This article focuses on small silver items that were popular in the 18th century, from strainers to tobacco boxes to jewelry, describing the uses for each, and it notes how often silver items were stolen or lost. It originally appeared as a two-part series in the March and April 1942 issues of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
“Stole at Flatbush on Long-Island, One Silver Tankerd, a piece of Money in the Led of King Charles II, and the Led all engraved, a Coat of Arms, before (in it Man on a Waggon with two Horses) mark’d on the Handle, L P A. One Silver Tankerd plain, with a Piece of Money in the Led, mark’d on the Handle A P or A L. One Cup with two twisted Ears chas’d with Skutchens, marked L P A. One Tumbler marked L P A. One Dutch Beker weighs about 28 Ounces, Engraved all around, marked L P A. All the above were made by Mr. Jacob Boele, Stamp’d IB. One large Cup with two cast Ears, with Heads upon them and a Coat of Arms, Engraved thereon. One Cup with two Ears, a small hole in the Bottom…Whoever can inform Peter Lefferts of Flatbush on Long-Island, or Abraham Lefferts in New-York, so that it may be had again, shall have Fifteen Pounds Reward and no Question asked.” — The New-York Gazette, October 1-8, 1733.
These lines, similar to many other advertisements published during that period, give us a picture of the unsafety of the times. Silver, or plate as it was sometimes called, was a rare and desirable article, especially when the trade balance was adverse, as was mostly the case under the baneful influence of the English kings of the 18th Century. Their one-sided exploitation of the Colonies was a shortsighted policy comparable to that which caused the downfall of the Roman Empire.
As for the problem of theft, although there were no newspapers in 17th-Century America, various diaries, such as that of Judge Samuel Sewall, indicate that there were plenty of offenders even in those stern days. In fact, the owner of silver was in a difficult situation. If through astuteness and forceful business sense he was able to accumulate a quantity of silver in the form of coins, he had no bank or safe deposit vault to turn to. The early land banks were all failures and the day of the gilt-edge security was far in the future. So he called in the silversmith and commissioned him to make tankards, salvers, and other household pieces. These satisfied his pride, embellished his home with beautiful things, and afforded a measure of security since he had a better chance to recover such pieces if they were stolen than silver coins that could easily be spent in taverns and other places.
This advertisement in the Gazette is of more than passing local interest. Mr. Jacob Boele is of course the famous silversmith, Jacob Boelen, who arrived in New York in 1660. He was a distinguished burgher, assessor, and became alderman of the North Ward. His son, Henricus Boelen, continued the business after the death of Jacob in 1729 and was in turn succeeded by Jacob Boelen II. The name Lefferts is still in the memory of New Yorkers through the avenue by that name in Brooklyn. It is quite significant that the owner affirms no questions will be asked. His main interest was the safe return of his cherished pieces of silver rather than punishment of the thief.
Apparently the citizens of Philadelphia took a much sterner view of such offences if we are to judge by a news item from that city which appeared in the New York Gazette of April 27, 1752. It reads: “Friday last the trial of John Webster came on. When he was indicted and found guilty of breaking open the dwelling house of William Clemm of this city on the 24 of December 1750 in the night; and taking from thence a silver teapot and teaspoon; upon which he received the sentence of death.”
But cities were not the only unsafe places. Further inland and in rural areas the lure of silver pushed people from the straight and narrow path. As late as 1845 a silversmith in Vermont was informed one day that several miles away there was a man lately returned from a successful business trip to the West Indies with not only a substantial letter of credit but a nice balance of silver coins. So the Vermont craftsman, looking for raw material that was hard to get, saddled his horse and with two saddlebags in front of him rode through the hilly and wooded country.
But the silver rumor had spread, even to the lumbermen of the section, and when the silversmith came back through the woods after a successful trade transaction, there was a holdup. One of the lumbermen seized the reins and told him to get off the horse. But the rider was prepared. He drew an old flintlock pistol concealed behind one of the bags and with precise aim shot one finger from the hand that had seized the reins. No one ever molested him again. Somehow the rumor got about that here was a man who could and would shoot. He, for his part, never bothered to prosecute the erring lumberman. Besides it would have been hard to identify him since practically no lumberman had all ten fingers intact.
