Compared to their Colonial neighbors, Vermont silversmiths got a late start. That’s because the first permanent non-Native American settlement in Vermont (Bennington) was not established until 1761, about 140 years after Europeans settled the surrounding areas. Prior to the founding of Bennington, Vermont was the home and hunting ground of the Abenaki, as well as a buffer zone between the French in Canada to the north and the English governing their Colonies to the south.
Despite this disadvantage, or perhaps because of it, some people are drawn to Vermont silver and its unique history. Jonathan Vincent is one such person. Vincent is an architect by training but a collector by passion and lineage—his parents collected, but his handsome and talented son Will, who is a colleague here at CollectorsWeekly.com, claims not to have been bitten yet by the collecting bug. Vincent has scores of Vermont silver spoons, as well as numerous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, a fine selection of pre-1850 furniture, and a respectable collection of toleware, a type of painted tin. In fact, Vincent is an amateur tinsmith, which probably accounts for his related cache of tinsmithing tools from the mid-19th century.
But Vermont spoons have a special place in Vincent’s heart, in part because he now calls the state home and in part because of their, well, economy. “I had moved from Massachusetts to Vermont for a job,” he remembers, “and I discovered that silver spoons made in Vermont were really inexpensive. They were $7 to $20 apiece, maybe a little more for special pieces, but reasonable and readily available from dealers and at shows. I satisfied my collecting urge by picking up spoons.”
“My wife thinks I have too many spoons. For that matter, I think I have too many spoons.”
What really drew Vincent to Vermont flatware was the history that could be teased out of each piece. “English silver pieces have lots of hallmarks on them,” he says. “The hallmarks tell you where the silver was tested and taxed, the date it was assayed, and often the maker. You can tell a lot about a piece of English silver just by looking at the marks. American silver makers copied the English, but there was no assaying office, no federal tax. Some American silver pieces had faux hallmarks that looked like English marks to give the impression of quality, but those marks were just fakes.”
Within American silver, Vermont silver is unique because of the predominance of spoons. “In the Colonial and post-Colonial era,” he says, “when a young woman married, she would have her dowry, as well as a set of silver teaspoons, tablespoons, and maybe tongs so she could serve tea to visitors. That’s typically what you find today; lots of spoons and ladles and tea items. They survived because they were only used on special occasions.
“These teaspoons and tea sets were made in lots of little towns in Vermont,” Vincent continues. “From the name of the owner engraved on the front of the handle or the name of the town stamped on the back, you can identify where and approximately when something was made. Some of these towns aren’t big enough to support a Wal-Mart today, but they had their own silversmith back in the 1800s.”
Just about all silver from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including pieces from Vermont, was made out of coin silver. “Coin silver is any silver that’s made from 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper,” says David Perrin, whose “Coin Silver: Is It a Vermont Mark? A Collector’s Dilemma” is the last word on the subject. “At one point, Mexican and English silver coins were of good enough quality to use as flatware, but I suspect quite a bit of Vermont coin silver was made by starting with pure copper and silver rather than silver coins, although I don’t know that anybody really knows for sure.”
People like Perrin and Vincent naturally use the incised and impressed marks on spoons to identify them, but they also frequently try to dissect a spoon’s design. “Very early on,” says Vincent, “in the 17th century, there was a thing called a trefid spoon. You don’t find those in Vermont, of course, but you can find examples from Massachusetts and New York. It had a rounded bowl and a three-pronged handle. Sometimes the spoon would be set face down on the table so people could admire the engraving and the patterns on the back of the bowl.”
“Some of these towns aren’t big enough to support a Wal-Mart, but they had a silversmith in the 1800s.”
Coffin-handled spoons came later. “Those coffin-ended spoons were typically made between 1800 and 1810,” says Perrin. “Some accounts say they were made to mourn the death of George Washington. I don’t really believe that, but that’s how they’re frequently attributed.”
Another clue is the shape of a spoon’s shoulder, which is the junction between a spoon’s bowl and its handle. “Earlier spoons didn’t have a shoulder,” continues Perrin, “and then around 1800 or 1805, they started to have quite a sharp shoulder. As time went on, by 1820 or so, they had rounded shoulders, and after about 1850, the shoulders of some spoons disappeared again.”
One thing Vermont was definitely not known for was its hollowware. “Teapots, bowls, and larger items were typically found in the big cities like Boston, Hartford, New York, or Philadelphia,” Vincent says. “People in little Vermont farming towns didn’t have that kind of money, and if they did, they’d go to Boston to buy it. So silver making was strictly tied to the economic fortune of the area, which is why little towns in Vermont like Lyndonville might have one man who made some spoons for the local ladies who were just about to be married, and that was it.”
According to Perrin, there was another reason why Vermont silversmiths stuck to flatware. “Vermont silversmiths were mostly former apprentices from other states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts,” he says. “They needed to find a place where they could make a living without competing with their masters. Vermont offered that, and flatware was relatively easy for these apprentices to make.”
Vincent has spoons by many of these early former apprentices, as well as the silversmiths who came later in the mid-19th century. “The Bailey family was very prominent,” Vincent says. “R. H. Bailey practiced in Woodstock, Bradbury M. Bailey was in Ludlow and then Rutland. I have five teaspoons by him with my wife’s name on them, although they were obviously not made for her at the time. I also have some pieces that were made by Bailey in Woodstock and then marketed by a business associate of his in Boston. Those I didn’t have to buy; I got them from my mother.”
Other histories have required a bit more sleuthing. “I recently bought six American teaspoons,” Vincent says. “All they had on them were the initials of the owner, but with a little bit of research into the town they came from, I discovered that they were probably made in Connecticut in the 1790s for the wife of one of the original founders of a town in Vermont. I can’t prove it, but I have a strong suspicion they were made for her marriage in Connecticut just before she moved to Vermont with her husband, where she stayed the rest of her life. That’s the kind of thing I like to do.”
These days, Vincent goes to three or four auctions a month looking for pieces to fill out his collection. “They’re still not very expensive,” he says, “and they’re light enough in weight that people aren’t melting them down that often. That’s the problem with collectible silver nowadays,” he adds. “If it’s not by a famous maker like Tiffany or if it’s not a special or finely made piece, a lot of times people are buying the pieces just to sell them for their raw silver value, which is really sad because you’re losing a lot of American history.”
In a way, Vincent is protecting Vermont’s history by collecting it. “My wife thinks I have too many spoons,” he admits. “For that matter, I think I have too many spoons. I definitely have enough for all three of our kids. They could each give a big tea party and still have plenty of spoons.”
(All photos courtesy Jonathan Vincent. To order a copy of David Perrin’s book, visit the Vermont Historical Society)