Sunday, April 19, 2009

Family Silver

Recently my hubby's Aunt P. passed away after a very full and long life. She bequeathed to said hubby six oddly shaped little sterling silver spoons (the first six, starting from the left of the above photo). Nobody in the family knew what they were, so I took them to my very good local silversmith.  It turns out they're egg spoons, created by the Victorians for the express purpose of eating one's morning soft-boiled egg out of its shell.

For purposes of comparison, I include in the above photo a regular-sized teaspoon of a different pattern, far right, and a demitasse spoon, second from the right.

Above is a closeup of the little beauties, which the silversmith says were manufactured in America between 1900 and 1910. She also told me a great deal more about sterling silver:

Up until WWI, she explained, the Victorian mania for highly specialized flatware ruled British and American tables. Those who could afford it had different types of knives, forks, and spoons in their chosen pattern for many different foods. The array was dizzifying: asparagus forks, pickle forks, oyster forks. Dinner knives and luncheon knives and fish knives and knives for spreading butter (not to be confused with knives for serving butter!). There were separate and distinct spoons for enjoying chocolate, ice cream, tea, coffee, bone marrow, and soft-boiled eggs. There was one type of spoon for sipping creamy, thick soup and an entirely different one for thin, clear soup.

All this silver hyper-specialization came to an end with the breakout of The Great War. Metal was needed for the war effort, so silver manufacturers were prohibited from manufacturing "frivolous objects." During those lean years, factories reduced their output to the bare minimum in flatware and serving pieces.

In 1913, the U.S. government instituted the federal income tax, which meant people had less money to spend on nonessentials like sterling demitasse spoons. Soon after, in 1929, the U.S. Stock Market crashed, and the ensuing Great Depression dealt the final blow to the era of silly, wonderful, overly specialized silver.

So, no more egg spoons that look like the chubby little brother of a teaspoon. Alas!

Luckily, some of these cuties from years gone by are still around, passed down through families or snapped up in junk shops or online silver sites. And they can still be enjoyed, in new ways. I think Aunt P.'s spoons will make great spoons for eating yogurt, or for stirring coffee, or for ladling jelly out of a jar onto a hot, buttered slice of toast. Why eat your yogurt with a sterling spoon? Well, why not! What are you waiting for?

In fact, to make sure that I enjoy the old family silver as much as possible, a couple of years back I moved it from the formal dining room, where it languished from disuse. Now it's in a drawer in my kitchen, where I'm more likely to grab it. Yup, that's it, right under the cannister set and the crockery bowl of bananas (below).

If you want to know more about American silver, there are some good books out there. I like the Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers, by Rainwater and Fuller. It's available in paperback, and it has pictures of all the hallmarks (the symbols, letters, and numbers stamped on the silver) to help you identify your sterling.

P.S. Ice cream tastes absolutely fantastic off a sterling silver spoon!

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...