Nowadays, the term "silverware" refers to a wide range of items, including jewelry, antique silver tea caddies, flatware, silver handled baskets, porringers, coins, and silver medals or trophies, among many others. However, times have changed dramatically since the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian periods, when antique silverware was used on a daily basis primarily by the wealthy or royalty.
Silverware was made as early as the 12th century, and cutlery and flatware became extremely popular and fashionable only a short time later. The antique silverware items that have survived to this day were made from the same grade of silver used in coinage.
Many ordinary people outside of the nobility amassed vast personal fortunes very quickly during the Industrial Revolution, and the upper middle class emerged. Beginning in the 1840s, these "new money" people invested heavily in silverware in order to flaunt their wealth. People stopped eating with their fingers in the Victorian era and began using knives and forks, which were naturally made of silver for the newly wealthy. During this time, English flatware silversmiths found themselves extremely busy serving both the European and American markets.
Just as we collect labor-saving devices today, the upper middle classes collected sterling silver utensils as symbols of wealth but also for everyday use. Silver tea services, tea caddies, coffee pots, fruit baskets, sugar bowls, milk jugs, and countless other pieces of flatware and cutlery could be found throughout Victorian homes.
As can be seen in large antique silver collections, the Victorian period saw silver at its peak, but there was a remarkable decline at the start of WWII, not least due to a lack of technology in machinery to make the items. Historically, all sterling silverware was handcrafted and stamped by machine. During the Great Depression, labor costs were higher, and even wealthy households began to feel the pinch. They used fewer servants, didn't host as many large dinner parties, and silver maintenance was a major task. Hand polishing sterling silver took time, especially on ornate and intricately designed pieces. Hence Flatware gained popularity because it was much easier to polish and maintain.
Silver's value fluctuates as a precious metal, but for antique silver collectors, finding perfectly preserved Georgian, Edwardian, and Victorian silverware in perfect condition is a joy. Drinking from a silver goblet and using silver knives, forks, and spoons at a dinner party feels decadent. Serving coffee from a sterling silver coffee pot that has been in use for well over a century puts some of our porcelain and china counterparts to shame.
Antique silverware will always be valuable as an investment, and even if the price of silver falls, you can be certain that it will rise again in the future. Unfortunately, the demand for silver exceeds the supply, and some of the exquisite silver pieces that can occasionally be found in antique markets or hidden away in the attic are sold for scrap and melted down, a process that simply destroys the work of England's great silversmiths as well as a piece of our history.
Bernard Warner has amassed an impressive collection of antique silver over the course of many years, becoming a renowned collector of Georgian silver from the reigns of George I, George II, and George III. Part of his vast collection, including pieces from the Queen Anne, William IV, Victorian, and Edwardian eras, is now for sale. Some pieces date from 1711.