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!