We all have silver under lock and key that needs to come out more often. While special events and entertaining always sends us into a polishing and arranging frenzy, a true Southerner will find everyday uses for collectible silver. Learn more about the silver in your closet and how to care for it, and consider using this typically formal decorative choice in a more casual arrangement.
A few everyday uses for fine silver:
The Sterling Standard
How do you know whether something is silver? Most of the time, you can find the answer simply by turning the object in question over.
The word “STERLING” in capital letters generally indicates that a silver object was made in the United States. Any article marked STERLING in America must contain a minimum of 925 parts silver for every 1000 parts of material. This ratio, called the “sterling standard,” was adopted in the United States during the mid-1860s. Vintage American marks on 925 sterling silver made in America from the 1860s through the 1970s—especially items made before 1940—are almost always alongside the company name, patent date or number, shape or model number or other marks and symbols.
Not all pieces made with the sterling standard ratio in the United States bear the label of STERLING. American-made objects often bear the maker’s mark in full within a border, whereas a maker’s mark in the UK is usually the silversmith’s initials. The silversmith may also be represented by a symbol, such as a knight, indicating Mary C. Knight, a renowned early American silversmith. Jeremiah Dummer (1645-1718) is credited with being the first US-born silversmith. Another major maker was the War of Independence folk hero, Paul Revere (1734-1818).
Distinct designs, typically in keeping with major art movements and period styles, point to the time when an object was made and often to the individual silversmith. Tiffany & Co., founded by Charles Louis Tiffany (1812-1902) as a fancy-goods store in New York City in 1837, went on to become America’s leading manufacturer of silver, jewelry and glass. Charles’ son, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), took control and became the company’s first artistic director. Under him, Tiffany produced objects in the Art Nouveau fashion. During the 1950s, Tiffany objects in silver took on a simpler form.
A valuable commodity, silver has required a standard of purity for centuries. While the English use of the sterling standard predates the 18th century, American manufacturers did not adopt it universally until the end of the 19th century. Other countries used different standards—as low as 800 and as high as 950. While multiple countries have distinctive marks for silver, markings are often inconsistent and require a specialist to determine the true identity of each object.
Caring for Your Silver
In her book, Care and Repair of Antiques and Collectibles, internationally known antiques expert Judith Miller provides suggestions for taking care of your favorite silver objects:
In the majority of cases tarnished items of silver and silver plate can be successfully cleaned and polished by hand, using a soft cloth and a proprietary silver cleaner. However, you should take note that all such cleaners have a mild abrasive action which removes a minute layer of silver from the surface of a piece each time they are used.
- Assess the piece. Wash, rinse and dry the silver as described above, then assess the degree of tarnishing. If it is light, use an impregnated cloth. More serious tarnishing will require a liquid or a paste.
- Put on white cotton gloves, apply liquids or pastes sparingly and rub with the soft cloth. Turn the cloth as it becomes dirty. For recessed or engraved areas, a soft-bristled brush may be used. Once tarnish has been removed, wash, rinse and dry with a soft towel.
- Buff the surface with another clean, soft cloth or chamois leather. Buff recessed areas with a fine-bristled artist’s brush.
For severe tarnishing, place silver in an electrochemical dip. Less abrasive than manual cleaning, it won’t remove a thin layer of silver. This makes it suitable for cleaning worn silver plate, provided that you don’t immerse the piece for too long. (Miller, 212- 213)
Silver and the Dishwasher:
Preferably, avoid the dishwasher, because the extreme heat can warp items. If you must use the dishwasher, though, here are some tips from Martha Stewart:
- mix sterling or silver-plate and stainless-steel flatware in the dishwasher, even when using the Rinse-Hold cycle. A reaction between the two metals can damage both finishes. Since most knives, including sterling ones, have stainless-steel blades, keep them away from other silver pieces, too.
- jam too many pieces into the silverware basket, which can lead them to get scratched.
- spill dry dishwasher detergent on flatware; it can cause dark spots.
Do, however, prevent tarnish by storing silver in acid-free tissue paper or unbleached cotton muslin inside a resealable bag.
Be further inspired to use your fine silver, every day:
Around the house…
In the kitchen…
Or just to brighten any day with a few cut flowers…
- Guide to Fakes & Reproductions by Mark Chervenka
- Antiques and Collectibles Fact Book by Judith Miller
- Care and Repair of Antiques and Collectibles by Judith Miller
- Sell, Keep, Or Toss? by Harry L. Rinker
Silver Care Resources:
- Martha Stewart Do’s and Don’ts in the Dishwasher: marthastewart.com/275152/dishwasher-dos-and-donts
- Polishing silver with Martha Stewart: housekeeping.wonderhowto.com