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Whatever Happened to Sterling Silver Tableware?

April 10th, 2010 by Hank

From about 1840 until World War II sterling silver flatware became a “must” for setting a formal dinner table.  The height of the craze was during the 50-year period from 1870 to 1920 when etiquette dictated that nothing should be touched with one’s fingers at the dinner table.

More than a hundred different types of silver pieces were offered for sale.

Dinner went from three courses to sometimes ten or more. There was a soup course, a salad course, a fruit course, a cheese course, an antipasto course, a fish course, the main course and a pastry or dessert course.  Each course was to be eaten with different types of silver forks, spoons, and knives. It was forbidden to touch the food with one’s fingers. Even a small dinner party required many dozens of silverware items.

Flatware sets were often accompanied by tea services, hot water pots, chocolate pots, trays and salvers, goblets, demitasse cups and saucers, liqueur cups, bouillon cups, egg cups, sterling plates, napkin rings, water and wine pitchers, coasters, candelabra and even elaborate centerpieces.

The craze with sterling even extended to business.  Sterling page clips, mechanical pencils, letter openers, calling card boxes and cigarette cases became commonplace. In the boudoir, sterling dresser trays, mirrors, hair and suit brushes, pill bottles, manicure sets, shoehorns, perfume bottles, powder bottles, and hair clips were commonplace, even in modest homes.

A number of factors converged to make sterling fall out of favor around the time of World War II. The cost of labor rose  and since sterling pieces were all still mostly hand-made, with only the basics being done by machine, the cost of manufacture soared. Only the wealthy could afford the large number of servants required for fancy dining with ten courses. Changes in life style and aesthetics resulted in people desiring simpler dinnerware that was easier to clean.

Today sterling silver at the dinner table is rare.  Stainless steel prevails, along with plastic.  Times change, don’t they!

Posted in Musings

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