In August 1996, I was first introduced to American vintage silver in the South by moving to Mobile, AL. As newly-weds (and I truly mean new, married on Saturday and in Mobile on Monday so Mr. Magpies could start a new job) we lived in an architecturally beautiful house that was in need of some TLC on South Bayou Street. There were huge Magnolias and majestic Live Oaks draped in Spanish Moss all around us. For a newly-wed expat-Brit, it was quite an adventure, and one that has had a lasting impact on my life.
With Mr. Magpies at work and some time on my hands, I did a huge amount of exploring Mobile and the small towns on the other side of Mobile Bay…Fairhope, Point Clear, Spanish Fort, and Daphne. Vintage silver was everywhere, in antique shops, specialist silver shops, even in places that might be considered home decor and accessory shops there were significant displays. Casual greetings soon turned into long discussions, as so many generous people were willing to have long, detailed conversations once they knew of my interest in silver.
So why is antique and vintage silver in the South such a revered, living tradition when elsewhere it has waned?
Quite aside from the incredible introduction to silver that I received, it was also an education about Southern hospitality and culture. Fascinatingly the vast majority of the silver for sale was coming from the North. Shop owner after shop owner would express disbelief that “Yankees” (their word, not mine) were not holding on to family silver. The notion that someone might not cherish and use heirloom silver was almost incomprehensible to them. Evidently it was to many customers as well, because from what I could see there was a thriving demand for vintage silver.
Most silver is not Southern
It’s not because it the South was a great production center for silver. To the contrary, the vast majority of silver in the US was produced in the North. Boston, New York and Philadelphia were important centers of the early silver trade. There were some regional centers in the South. Alexandria, VA has a long tradition of local silver, as does Richmond. But when you look through the listings of silversmiths marks in early America, Northern locations outnumber Southern ones by a huge margin. This geographic tendency did not shift once silver became a manufactured rather than handmade item.
Historical socio-economic factors
There are academic theories that posit because the South was rural and most employment was agricultural it fostered a culture of entertaining at home and probably for long stretches as visitors had such long distances to travel. This baronial manor theory seems somewhat lacking.
Even at it’s height this was only experienced by a tiny minority of the population and a very long time ago. Other areas had similar conditions and traditions of entertaining, but they have been eroded by the passage of time. So why not in the South? Also the baronial theory doesn’t account for the strength of this tradition across socio-economic classes. It’s a terrible cliche but from that day to this, I’ve rarely met a Southerner who doesn’t have an affinity for silver, family heirlooms and traditions.
Southerners love their silver
Obviously the reason for this cultural tendency is multi-faceted and worthy of a PhD’s worth of investigation. Regardless of the reasons, I am grateful. That year in Mobile was unforgettable. One exchange I vividly remember involved monograms and whether there was resistance to buying monogrammed pieces.
“Oh no honey, they’re instant ancestors!” interjected a customer.
I cried with laughter at the line itself and the way in which it was delivered.
In the US, Thanksgiving is tomorrow and my thoughts turned this morning towards that long ago year in Mobile. Without doubt tables are being set with vintage silver – either of the genuine heirloom or instant ancestor variety – in the homes of the many wonderful people I met. Happy Thanksgiving.
Will your table be dressed in pieces that have great meaning to you and yours?