann” rather than merely initials. My guess is that the piece is on the latter side of that range, 1890 or so with its Aesthetic and almost Art Nouveau form and styling.
The material trio along with its age and provenance pleased me a great deal. My chance was a success. I marveled as I always do with antiques how this piece survived the last 100+ years without significant damage or merely that it was not just thrown away. I wondered too how a 19th century German object arrived in this country and ended the first part of its journey in a thrift shop on 3rd Avenue in New York City. Perhaps a turn of the century German immigrant brought it with them on the Atlantic crossing to a new life in the United States. Or perhaps a shop uptown in Yorkville imported German manufactured items for the local immigrant community; German immigrants began to move from downtown to upper eastside in the early 20th century. Like all antiques this diminutive sugar and creamer with its under tray will never divulge its secrets and that is part of its allure.
Being manufactured in Frankfurt-am-Main specifically reminds me of the German side of my family. My grandmother Hedwig Louise Bier grew up in a spa town named Braunfels not that far from Frankfurt until 1922. At the age of 13 she came to the United States. Perhaps the Biers owned some Bohrmann silverplate to grace the table in their house just below the castle. In my imagination the trio is a connection to the grandmother I never knew and I will think of her when I use it.
In a few years my goddaughter and I will use this sugar and creamer at a tête-à-tête tea party. No longer an item cast aside and abandoned in a thrift shop this silverplate trio will continue to exist in my collection and reflect old dreams, new memories and new faces in its gleaming surface.