century brought much needed
democratization to the use of silver which was spurred on by the industrial revolution.
The use of domestic silver moved down the social ladder and became a marker of
middle class respectability. Marketing became the driving force behind the new
silver making industry. Whereas before the production of silver was the domain
of individual silversmiths or small workshops, the 19th century saw
the mass production of silver which was often produced by machines at least in part.
Most often as it is still today, the basic forms were made by machines and then
finished by hand. These new developments brought cities like Birmingham in the
UK or Germany’s Hanau wealth and fame.
An example of
a small silver plate creamer that would have been available to almost everyone at
the end of the 19th century.
As this new market was
driven by the middle classes or perhaps better said the “starting classes”
people who had previously not been able to afford domestic silver on a large
scale, they needed to be educated. Manufacturers ceased the opportunity to
introduce new items and create a need for them. Especially American companies
such as Reed & Barton, Gorham and Tiffany came up with ranges which counted
hundreds of pieces in a single pattern.
The sterling silver grooming set of countess Alice Haugwitz /Vienna
Austria/1934 - Náměšť Nad Oslavou
The most famous such “invention” was fish
cutlery which was sold to the 19th century middle classes as a necessity and has remained with them ever since. Soon, there had to be a
special utensil for each dish as table settings got bigger and bigger mimicking
the aristocracy of the previous century. The new middle classes were also in
part responsible for the “historicizing” aesthetic which appeared on much of
the new silver as the century progressed .By using older styles of decoration
which recalled the baroque, gothic or renaissance periods , the middle classes
were able to buy into the idea that they maybe also had a bit of family history
while sitting down for Sunday lunch. Some manufacturers went as far as adding “pseudo
marks” or old assay marks from an earlier period to add a bit of age.
Formal dining also
changed and the fashion of serving food
“a la russe” became the norm, this
meant that each course of the meal was brought to the table after the previous
had been finished. This left the center of the table empty to display elaborate
center pieces, jardiniers and eperngnes.
|A detail of the grooming set|
A table set “a la russe”
developments at the end of the 19th century also began the slow
decline in sterling silver production. The invention of electroplating meant
that objects made from a simple base metal could be covered with thin layer of silver
or gold. The electroplated items are indistinguishable from sterling silver
items making them very popular with customers. Now even the lowest strata of
society could own a piece of “silver” .While retailers were happy with a
broadening market the elites saw little reason to own what everyone else had. Silver
had lost its cache of privilege. At the same time alloys such as alpaca emerged
which also gave the glimmer of the real thing. Alpaca objects can still be affordably
bought in antique or junk shops alike and give a perfect impression of
Pair of art nouveau silver-plate salad servers
The period after WWI saw the gradual change in the status of silver, to
start with almost all homes were electrified and a result the shiny glimmering
effect of polished silver was no longer as apparent under artificial light. Further,
the number of servants began to decrease as did the number of people who could
afford to employ them. Polishing silver which had always been done by servants
was now seen as quite labor intensive to housewives.
Jardinière sterling silver /mixed metal?/
Austria 1884-State Castle Český Krumlov
In Europe the years following WWII did not help
silver very much either. Postwar design was concerned with effectivity,
practicality and new materials, which were not expensive to make. The new
generation of designers worked with plastic, synthetic fibers and stainless
steel which had been perfected by the military during the war. Dedicated dining
rooms were becoming a rarity as eating, even entertaining in the kitchen was
becoming the norm. As dishwashers became a standard appliance, many found that
their sterling silver got damaged when washed this way.
A monogrammed ladle handle
was in a different situation, after the war there was a surge in wealth with
many of the returning GIs entering the consumer middle class. But even then,
most of the new patterns of silver flatware were based on historical examples
with differed very little from what was made 60 years earlier.
|An interwar monogram|
For the parents of today’s baby
boomers who were looking for a modernist aesthetic, silver simply fell off the
radar. The only exception were for example, George Jensen ,Gio Ponti or designer Day Van
Truex both of whom produced contemporary but upscale stuff.
In communist Czechoslovakia, newly
produced silver was almost unheard of, the little that was produced was either
exported on destined for the exclusive hotels and restaurants. As dining on
silver was viewed as a quintessentially bourgeois practice, the regime did as
much as possible to discourage such „bad habits”
A set of tea spoons with original mark of the purveyor
Today most silver that exists in
Czech households is mostly inherited or bought in antique shops. Considering
that Bohemia was never a particularly wealthy country, most silver is flatware
which unlike Anglo-Saxon silver is also never decorated. Bigger objects such as
hollowware are never seen. In some cases the silver sold in Czech antique shops
is brought from other countries to be sold at a higher price. A few years back
it was the Russians who were main buyers of such objects. Many young people
also do not see silver as very practical and prefer to keep it a box hidden
away if they own any at all.
A British sterling silver-wood coffee set
1918-1919(zámek Hluboká nad Vltavou)
Image courtesy of Galerie České
exhibition not only shows
important pieces of silver which were given as diplomatic gifts or prizes at
contests but also looks at table silver in the context of European dining
history The numerous paintings serve as examples of how items were used.
Goblets and chalices are particularly well represented as they were often
whimsical and showed the skills of the silversmith.