As regular readers know, I think coin silver is deeply under-appreciated and undervalued. One of the questions that often arises when speaking about coin silver spoons is ‘why are they so thin?’ From numerous conversations, it seems that the often slender profile of coin silver spoons reinforces the perception that coin silver is an inferior material.
In the photo on the left are two sppons. The one on the left is an English sterling piece dating from 1777. On the right is an American coin silver spoon c. 1849.
From this bird’s eye view the two pieces are of similar size. So why is it when we switch to a profile view, that the coin silver is so much thinner?
It is not a issue of the inferiority of coin silver in any way!
A recap of silver metallurgy 101
So let’s do a quick recap on silver metallurgy. Pure silver, represented by the symbol AG on the periodic table, is too soft to use by itself. Some amazingly clever early smith discovered, through what must have been a process of trial and error, that you need to add copper to silver. By alloying silver and copper you get all of silver’s desirable characteristics plus tensile strength and elasticity imparted by the copper.
How much copper was added to silver was a regional preference. For this story the important part is to remember the silver:copper ratios of sterling and coin silver.
- Sterling = 925 parts silver to 75 parts copper
- Coin = 900 parts silver to 100 parts copper
What do the scales say?
Likewise, the scales show that 25/1000th difference of copper only makes a fairly negligible impact.
From Kitco metals website:
- 1 cubic inch of pure silver (AG) = 5.525 troy oz.
- 1 cubic inch of sterling silver = 5.457 troy oz.
- 1 cubic inch of coin silver = 5.430 troy oz.
Back to the issue of thin
So given that the same volume of sterling silver vs. coin silver results in such a tiny difference in weight, it must be that less volume is used in the construction of the coin silver spoons that their sterling equivalent.
The coin silver spoon is the length and width it is because that is the commonly accepted size of a ‘tablespoon’. Remember it’s 1849 so the strictly standardized system of spoon sizes we are used to has not yet really been developed.
Length and width are similar, because if they are not then the spoon won’t sell, then it makes sense that the smith has to make the 3rd dimension thinner in order to compensate. And why did the smith not want to use that additional 0.62 of a troy oz of silver? Because then, as now, silver was expensive.
It’s always about the bottom line
Two economic forces are at work here. From a macro-economic perspective silver is still a scarce and very expensive material in the US. The Comstock Lode, which was the first major silver strike in America did not occur until 1859, 10 years after this spoon was made. Coin silver is still melted money!
From the micro-economic view, our silversmiths Welsh & Payne want to sell their gorgeous fiddle with double thread tablespoons. By adding that extra 27% of silver, they would probably price it out of the reach of most people.
It’s not that coin silver is somehow a ‘lesser’ material and as a result the spoons were thinner. It’s about understanding the historical and economic circumstances, which led to construction decisions by the silversmith affecting how they were made.
On a slightly poignant note, 1849 was the last hurrah for coin silver. It was in 1850 that Tiffany adopted the sterling standard as a marketing tactic to make their wares stand out. Soon other silver manufacturers followed, and coin silver fell victim to bad PR.
Another note, unless you are digging rock hard ice cream out of the container, coin silver spoons will not buckle. They were made and used this way for generations!
By the way, even my thicker Georgian spoon could not stand up to the ice cream test. Mr. Magpies generously demonstrated that for me!