Have you ever wondered why there is so little really old silverware?* For the purpose of this post, by really old, I mean older than 1600. Apparently it has been bothering at least a few of my blog readers and shop clients, because I’ve have a number of questions about the existence and relative scarcity of really old silverware in the last two months. Does really old silver exist? Absolutely, but not in huge quantities. Why is that? Well, my short answer is twofold: original supply and recycling silver.
Silver is durable stuff. If you were trying to save the family silver from various invaders and internal strife, your best course of action for most of history has been to toss it in a bag, dig a big hole, then fill it in. If you were lucky enough to avoid being skewered by the Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Normans, Roundheads, Cavaliers, garden variety robbers, etc. you could go back at your leisure to retrieve it. Unlike wood or textiles, your silver would be safe damp or underground because it does not rot or decompose.
Once silver has been forged into a piece of silverware, there are only a very limited number of ways to make it vanish. Even if it breaks, it can be repaired. Spending a thousand years underground is a not a problem.
Many examples of really ancient silverware in museum collections spent millennia buried underground. An astonishing proportion of those finds have been made accidentally by farmers and construction workers. For one reason or another, the original owner…or at least hider…never came back to retrieve their hoard.
Going back to the original question, then, despite silver’s durability, why are old pieces so scarce? The first part of the answer is that in ye olden days, a lot less of it was made, as compared to the Victorian era. As we’ve discussed before, only a select few had the status and the means to acquire silverware. So the pool of potential surviving pieces is much smaller than in later eras when much more silver was made to satisfy a larger demand.
But that small original pool was shrunk even further because recycling silver is relatively easy. If a piece of silver wasn’t to your taste (or didn’t serve the function you needed), all you had to do was take it to a silversmith and have it remade. Surely this is what has happened to many a plundered piece of silver.
Take, for example, the early Viking raids on Northern England. The pagan Vikings were particularly fond of raiding the rich and undefended Christian monasteries. But almost certainly for the Vikings, the value of the loot was the silver rather than the form it took. And once these items returned to Scandinavia, they were melted down and remade into pieces that reflected the fashion and tastes of their new owners.
Coming closer to our own age in history, Thomas Jefferson — President, political philosopher, architect, gardener, writer extraordinaire — left us a lovely record of recycling silver. His instructions to silversmith John Letelier in 1810 resulted in the creation of the Jefferson cup by melting down existing pieces of silver.
In the excellent book American Silver, Graham Hood discussed silver recycling in colonial America. Silverware and hollowware were often remade as fashions changed and wealthy men wanted their personal silver to reflect modern styles and their personal taste — rather than someone else’s choices.
The Great Silver Melt
The high value point hit by the commodities market a couple of years ago represents a tidal wave demand for recycling silver. Tons and tons of silverware was melted into scrap…it’s going somewhere eventually. The people who bought it are going to want to sell it and make a profit. And here’s a thought: perhaps for the first time recycling silver won’t result in more silverware. I suspect a lot of it will end up as components for use in various high tech industries.
A further thought about last week’s post on English Silver in the Kremlin. This relatively short supply of really old silver makes that amazing collection in the Kremlin all the more important.
*Nearly twenty years removed from my last academic thesis, you are going to have to forgive me, but I still feel compelled to put some boundaries around my remarks. I’m going to confine my remarks specifically to English and American silver as it is what I know the best. There are going to be some sweeping generalizations…but that’s because it is a blog post and not my Ph.D.