By the 1840s silverware was being manufactured in the major cities of the day, including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Thirty years later, America’s silver designs and techniques equaled–if not, at times, surpassed–those of the rest of the world, even winning the Grand Prix at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878. The discovery of silver lodes in California and Alaska soon brought silver prices down and an upturn in the economy–combined with manufacturing techniques permitting mass production–allowed people at almost every level of society to purchase sets of sterling or silver-plate spoons, knives, and forks.
“The middle classes copied the wealthy,” says Peter J. Theriault, columnist for the Maine Antique Digest, adding that women’s magazines of the period became arbiters of taste, guiding women in their household purchases.
Victorians delighted in having a specialized serving or eating utensil for every course and occasion. For this reason, antique “sets” vary. Prior to the early 19th century, most people used only spoons and knives when dining, and often only the wealthy had those in sterling silver; other folks used utensils crafted of pewter or wood. Sterling sets of spoons–soup, tea, and dessert–were made in America as early as the 18th century, and the fork eventually found a place in every silver set. By the early 19th century, a set consisted of forks (table and dessert) and spoons (table, dessert, and tea); by the 1850s, cutlery was included and countless coordinating serving pieces and specialized implements proliferated. According to Kevin Tierney, senior vice president of Sotheby’S silver department, it is rare today to find a complete set that predates the mid- 19th century.
Ann and Tom Gray, antiques collectors and dealers in North Stonington, Conn., point out that antique silverware is often available at local auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of new silver or even stainless steel, even though older pieces often surpass the new in weight and workmanship. (Look for ads for country and estate auctions in newspapers such as the Newtown Bee, Antiques and the Arts Weekly, and the Maine Antique Digest in the East; Ohio’s Antique Review; and California’s Antique & Collectables.) If your heart is set on a full set of silver by a coveted manufacturer such as Tiffany or Reed & Barton–seek expert advice before spending a lot of money, advises Theriault.
The value of secondhand silver varies, depending on the quality and rarity of the pattern, its silver content by weight, and its condition. While a 216-piece set of a rare figural pattern called the Labors of Cupid, first made by Dominick & Haff in 1900 (and revived by Reed & Barton in 1937), sold at Sotheby’s in January for $64,000, a few thousand dollars for “complete” sets is much more typical. The Gorham pattern Chantilly, manufactured since 1895, remains one of the most popular silver patterns ever produced in the United States; individual pieces can be purchased for $15 to $25. Other names to look for include Wallace & Sons, Samuel Kirk & Son (today Kirk Stieff), and International Silver Co.
Although heirloom silver can be a good investment, Kevin Tierney of Sotheby’s says the best reason to buy is because you like it and want to use it. Tom and Ann Gray second Tierney’s advice. Every morning they set the breakfast table at the B and B they run with heirloom Lunt silverware and four repousse candlesticks. Says Ann: “Eating breakfast with silver makes you feel luxurious all day long.”