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How Silverware Is Made -- A Tale Of A Knife And Fork

Updated on December 16, 2011

Who Created Silversmithing?

For ages and ages men never dreamed of having knives and forks. the first sort of knife that they used was probably the sharp edge of a shell, gathered on the beach where they caught the shellfish which formed their food. By and by, they improved on this and made knives, axes, and spear-heads of flint stone.

The men of the Stone Age used their flint knives for cutting up the flesh of the animals which they had caught, just as the Indians were doing when the white men came to America. The Stone Age men ate with their fingers, gnawing the meat from the bones of animals and throwing the bones on the floor of the cave. They did not need forks.

The fork, which grew out of the spear, came a long time afterward. The first forks were used to spear fishes, and were made with three prongs, of which the two outer prongs were barbed. Of course, the first ones were quite crude.

Later on forks were used in cookery, and then centuries passed before anyone thought of using them at the table.

It is almost certain that Queen Elizabeth and the ladies of her court ate with their fingers. It is more than likely that our ancestors of the time never saw a fork smaller than those they used in cooking and serving meat.

It is said that the luxurious Venetians used table forks in the eleventh century, and that Charles V of France had a few forks for his own use in the fourteenth century. However forks with which to eat food did not become common until the seventeenth century in more developed European countries and all of them came out of Italy in the beginning. Until then, in the king's palace and in the nobles mansion only the man who carved the meat would have had a fork to help him. For some time after that forks were a luxury and an affection of only the rich.

The first table forks only had two prongs or tines. The four-tined fork came into use around 1682. Even today, many Middle Eastern countries prefer to eat with their fingers and think that Americans and Europeans are very odd to prefer using forks. Of course, we all know that many Asians still use chopsticks.

Spoons, of course, came to be used very early. The first ones were doubtless seashells. Many different materials were used in ancient times for eating utensils. In the tombs of the Egyptians, spoons of wood, stone and even ivory have been found. Probably the poor people among the Greeks and Romans had to be content with wooden spoons, but people of wealth used bronze and silver.

In fact, the use of silver for eating utensils goes far back into history. During the Middle Ages possession of a silver spoon was an indication of wealth and social position. People carried their own eating utensils when they traveled, and even when they went to a friend's house on a visit.

A silver spoon was put into the mouth of a newborn baby, "to drive out diseases." Only well-to-do people could afford this superstition. The expression, "he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth" is used even today to indicate a person whose parents were somewhat wealthy.

We must remember that silver became scarce in Europe in the Middle Ages. The discovery of silver in North and South America in the sixteenth century was a great thing for Europe.

As feudal times and feudal ways of life declined and townspeople began to have more money to spend on beautiful things, and especially after the discovery of rich new deposits in America, tableware of silver and even of gold was made in larger quantity.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very tasteful, love ware was turned out by craftsmen who were artists at their work, particularly in England, France, Holland, Germany, and Spain.

Standards For Making Of Silverware

Rules were made to protect the unsuspecting customer from inferior or light metal. Marks sometimes called hallmarks were stamped on pieces that passed inspection by the examining board or hall.

Frequently each town would have a mark. The maker's mark, a letter to indicate the year, and other symbols were also stamped on front or back of the piece. Old hallmarked silver is now much sought after. Collectors can read the marks and can tell who made the piece, and when and where.

Nowadays manufacturers are not required by law to stamp their silver with symbols for the name and year, though some of them still do use certain symbols. There is a word, however, that tells us whether or not a piece meets the standard. That word is "sterling" and the story of how it came to able adopted is very interesting.


From the time of Richard the First, of England, traders from Eastern Germany had been buying and selling goods in England, using as money, pieces of silver of high purity.

The English called these traders "Easterlings," and gradually the name was applied to their silver as a term of confidence, then it was shortened to Sterling.

Purity Of Silver

Absolutely pure silver is too soft to use for forks and spoons. It would been too easily. Therefore, a standard alloy to contribute strength has been adopted; 75 parts of copper are added to every 925 parts of silver.

Metal of this quality is known as "Sterling." The mark "Sterling" is now protected by law in Europe and the United States. Any piece stamped with this word must contain 925 parts of pure silver to every 1,000 parts of metal.

By John Hull Silversmith
By John Hull Silversmith

Silversmithing In America - John Hull

There were silversmiths in America from Colonial days. One of the most famous was John Hull of Boston, who lived from 1624 to 1683.

He coined for Massachusetts Colony silver shillings with a pine tree in the center. He was permitted to keep for himself as pay one shilling out of every twenty that he made. In time he grew very wealthy and became a banker was well as a silversmith.

It is said that when his daughter married he gave as a dowry her weight in silver.

Teapot Made By Paul Revere
Teapot Made By Paul Revere

Silversmithing In America - Paul Revere

Designs of Colonial table silver were simple and beautiful. They were, of course, mostly based on English designs of the period, just as the Colonial furniture was, in these days, largely modeled on English patterns.

A man named Apollos Rivoire came to Boston from the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel. He became a silversmith and set up his own shop. He had twelve children. The third boy was Paul.

The family name was changed to Revere, and Paul Revere, following his father's trade, became a silversmith of renown. He is the same Paul Revere who rode to warn the Colonists of Lexington and Concord, in 1775, that the British red-coats were coming from Boston. Specimens of his silver still exist.

Silver Anodes For Silver Plating
Silver Anodes For Silver Plating

Early Table Cultery

There were also Dutch silversmiths in New York, and skilled French craftsmen in Quebec in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Philadelphia and several New England towns also produced work of a high quality.

However, silver was costly and not in everyday use. Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, knives and forks of steel were used in America, but not by the wealthy. It was difficult to keep them bright for the steel discolored very quickly. They had to be scrubbed energetically with a kind of sand polish and this was the task of many a little girl in that day which seems now so far off.


Sheffeld Candle Holders
Sheffeld Candle Holders

Silver Plating

Sheffield, England, has been noted for its fine cutlery since the fourteenth century. In 1742 a cutler, Thomas Boulsover, discovered a way to weld a layer of silver to a copper base. So began a new industry, that of silver-plating.

Sheffield plate became famous and pieces of tableware made by this process between 1815 and 1830 are even today highly prized. Most old Sheffield ware was in the form of large pieces, coffee pots and teapots, trays and plates.

The process was important to the knife, fork, and spoon industry because it accustomed people to the use of plated silver, and it started other minds working on the problem of plating base metal with silver for still wider uses.

This problem was solved in 1840 when George and Henry Elkington of Birmingham, England, obtained a patent for plating base metal with silver by using an electric current. This is the method still in use today. It is called electrolysis.


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    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Tammy L! So true.

    • Tammy L profile image

      Tammy L 

      7 years ago from Jacksonville, Texas

      Very informative and interesting. Thank you. Most people mistakenly refer to "flatware" as "silverware" especially in the south. The easiest way to tell the difference is the price of the set. :)

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Hello, hello!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      That was a well written and interesting lesson. Thank you.


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