Collecting can turn into a harmful addiction, especially if it hurts the ones you love.
Paula wanted folks at The Lady & Sons restaurant to enjoy Southern cooking in a place that felt like home, so she bought up hundreds of sterling silver flatware while out junkin’ to dress her tables. The mismatch silverware was charming on the table, but trouble in the kitchen: one night Paula’s staff threatened to walk out if they had to hand polish even one more spoon.
Collecting vintage flatware can be a rewarding and healthy experience if you know what to look for (and don’t expect your friends to polish it). Sterling silver dates back to the 12th century and is named after the Esterling district of Germany where it was first produced. Production was at its peak from 1870 to 1920; some manufacturers designed patterns that contained up to 100 individual pieces and included rare berry spoons and nut picks, which are sought after by collectors.
These unique pieces can be found through online auction sites and can go for hundreds of dollars, with some pieces running into the thousands. However, collectors can more easily get their hands on flatware manufactured by prolific American silver companies such as Oneida, Rogers and Son, Towle, and Gorham, and many sell for less than $10 each.
Whether you’re trying to complete a full service or if you’re like Paula and simply enjoy putting together a quaint and eclectic mix of flatware, it is important to know what you’re buying. Fortunately, individual silversmiths imprinted their pieces with hallmarks often accompanied by a number; this allows collectors to determine the year and place of production. For example, the number 84 coupled with the hallmark of a lady’s head facing left usually indicates that a piece is post-Russian revolution.
Thankfully, a number of websites and guidebooks can help demystify the collecting process. Replacements.com is a good place to start. This site helps decode hallmarks, identify flatware patterns and determine manufacturing dates.
Vintage flatware is as high maintenance as a teenage girl; pieces must be individually hand-washed in warm water with a phosphate-free detergent and dried with a soft cloth (never place them in the dishwasher).
However beautiful on the table, Paula finally conceded that her sterling silver was not the most time- or cost-efficient flatware for the daily hustle and bustle of The Lady & Sons. To avoid a restaurant coup d’etat, she reluctantly placed her collection of vintage flatware in storage but Paula hauls it out on special occasions that call for an elegant Southern-style table fit for a lady.