Flummoxed by Flatware?

2 03 2009

Dear Alex,
I just inherited some beautiful silver serving spoons from my uncles.  They are about 8 inches long, beautifully pierced and have a heavy weight.  I think I have fallen in love.  Do you know where I can find information on their patterns, their makers and their usage?

Flatware Virgin

Dear Flatware Virgin,

Alex knows first hand the joys of a perfectly balanced piece in the hand.  Of flatware, of course…

Once you feel that beguiling rush of craftsmanship, heft, value, design and function tightly molded into a stiff package like a Beckham underwear ad…there is no turning back. Man the tarnish cloth!  Here are some tips to get you from virgin to collector in no time:

First, let’s assume for simplicity that you are dealing with American sterling silver or silverplate.  Like men, many countries make their own silver flatware, so it can become confusing when you are trying to find the maker/company by looking at the hallmark (the stamp on the back of your spoon) and you don’t know the nationality…so for now, these are red-blooded, All-American spoons.  Turn them over (gently, but with anticipation) and admire the stamp/hallmark on the back of the spoon.

Here is an example from my own collection:

Gorham Hallmark from Hanover 1895

The hallmark consists of a lion, anchor and G, followed by the word STERLING.

The first book that will help you equate the mark to the maker is the Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy T. Rainwater.  Match the hallmark to one in the book.  My mark is the American firm Gorham’s mark.  Many sterling silver pieces have the word “sterling” stamped on them–likewise many plate pieces have “plate” or “ep” [electroplate] or “epns” stamped on the back.  But many do not, so it’s best to do your due diligence to uncover whether the piece is silver or silverplate.  You will need to know this for your next phase.

Once you have discovered the maker [in our example, GORHAM], you can then proceed to identify the pattern.  Here are two indispensable books that will assist you:

Sterling Flatware: An Identification and Value Guide by Tere Hagan

Silverplated Flatware: An Identification and Value Guide by Tere Hagan


These invaluable references have line drawings of all the patterns from 19th century to the present.  Go to your maker/company–e.g. Gorham, then slowly work your way through the drawings until you spot your pattern.

Another great online resource is Replacements.  You can find your maker and search through the pictures in the picture gallery of each pattern (this works for china and crystal too!)

There is palpable tension and excitement in this process.  Enjoy it.  Savor it.  Let the pattern consume you, and you it.  Did you find it?  Huh?  Did you?  Did…you…find IT?

Hold those 8 inches, and allow yourself to relax.  As per our example, you now know the manufacturer is GORHAM SILVER CO., the pattern is HANOVER and it was first released in 1895.

If your spoon is a basic shape (tablespoon, for example), you’re done.  However, if your spoon is a more exotic shape…what did they use those 8 inches of fun for?

Look no further than Sterling Silver Flatware for Dining Elegance by Richard Osterberg.  Mr. Osterberg takes you on a visual flatware safari explaining everything from bouillon spoons to strawberry forks to saratoga chip and bon bon servers.  And there are lots and lots of photos!  WITH CHINA PLACE SETTINGS!  AND MEASUREMENTS!

Do you feel light-headed?  Are you swooning with anticipation?  Randy for ramekin forks?  Frisky for fish knives?  Aching to run your fingers over a sardine tong?  Horny for horseradish spoons?  Are you f*ckn hot for a chocolate muddler?

Skip that cold shower.  Live your passion!  And let us know how you make out!


Cat Got Your Cough

12 01 2008

Dear Alex: My cat seems to cough a lot and at first I thought it was hairballs but now I’m not so sure. I’d take her to the vet, but they’re so expensive and I’m a grad student! Any idea what’s wrong with her?

Cat Cough Katy

Dear CCK,

Your poor baby may be suffering from feline asthma. Unfortunately, you MUST take her to the vet and get her checked out. This is a serious disease. I have some personal experience with this, as my cat has feline asthma. Luckily, his is not too severe and is controlled by a small dose of methylprednisolone every other day. But it is horrible when he starts to cough. An excellent site on the subject is Fritz the Brave.

Please take your cat in for a check-up as soon as possible. This can be life threatening. Perhaps there is a clinic near you that will charge lower rates. Good Luck.


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The Middle Name

10 01 2008

Dear Alex,

What does the “G” stand for in “Alexander G DeWitt?”

Concerned Reader Addressing Formal Invitation



Grizzly. Thank you for asking.

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Buying a House With Friends and Other Strangers

9 01 2008

Dear Alex: Me and my friend (not romantically involved) want to buy a house together, fix it up and rent most of it out. My father says never to do business with friends, but I don’t know how else I could afford to buy something. Any advice?

Gotta Invest

Dear GI,

Buying and renovating a property is a huge undertaking — it tests the mettle of any relationship; friend, family, partner, or spouse. I know so many stories that have ended in disaster from lack of forward planning.

My advice — treat it as a business transaction with a stranger. And plan ahead if the partnership were to break up.

If you and your friend are truly serious, meet with a lawyer and discuss responsibilities and all scenarios: Are you both managing the renovation and management of the property equally? If not, how should you split the income? What happens if one of you gets married and moves? Or dies? What is the buyout clause if you call it quits? What happens when the contractor disappears? What happens when the renters don’t pay?

Basically, it’s like planning your will, pre-nup, and divorce, before you even start. If your friend says, “Oh, we don’t have to do that. We’re friends.” Walk away. You’ll have another opportunity.


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Gay But No Green Thumb

7 01 2008

Dear Alex: Your orchids are gorgeous! Why does every orchid I get always die? I’m even gay, which I thought was supposed to mean I have a genetic “green thumb.” Help!

