Silver Hunting: Silverware

By , November 18, 2015

In my recent essay, Silver Hunting: Coin or “Junk” Silver, I talked about looking for silver coins. Eventually, I realized that I had allowed the configuration of the silver in coins to blind me to a source of silver available for casual acquisition that has been hiding literally in plain sight: silverware.

Our family has always referred to flatware as “silverware.” Other than an heirloom set of silverplate, which I recall getting used only on a scant handful of special occasions, our flatware has always been stainless steel at best. We even called plastic flatware “silverware!”

Secondhand silver: coins, silverware, and an Alaskan state seal medallion (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Secondhand silver: coins, silverware, and an Alaskan state seal medallion (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

It took a while for me to grasp the concept of silverware as a household’s wealth, eventhough I grew up reading plenty of references to it—to the point that it is more often referred to as “the silver” instead of silverware. I even wondered why housebreakers I read about would spend time collecting and hauling flatware rather than finding the money and jewels. What would be more practical than keeping one’s metal wealth in forms that have day-to-day practicality? This is why the English manor houses restricted access to the silver cabinet solely to the head butler. It was in effect, if not actuality, a locked vault.

Once I got this idea through my thick head, I realized that my beloved garage sales, secondhand stores, and flea markets offer far more silverware than silver coins. I also learned that competition for what’s available is far less. For one thing, the whole crowd of coin collectors doesn’t factor into it.

Not only that, but, as pointed out in the previous post on the subject, our coinage was 90% silver at best, while silverware is Sterling silver, 92.5%.

Now, I still prefer my silver in coins, just because I like them! I’m not so fond of flatware. I’ve also collected more than my share of silverware in commemorative form, often subjects I don’t really need to commemorate. Most of what I’ve collected isn’t practical—it gets stashed rather than used. If it ever came to “spending” it someday, I’d likely need to negotiate harder for the right value, as it will lack the face value concept likely to cling, at least vestigally, to coins. That’s a problem for a future I hope never comes, so I don’t worry about it now.

Refer to an earlier post in this series, Silver Hunting: Jewelry and Keepsakes, for tips on recognizing sterling when you see it. You’ll want to be sure to differentiate between silverware and silve rplate.

Silver Plate:

Silver plate items have a thin coating of silver. This amount of silver is so small, it doesn’t make any sense to try to remove it for trade purposes. It has no real value as precious metal.

Old silver plate, particularly flatware, can usually be identified at a glance, as the plate rubs off contact points, revealing the base metal underneath. If not, look for these clues:

Silver plate is not, by law, stamped with the word “sterling” anywhere. It may be marked “silver plate”, “plated”, “EP” or” EPNS”, “1”, “3x”, or “4x”.

Some silver plate may be marked “I.S.” for International Silver, the name of a manufacturing company, not an indicator of content!

In the final post on this series, I’ll offer hints on how to recognize silver. With experience, you’ll discover that it’s fairly easy to “feel” the difference between a piece of silver plate and real silverware.

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