I love silver. Candlesticks and candelabra, hollowware ranging from bowls to goblets to tureens, teapots and tankards, snuff boxes and cigarette cases, jewelry and pocket watches, and, above all, flatware.
Silverplate, stainless, sterling silver…what’s the difference?
Sterling silver flatware was first produced in Sheffield, England in the 1200’s. Wealthy people carried their own knives and spoons with them because most inns did not provide such basic necessities for their guests. Forks did not appear until about a century later, first in Italy in about 1360, and then in France a couple of hundred years after that. The first record of a fork in England is not until 1611!
Sterling silver is made by hammering, casting, or by cutting sheets of silver into shapes.
It is then stamped, engraved, chased, matted, embossed, pierced or enameled.
Sterling silver is the premium variety of silverware, crafted from 925 parts silver to 75 parts alloy such as nickel or copper for durability. Genuine sterling silver is always marked as such. Any sterling silver made in the USA after approximately the 1850s has a sterling mark that may say Sterling or .925. If it doesn’t have this mark it’s not sterling silver. A professional can test to see if your flatware is real sterling silver with an acid test, which determines silver content.
Sterling silver always retains it intrinsic silver value, and usually holds value as tableware as well. Sterling silver will last forever if you use it and care for it properly.
Silverplate flatware has been a popular, and less costly, alternative to sterling silver flatware. In addition to being the place where all this flatware got its start, Sheffield was also home the first plating techniques, developed in the 1740’s. By 1770, silversmiths were making Sheffield plate from sheets of sterling silver that were fused to a sheet of copper, creating a metal sandwich that could be hammered and formed like a regular piece of sterling but for a fraction of the cost. In the 1840’s, electroplating was developed by Elkington & Co. of Birmingham, England. Silverplating techniques were embraced by U.S. manufacturers such as Gorham, Reed & Barton, and Oneida. Because it required less silver and could use cheap nickel as its base metal, electroplating essentially put the Sheffield silver industry out of business.
Silverplate holds no marks to classify it as silverplate. It’s often pricier than stainless steel, and has the bright, shiny finish of silver, though is usually lighter than sterling silver. One of the particular challenges of silverplate flatware is protecting its finish. Through daily use or overly vigorous cleaning, the thin layer of silver on the surface of a knife, fork, or spoon can wear away, exposing the copper base inside.
Stainless steel is a fabricated material. There are different varieties of stainless. “18/10” stainless steel is the highest quality; the alloy contains 18 percent chromium, and 10 percent nickel. The chromium makes the metal rust proof and stain resistant, while the nickel gives it luster and shine. The rest of the metal is composite steel, which makes the utensils strong. Some stainless steel flatware is made of 18/8 stainless steel or 18/0 stainless steel, which can be less expensive; though it is often difficult to tell the difference.
Stainless will last approximately 100 years with proper care. Stainless has no intrinsic resale value. It’s durable, low maintenance, and cost effective type of flatware, though holds no intrinsic value as metal or as tableware after its initial purchase.
I have my grandmother’s sterling silver flatware. It is “Milburn Rose” by Westmorland. Westmorland Sterling Company has an interesting history. It was founded in 1940 through the joint efforts of Wearever Aluminum Inc. and Wallace Silversmiths. Wallace manufactured the sterling flatware under the Westmorland name. Wearever developed the marketing and sales approach whereby the sterling flatware would be sold door-to-door to households across the United States. I love how old fashioned it is!
Have fun collecting silver. When you find some and want to figure out the age and pattern, there are some great websites. Silverplate Flatware Fashions is the best place to identify your silverplate pattern. 925-1000 is where I go for sterling.
When caring for your silverplate or sterling, use a quality silver polish, and NEVER put it in the dishwasher! I actually prefer to use the baking soda/tin foil/boiling water method for my silver.