The word cutlery comes from the Middle English word cutelar, which was originally derived from the French word meaning knife. Originally seen in a 1297 tax return, the job of cutler was to make knives, and, originally, swords. The cutlery industry was mainly located in Sheffield and Birmingham before the latter began to specialise in swords and other bladed tools, whereas the former focussed on knives and later other cutlery.
The Rise of Sheffield Knives
Knives, spoons, and, later, forks were treasured possessions in their early versions; King Edward III specified a knife made in Sheffield in his will in 1377, and Geoffrey Chaucer spoke of a Sheffield knife in his Reeves Tale a few years later, and many of his portraits featured this knife hanging around his neck. Cutlery at this time was not laid out on the table for diners to use and then leave, it was owned by individuals who would bring their utensils to the dinner table for their personal use. Georgian times saw the advent of canteens; matching sets of knives and forks, as well as spoons that had previously been mainly for kitchen use. Chefs and butchers began to consider a Sheffield knife as a vital part of their tools due as much to the high quality as the reputation. This period saw the creation of many famous patterns that have been in production ever since, and matching crockery began to be made to fit with the famous designs.
In the Victorian era Sheffield was at the peak of it production of cutlery, with one factory turning out 36,000 table knives every week, and holding many tons of ivory in its warehouses for making handles. However, change was on its way. Harry Brearley was a metallurgist who developed processes for the bulk production of stainless steel. Located in Sheffield, his early product went to the local cutlers who continued to create the highest quality cutlery for many years to come.
Silver Plated or Sterling Silver?
British sterling silver always carries four or five hallmarks that identify it as genuine, as well as denoting the year, place, and company of manufacture; these hallmarks are all found in the hallmark database. American sterling silver manufactured after 1850 will bear the word sterling, sometimes accompanied with the numbers .925 to indicate the 92.5 per cent purity. The first patent for silver plating was in 1840, so anything earlier will be sterling silver. It is not true that silver plate is magnetic and will not tarnish; both sterling silver and silver plate are not magnetic and both will tarnish under certain conditions. Overall silver plate antique cutlery will have much less value than sterling silver cutlery, but it can be just as attractive and is a good option for the lower budget collector.
This metal is an alloy made of 92.5 per cent silver and the rest of other metals, usually copper. Fine silver, which is 99.9 per cent pure, is too soft to be useful for cutlery or other utensils. Metals other than copper have been experimented with to improve various qualities of the alloy, but none have replaced it as yet. It is not entirely clear where the ‘sterling’ part of the name has come from; the most likely explanation is that it is derived from ‘ster’, which meant stout or strong. Hallmarks have been used for many hundreds of years to identify the maker of sterling silver pieces and indicate the purity of the metal. Sterling silver antique cutlery will be much more expensive than the silver plated cutlery
Silver plating is done by creating the piece of cutlery in a base metal such as a good copper alloy. This base is then cleaned chemically and physically before a layer of silver is electrically fixed over the base by electrolysis. This is a much less expensive version of silver cutlery and produces the same effect, although the silver plating will eventually wear off due to normal use.
The United Kingdom has a well structured hallmarking system with the following stamps applied to sterling silver pieces: - The assayer’s mark that indicates the metal is of the required purity; currently this is the Lion Passant and has previously included the Britannia purity mark. - The date mark on a piece of silver indicates the year with a combination of upper or lowercase letter and the shape in which the letter is held. - The city of assay as a mark: Birmingham is indicated by an anchor, and Sheffield a crown. - The fourth mark is the maker’s mark, usually including initials. - Since 1730, silver made in Ireland also carries an image of Hibernia. Some other marks, such as the duty mark, which can be seen up until 1890, and the tally mark to count the pieces made by each apprentice have been discontinued but will be found on older items.
Antique Silver Cutlery Patterns
There are many different patterns of cutlery to be found, some more rare than others. It is generally a matter of personal choice which pattern collectors decide to hunt for; it is not even necessary to pick a certain pattern, but doing so can focus a collection.
Rattail or Hanoverian
This pattern was popular throughout the 18th century and evolved from a long rattail on the reverse of the bowl in its early forms, to a shorter rattail in the same place later on in the century. Decoration on the back of the bowl of this style led to the picture back patterns.
This pattern bears little resemblance to other patterns of the same time; with a scroll at the end of the handle, it could be difficult to manoeuvre so would probably have been used as serving pieces alongside Hanoverian cutlery.
This pattern is generally limited to spoons with a pattern or picture on the back of the bowl. They may represent victories in battles, have political connotations, or be purely decorative.
This is a plainer design with down-turned handle ends on most pieces; it was developed to aid with the handling of larger serving spoons that previously had upturned handles. They may have decorative edges to the handles, such as a thin row of beading.
Bright Cut Engraved
This pattern involves facets being cut out of the handles to create a shiny pattern in the silver. The actual patterns varied depending on the buyer’s wishes or the manufacturer’s taste.
This is a very common pattern for most of the 19th Century; the end of the handle is wider than the stem creating the look of the neck of a violin. The stem may also have been patterned in a simple style.
This style has many patterns associated with it, all with a kind of hourglass shape at the end of the handle. There may also be decoration on the back of the spoon bowls or fork prongs. There are many other patterns available; the more modern patterns are more diverse as each manufacturer makes their own shapes and styles.
Care of Antique Cutlery
Silver is actually easy to care for; well stored silver will rarely need cleaning.
A cutlery roll of tarnish proof material is the ideal way to store silver cutlery, and this in turn should be stored in an airtight container. Tarnish is caused by a chemical reaction to the air (oxidisation) and so preventing air getting to the pieces is a great preventative method.
Traditionally silver cutlery has been washed in soapy water and carefully dried, however, a dishwasher will not damage it, although it is best to dry it afterwards. Silver cutlery that has become tarnished can be cleaned with a silver dip quickly and easily.
Finding Antique Cutlery on eBay
There are many antique cutlery items on eBay; they are often not identified by pattern, so a keyword search should be carefully worded to take this into account. Generally they will be cleaned up and well cared for, but tarnished items should not be discounted; this is easy to remedy although care should be taken to check that the tarnish does not hide a flaw. Categories for spoons, knives, forks and canteens can help split the results down further for those who want a specific item.
Collecting and buying antique cutlery can be a very satisfying hobby, whether the cutlery is to be used or simply admired. There are many patterns to choose from, and some of the pieces can be very valuable.