Collecting silver is a science in itself. First you must know the hallmarks – or stamps – on the bottom of every piece. Some are for weight, some for authenticity and maker. There are guides of seemingly endless variations and patterns and more to learn.
But in the meantime, ‘tis the season to lay the table with silver, ‘tisn’t it? Christmas and New Year’s Eve are when most people polish up the heirlooms, but I could live with piles of silver the whole year through. I do love red apples in a silver bowl on the Christmas table, though I love the same bowl in the spring, filled with yellow lemons. I always love rolls served from a white napkin in a silver basket. The butler’s trays always make cocktails a party, and the bar tray is a classic. Nothing looks better on a man’s dresser than a few silver boxes or bowls.
I’ve collected pieces of decorative silver plate for the holiday season at Loveland, and the shinning table-full made me wonder, what is the story of silver?
According to silver historian Joseph P. Brady, fragile silver has been mined since the 3rd millennium B.C. and smelted with a stronger alloy so it can be shaped. Objects and coins have been found from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylon and Egypt, and Classical Greece and Ancient Rome. Its inherent value made for coinage, and its brilliant reflective surface made it a perfect reflection of wealth in the Renaissance and at the English Court. In the 1600s, Western eating rituals were elevated with great ceremony, and benches at long tables were replaced by individual chairs, and communal bowls and eating with ones hands were replaced with place settings, requiring silver flatware, serving pieces, and candelabra, which were also made for churches. England and Italy became the best silversmiths.
Centuries later, rising aristocrat and merchant classes alike displayed silver décor in the homes, and the more humble could have precious coins melted and made into trinkets or more, such as American Coin Silver from the Colonies. The taste for elaborate decoration in the Victorian Age made silversmiths a favorite at exhibitions held to celebrate cultural advancement through industry, and, after the Civil War, American manufacturers began competing with multiple patterns. Later, the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century reacted against industrialization and ornament with forms inspired by nature and made by hand.
And then Modernism… Art Deco… more.
Truthfully however, when I look at the silver here, laid out splendidly on a red paisley shawl, I don’t think so much about history. Instead, I think of all kinds of things….Adventure, like Long John Silver and his trunks filled with coins. Silliness, like Glinda the Good Witch in her silvery crown. Or the glamour of Old Hollywood, with silver lamé gowns shimmering on the silver screen. Or the eeriest of Christmas images: Arbus’ silvery and lonely tree. But maybe most especially I think of that most wonderful butler, Godfrey, and his silver tray. Magic, everytime.