Q + A | House + Home

A gift from the past, sterling silver flatware and dishes are useful treasures

Updated: 2013-10-05T14:18:59Z


The Kansas City Star

Catherine Futter was so taken with the sterling silver tableware used during a dinner at Paul and Elissa Cahn’s St. Louis home that she volunteered to wash dishes afterward.

The Cahns politely declined the offer, but Futter persisted.

“How many times in my life will I be able to wash Paul De Lamerie plates?” she asked.

De Lameire was a leading English silversmith in the first half of the 18th century. And Futter, senior curator of architecture, design and decorative arts at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, curated the exhibit, “Early American Silver from the Cahn Collection,” which runs through Nov. 3 at the Nelson.

The Cahns have assembled one of the finest collections of early American and English silver in the world, including masterworks of premier silversmiths such as Paul Revere, Myer Myers and De Lamerie, Futter says. And not only does the couple collect and exhibit the stuff, they use it regularly, something Futter highly recommends.

There was a time when the lustrous metal tableware was so affordable that it was as common as the microwave oven.

That heyday began shortly after the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 in the Virginia Range of Nevada.

“The market was flooded with amazing amounts of silver; it was right here in our backyard,” Futter says. “It meant manufacturers had to promote ways of using silver. About the same time refrigerated railroad cars started crossing the country.

“If you lived in Chicago, you could have fresh oranges in January, and the silver manufacturers started making huge silver services with several hundred utensils. So instead of having a fork, a knife and a spoon, you now had an orange spoon, a grapefruit spoon, an oyster fork, a fish fork, a butter knife, a steak knife, ice cream scoops and so on. If you didn’t have the right utensils, you had to get them.”

Today, sterling silver tableware can be prohibitively expensive. A single setting of contemporary flatware often costs $700 and up; a 6 ½-inch footed bowl by Reed & Barton, one of the few remaining American silver makers, is $1,250.

It also has a reputation for being high maintenance because it tarnishes. But there’s still quite a bit of the stuff out there, hiding in closets and lurking in china cabinets.

John Peel, silversmith at Hiles Metal Plating and Silversmiths in Kansas City, still sees people walk in with heirloom sterling silver from any number of defunct manufacturers. They want the pieces restored, because they have great sentimental value.

“We still get a pretty steady flow. It’s mostly vintage pieces, a lot of it weighted, such as candlesticks, tea sets, flatware,” Peel says. “We had three baby spoons come in today. They were caught in the garbage disposal.”

Peel estimates that there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of silversmiths at the peak of manufacturing.

“But over time they went out of business or were gobbled up by other companies,” he says. “Now it’s usually made by a small company or individuals such as Robyn Nichols (a Kansas City silversmith). It’s cheaper to make overseas. That’s the hard truth of it.”

Rosita Kroeger, who sells sterling silver at Mission Road Antique Mall in Prairie Village with her husband, O.J., remembers when most brides-to-be registered for sterling silver, fine china and crystal.

“But it’s getting rarer and rarer to find brides who do that,” she says. “Young people don’t entertain with formal dinner parties anymore. It’s more an out-on-the-deck kind of thing. But my older clients still like to entertain and give it as gifts for their children and grandchildren’s weddings.”

A lot of people today also opt for silver-plated items, which have a thin coating of silver over a base metal. It lends a similar sense of formality and refinement at a fraction of the price. But it doesn’t last as long as sterling silver nor does it have the intrinsic value of sterling.

Sterling silver, on the other hand, is marked 925 –– 92.5 percent silver blended with 7.5 percent of another metal, usually copper. Mexican silver is often 950 and German silver can be 800.

“Some people love Mexican silver because it has a softer look to it,” Futter says.

Sterling silver pieces have hallmarks hammered into them that indicate that it’s 925, the country and city of origin, the maker, the year of manufacture and, in the case of some antique British sterling, the face of a monarch.

Futter notes that there are still American companies such as Tiffany & Co. and Reed & Barton that make sterling silver for the home. There are also a lot of artists and craftspeople who work in silver, but that they’re usually not making plates and bowls.

“Robyn does functional ware but they’re very elaborate so they’re more special occasion rather than everyday,” she says. “People often think silver is so much trouble to take care of but if you use it, it’s really no trouble at all.”

“One thing I want to do with this exhibition is show that it’s beautiful and that it’s still part of our lives, and we shouldn’t just use it for special occasions,” Futter says. “By using it frequently, you don’t have to keep polishing. A gentle washing in soapy water removes tarnish, and you don’t have to take more abrasive materials to it and potentially harm it.”

Rosita Kroeger agrees. Washing it frequently, according to Kroeger, gives the silver a patina that a lot of people like.

“I’ve always told my customers that if they use it and wash it they’ll never have to polish it,” she says. “A lot of people like the gentle scratching that comes from frequent washing. Obviously very old antique pieces have been used and used well.”

A sterling tip or three

• Rotate the use of flatware to ensure even wear.

• Promptly wash or rinse it with hot water after each use, especially after contact with any acidic or other foods such as salt, mayonnaise or eggs. They might cause corrosion. Don’t allow food to dry on sterling as it can cause staining.

• Hand wash it in warm, sudsy water, then rinse in clear, hot water.

• Clean crevices with a worn toothbrush or fine natural-bristle brush.

• Immediately dry pieces with a chamois or soft cotton cloth to avoid spotting.

• Don’t leave it in water; soaking can damage the metal.

• Use a mild detergent; do not use chlorine bleach.

• Make sure it is completely dry before you store it.

• If you use it daily, store it in a moisture-free drawer.

• If you use it only occasionally, store it in a flannel bag or wooden storage chest with a protective flannel lining.

• Do not wrap it in rubber bands, plastic, newspaper or any material with a high sulfur content.

• Polish it once or twice a year, whether or not it has been used regularly.

• Remove tarnish by buffing it with a soft cloth and silver polish.

To reach Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian, House + Home editor, call 816-234-4780 or send email to cgregorian@kcstar.com.

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