Although American silversmiths never indulged in mere copying of foreign pieces, the general style of their work follows the European pattern, changing from the simple and austere designs of the middle 17th Century to the brighter and more ornate ones of the William and Mary period; becoming more refined and reverting to simpler forms in the reign of Queen Anne; then swinging to the effervescence of the rococo which bridged the Atlantic and left its mark on different forms and decorations. Finally, with a changing Europe and the creation of our independence, there came the chaste style which bore the name of the Brothers Adam and was an adaptation of Roman classic dignity.The range of the objects in silver is not only large but furnishes proof of the versatility of American silversmiths as well as of the demands and domestic habits of their well-to-do clients. Apart from church silver, the more important and decorative pieces are linked to the habits of drinking and dining. Much to be admired are the early tankards, flat-topped and later dome-topped, the sturdy mugs, the caudle cups, the now very rare salvers, and the spoons of which large collections have been formed by discriminating collectors. But not so much is known about the smaller pieces. They may not compare in artistic importance but they are noteworthy as examples of our old domestic culture.
Therefore, we now mention, without any attempt at completeness, certain implements that had to do with eating and drinking — such as heating dishes, sugar tongs, pepper-pots; articles made for style and vanity, like patch boxes, shoe buckles, spurs, and silver miniatures; also, jewelry, silver or silver gilt, very simple in form; and some rare pieces that seem to fall under the head of oddities.
SPOUT CUPS: These were primarily intended for use in case of illness. Shown here is an early two-handled one by Jeremiah Dummer, Boston, 1645-1718. Possibly the two handles in this example were made so that the patient could get a firm grip in sipping the hot contents or the bitter medicine given to him in the cup. But these little vessels, which measured from three to five and one-half inches in height, were also useful in the daily routine of domestic life and were made both with and without a cover (Illustration I).
DRAM CUPS: The word dram may have several meanings and is probably derived from the Greek, drachme. It may mean a small quantity. We also have an apothecary weight of that name equalling sixty grains or one-eighth part of an ounce. It may mean a small drink, such as could be swallowed in one gulp. This, together with the use of these dainty vessels for tasting wine or spirituous liquors, probably accounts for the name. In England they always figured as tasters. The one illustrated is very early and was made by John Hull and Robert Sanderson, Boston. This firm probably started about 1652 (Illustration II).
STRAINERS: These were used later for tea making but their earlier use was related to punch and kindred convivial drinks. The example shown here was made by Jonathan Clarke, Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, 1705-1770, and is quite remarkable. It has a perforated inscription, “Jabez Bowen, Providence, January 1765.” Bowen was First Chief Justice of the Superior Court, Rhode Island, then Deputy Governor and member of the State Convention that adopted the Constitution in 1790 (Illustration III).
SYPHONS: As their name indicates, these were for transferring wines and stronger beverages from barrels, jugs, or demijohns to ordinary bottles or decanters. Of the two shown, the most remarkable is the one with the hand pump. There are also small syphons that were practically used as spouts if no spout cup was at hand (Illustrations IV and VII).
MARROW SCOOPS: Marrow, the paste inside the meat bone, was once considered a delicacy so the use of these little silver scoops is self-evident. However, marked American marrow scoops are quite rare. The one illustrated is by John Burt Lyng, New York, 1761-1785 (Illustration V).
SUCKET FORKS: Until the end of the 18th Century sucket was the every-day term for a sweetmeat in syrup. It comes from the French, succade, which in turn derives from the Spanish, succada, meaning sweet preserved fruit and possibly other sweet dishes. The end with the fork was used to pick up the sticky fruit and the spoon end served its legitimate purpose. The piece shown here has the mark IK, an unknown silversmith probably working 1690-1700 (Illustration VI).
