The Great Dishwasher Debate

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sterling silver in the dishwasher, how to clean silver

How to clean silver – Sterling silver to the left, everything else to the right. Don’t let the silver touch any other metal than silver.

How to clean silver!

Nothing seems to have captured the attention of the (few…well, possibly two) people who read this blog than the notion of…

“Sterling in the dishwasher”

I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen having a pleasant chat, when the subject came up.  The conversation turned into a query about why is it that silver (and antiques more generally) have a “not for everyday” feel to them.

I don’t know anything about furniture, but somewhere along the line in the history of silver, the silver spoon went from being an everyday essential (if you were rich enough to have one made of silver, rather than wood), used at every meal, to being kept in a closet for a special occasion that never comes because it’s too tarnished to be worth the hassle of polishing it.  The span of time over which this transformation took place is, more or less, 100 years.

With apologies to my university professors.

I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations. Please bear with me, it is a blog after all, not a PhD.
In the US, the production of sterling flatware changed over, from being one of individual creation by a silversmith, to a product manufactured by a company, about the time of the Civil War.

Mass production, the rise of urbanization, an expansion of both the number and wealth of the middle class; all these factors led to a nicely expanding market for silver flatware.  Whether these proud new sterling owners used it every day or kept it for best is an interesting question. I don’t know the answer to this.  Another day, perhaps.

So to return to our point about the history of silver,

Sterling flatware becomes more accessible and affordable.  By the end of the 19th century there are a large number of companies, producing a huge number of patterns, all of which have a bewildering array of individual and serving pieces associated with them.  Would you like the 4 o’clock teaspoon or the 5 o’clock one?  Or you could throw convention to the wind and use the chocolate spoon because you like the shape better!!

Eventually, along comes the First World War.

With it, the upheaval of the political and socio-economic status quo.  Very importantly in the history of flatware, stainless steel was developed.  Originally intended for improved gun barrels, after the war it quickly became the modern choice for flatware.

The 20th century was a series of massive changes.

WWI, the Great Depression, women working outside the home, dresses that didn’t cover your ankles, WWII, a short lived dip back into a “new” version of traditionalism in the 50’s, soon snuffed out by Vietnam, Woodstock, and mini-skirts in the 60’s.

Who wants sterling?

It’s a remnant of the distant past.  No one wants to polish it, but they can’t quite get rid of Grandma’s pride and joy either.  The solution – we can use it for special occasions.  So into the closet it goes!

Fast forward a few more years, and here we are in 2010.  Grandma’s silver has been in the closet, getting tarnished, since approximately 1962.  We’ve grown up in an age of cheap and disposable everything.  We all lead busy, complicated lives.  Many of us have more roles than we ever imagined.  Time flies, both in the “everyday is busy” sense, and also, in the “life is short” sense.

I am fortunate enough to have acquired some of these virtually ancient artifacts, reminders of a dim past.  Sadly, the butler was not included in the package.  What to do?

Time to make a decision.

I have decided that I want to live with these items – sterling, bits of furniture I’ve picked up here and there.  I want my son to feel a connection with these things, for him to remember delicious meals, playing board games on “that” table, even the time Mum dropped one of Great-Grandma’s Pall Mall glasses and broke it (sigh).

To forge a connection, you have to use things.

To use these things, at least in my life, means compromises, and some risk.  Yes, I’ve broken glasses.  Yes, I really wish I hadn’t dropped them.  Yes, my answer to how to clean your silver is in the dishwasher (with some rules, posted below.)  I know none of these choices represent optimal care.  Given my circumstances though, I can either have these things in my life, or in my closet.

It’s no contest.

How to clean silver?

Sterling in the dishwasher – my house rules.

  1. Only solid flatware.
    • No pearl handles,
    • items with glue joins, or
    • weighted/reinforced items.
  2. Rinse it off after use.  Don’t let food remnants sit on sterling, they cause corrosion and pitting.  This means I fill a bowl with water, grab a handful of flatware and vigorously swish it around.
  3. Don’t let the sterling touch any other metal object.  Stainless steel will leave marks on your sterling that are very, very difficult to get out.
  4. No lemon scented detergent, no phosphates either.
  5. If I need to use the “dish scrubber” cycle, the sterling waits for the next cycle.  I only use the “normal” cycle.
  6. Remove from dishwasher, use, enjoy, and repeat from step 1 above.

Click for an easy to download PDF of Sterling in the dishwasher?



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