Love’em but Kill’em

Dear LbK,

There is no genetic gay green thumb. It is a myth perpetuated by anyone who can’t arrange flowers (i.e. most of the population). Don’t despair. Here’s a quick guide to get you up and running. Orchids, like all living things, have certain needs. You just have to fulfill them.


The first is light. You must have light. Even the orchid group I would suggest for beginners, the phalaenopsis (moth orchid pictured above) needs light. Not as much as some others, but you can’t put them in the middle of the living room with the curtains drawn and expect them to flourish. An east window is perfect, south may even get too hot in the summer and mine do fine in the west (though I do check them on hot days in summer and may bring the shade down if it’s too hot.)

These incredible plants are used to living in trees and not in soil. They receive moisture from the rain and the air. To duplicate this indoors, the orchid is planted in a “medium” rather than soil — I recommend Aussie Gold Orchid Mix which does not disintegrate and needs to be replaced less frequently than some other mixes (so less work). I also add some New Zealand Sphagnum Moss to the mix and the top of the pot to keep it from drying out too much.

Most orchids fail because of watering. This is actually easier than you think. I water my phal once per week. That is all. Once per week. They like to dry out. And how do you water? Bring the plant to the sink, run the water till it’s cool but not freezing, and give the orchid a shower with your sprayer. What you are actually doing is washing away all the salts and built-up wastes from the past week, so fill the pot a few times with water and let it drain through. Think of it as giving the orchid a cool rain shower rather than watering.

Next is fertilizer. Since the orchids are not in soil, there are no nutrients. You must supply them. I try to make things easy for myself so that I don’t have to “think” too much, so I go by the “weekly, weakly” adage. I have one of those inexpensive plastic 2 quart pitchers (like for lemonade) and some liquid fertilizer (I use liquid because it dissolves instantly). I fill the pitcher with the same temperature water I am using on the plant and put in 1/4 to 1/2 of a cap-ful of fertilizer. Mix it up. Then pour it over the plant, let it drain completely, and put it back. You’re done for a week.

I also give mine a little spritz with a mist bottle in the morning, while the tea kettle is heating and the computer is booting up.

Orchids do not grow fast, and they have growing seasons. When you purchase one, ask about the blooming cycle. The one pictured above (I call her “The Phebe” after the friend who gave her to me) sends up an inflorescence (the flower spike), blooms, and the flowers last an incredible 6 months! After I cut the spike, she sends up another immediately — she’s always in bloom (just like Phebe).

As the plant matures, it will flower more, but be patient. Orchids take time, but are definitely worth the wait.

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My Sister-in-Law the Conniving Bitch

6 01 2008

Dear Alex: When I was home for the holidays, I got into a fight with my sister-in-law and told her what I’ve always thought of her, which is that she’s a conniving bitch who stole my brother from the family. This happened just because I made plans with my brother to go out and see our old high-school friends, which is like a tradition for us, and at the last second she decided not to go, which made my brother not want to go either (she was all “pouty” for no good reason.) My mother — even though she hates her, too, of course — is now mad at me and wants me to call and apologize to my sister in law! What should I do?

Like, Sorry for What?

Dear LSFW?,

First of all, unless your brother is both ball-less and brainless, your sister-in-law did not steal him away — he “left” of his own accord and free will. Your family may not like her, and maybe that’s the reason your brother chose her to begin with — subconsciously, he needed a way to “get thee to a nunn’ry!” She is certainly aware of all the animosity focused in her direction from your family, which no doubt contributes to her conniving bitch-hood.

That being said, your brother totally dropped the ball on this one. Your sister-in-law probably never wanted to go to the traditional annual meeting of the high-school friends. Like, how total a yawn is that for someone not involved in the “remember when we snuck out after second period, dropped some acid, and couldn’t stop starring at Fern Ferguson’s nipples cause they were making lassos around her neck?”

Your brother should have stepped up to the plate: “I really enjoy this time with my brother and old friends and it’s our holiday tradition — Hon, if you don’t want to come, why don’t you take a day of beauty at the spa. Do the nails, the hair, get a facial and a massage.”

She would have been much less bitchy with new nails and a perm. And you and your brother would have had a blast with the past. You always get more with honey than with vinegar.

Send her flowers and apologize for being a jerk — your mother knows, even if she is a conniving bitch, better to have some peace in the family. And she is your brother’s wife, for better or for worse. Then have a talk with your brother, discuss how you missed him at the event, and give him some suggestions for conflict resolution in the future.

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30-Something Gay Guy Stumbles into MySpace

4 01 2008

Dear Alex: I am a 36 year-old gay man. I’ve been out for close to 15 years and have dated a lot of guys but never really had much interest in having a boyfriend or partner. Until now. About six months ago I happened to stumble on a MySpace page of this guy who went to the same law school as me and I fell in love! He’s sooooo hot (all my friends agree) and I’m constantly checking his page for new pix, which he posts pretty often. Here’s the thing: even though I’m totally convinced that he’s “the one” for me, I haven’t written to him yet (I’m also in New York and he’s in San Diego). What should I do?Soon to be Bi-Coastal

Dear S to be B-C,

Ummm, I’ll try to be gentle. Looking at a picture of someone who lives 3,000+ miles away and thinking he’s “the one” is a wonderful fantasy for someone with intimacy issues, like yourself. If you really want to try having a relationship, stick closer to home. Otherwise, write the hunk. Maybe he also has the maturity of a 12 year old, and you can have email sex, phone sex, cam sex, IM sex, and when you two finally meet atop the Empire State Building and the spark is nothing but spunk, at least you had a good time and can wallow in the “you see I tried and I’ll never have a boyfriend, ever, ever, ever” tar pit of doom with your friends. Do send pix!

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