PAP CUPS: They were chiefly used for feeding small children the needed liquid food. They always had soft edges so that if the infant grasped the cup no harm would be done. The one shown is of remarkable elegance of form and has a very fine decoration. It was made by William Thomson, 1810, New York silversmith (Illustration VIII).
BRAZIERS: The one illustrated is an early example by Adrian Bancker, 1703-1772. It is small and simple in form with original wooden handle. The chafing dish is descended from these early dishes for keeping food warm. Charcoal was used for heat (Illustration IX).
BUTTER TESTERS: Butter testers are proof of the shrewdness of our American merchants who dealt in farm products. They had to dig into the butter firkin to make sure that the quality beneath the surface was the same all through (Illustration X).
SUGAR TONGS: Sugar tongs were usually of the pincer type, but a few were made in the design of a pair of scissors. To the latter belong those shown here. They were made by George Fielding, New York silversmith, 1731, are very handsome, sturdy and functional without openwork or delicate detail (Illustration XI).
NUTMEG GRATERS: Nutmeg also came from the East Indies. Being a hard nutlike seed, it had to be grated when used for seasoning. American and European silversmiths made graters in box, cylindrical and other shapes which opened for use and had space for the nutmeg. Owners carried them much as cigarette lighters are carried today. The example here is by John Coburn, Boston, 1725-1803 (Illustration XII).
PEPPER POTS: Pepper, then as now, came from the East Indies. Until the 19th Century it was expensive. Hence, finely wrought pieces of table silver were made for this seasoning. The example shown here is very similar to contemporary English ones. It was made by Samuel Gray, Boston and New London, Connecticut, 1684-1713 (Illustration XIII).
TOBACCO BOXES: In Colonial America men of means prized tobacco containers of silver that would slip into a pocket. The box illustrated bears the touch-mark of John Coney and was made in 1701. Engraved with the Jeffries arms, it has a delicate rope edging and on the bottom are the words, “Donum R.G. 1701″ (Illustration XIV).
PATCH BOXES: The patch box was a “must” in the days when the dear ladies added a special touch to their beauty with little round black patches. Probably this custom derived from France where it was in vogue during the reign of Louis XVI. The box shown bears the mark of Edward Webb of Boston who died in 1718 (Illustration XV).
DECORATIVE ACCESSORIES: A rare piece of silver is the book clasp by William Jones, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1694-1730. It probably adorned a Bible given as a wedding present (Illustration XVI).
Miniature silver, jewelry, dress accessories, and kindred pieces made by American silversmiths during the Colonial period and for a half century afterward are much rarer than larger pieces of the same period. This is not because they were unpopular. On the contrary, contemporary newspaper advertising contains many references to these smaller pieces, on hand or to be made for “Ladies and Gentlemen according to their Desires, Punctually and in the best Manner.”
Also, these same advertisements were records of how easily and often such small silver was lost or stolen. Picked at random from New York newspapers during the half century previous to 1776, one finds that on August 31, 1741, a thief visited Shepard Kollock and carried off twenty-odd pieces of jewelry and small silver including “One Child’s Spoon marked M G; a Silver Scissars Chain marked on a Heart M G; a Silver Watch Chain and Pincushion Chain.” On March 18, 1754, Isaac Seixas was also relieved of quite a parcel of silver, including a “Silver Pepper Box, and a Salt-Cellar…and a Pair of Boy’s Silver Buckles.”
Owners of silver pepper pots apparently had difficulty in keeping them. At least one appeared in most lists of stolen silver. Rather unusual was the taste of the burglar who broke into a house November 14, 1737, and took “a small Silver Square, a Level, a Plumb-Rule, and Silver Pen, and other Utensils belonging to the Lodge of Free Masons in New-York. Whoever brings them to the Printer hereof shall be handsomely rewarded and no Questions ask’d.” This offer was also appended to two advertisements entered in the year 1738, one regarding an oval snuffbox, “Lost or Stolen,” and a silver snuff mill, “Lost or Mislaid.”
Absentmindedness also accounted for the disappearance of small items as we read in the New York Mercury of March 3, 1766, when one of the solid citizens of the town, “Lost, or left on one of the Pews in the Presbyterian Meeting House, an oval Silver Snuff-box with a Mother-o’pearl Top, mark’d with the Letters T. G. C. Whoever has found it and will bring it to the Printer hereof, shall have Five Shillings Reward.” Another snuff box, “lost out of a gentlemen’s pocket some time ago,” was apparently treasured for sentimental reasons as the owner offered “Two Dollars reward, which is more than its value.”
There is, of course, no way of knowing whether these owners recovered their small but valued silver. It is safe to say, however, that loss or theft accounted for the disappearance of many such pieces. Normal wear was another factor. Bent or broken, the cost of repair might not seem warranted. Similarly, as the years passed these trifles were not as treasured as larger pieces. So, “sold down the river” as scrap they vanished into the melting pots.
As to silver jewelry, the rarest of course is that of the 17th Century. Later years saw America better established and prosperous enough for gold jewelry. Hence, comparatively few pieces of such silver were preserved as heirlooms. Costume accessories of the 18th Century also were displaced by newer fashions when the dress of both men and women underwent radical change after the turn of the 19th Century. Silver shoe, breeches, and stock buckles, coat buttons of engraved silver, most of them went into the melting pot.
These little pieces of miniature silver and jewelry are today scarce enough to add zest to the hunt for the collector. They also add their bit to the record of Early American manners and customs.
The sucket fork as an ingenious piece of table silver was mentioned last month. Good fortune brought another pair to our notice. They are more delicate in design than the one illustrated in the March issue of American Collector, having details of decoration that give them the aspect of small medieval weapons. Incidentally, we would like to correct an error regarding derivation of the name of these domestic implements. The source word for sucket is not Spanish but the Italian, zuccata.
The achievements of the patriot, Paul Revere, 1735-1818, has added significance today. The shoe buckle with silver frame and the spur shown here testify to the excellence of his craftsmanship whether working on large or small objects.
A common product of most silver shops was the doll-size teaspoon. These little spoons, two inches or less in length but identical in form and shape with those of standard size, were the work of apprentices and younger journeymen. Their making was freehand work without aid of dies for cutting the outline or forming the bowl. Thus, young workers gained training of eye and hand and the little spoons became tests of skill. In the 19th Century such spoons sold for twenty-five cents each and a small girl who had a set of six was considered fortunate indeed.
Philadelphia was the hometown of much silver jewelry. Although elaborate jewelry was imported, the pieces made there were simple and modest. Examples illustrated include a pair of cuff links bearing the mark of Joseph Richardson, the elder, 1711-1784; a chatelaine without chain by S. Richards, who died in 1796; and a chatelaine with chain by Joseph Shoemaker, made about 1795.
A real model of simplicity is the little silver clasp by the New York silversmith, Joel Sayre, 1778-1818, with engraved initials E B S. It was probably the clasp for a bracelet of velvet or braided hair. Also of New York vintage are the ingenious pair of spectacles with silver frame, made by Edmund Darrow, 1843-1861. The temples are adjustable and may be lengthened to fit the distance from eye to ear or shortened to fit into the case.
For the collector of silver miniatures, the very early little dram cup made by William Cowell, the elder, of Boston, 1682-1736, has both the charm of rarity and the beauty of fine though simple design. There is also real beauty in the sturdy little teapot made by Samuel Bartlett, 1750-1821, who worked in Concord and Boston.
Among the oddities produced by silver craftsmen, perhaps none is more unusual than the combination of a spoon and a nutmeg grater. The example illustrated, with both front and back view to show how the top of the handle served its special purpose, was made by Ebenezer Chittenden, 1726-1812, who worked in New Haven and Madison, Connecticut.
Such then, is our record of just a few marked pieces of Early American miniature silver. Space does not allow us to extend the list, but we know that the ingenuity of our old craftsmen and the demand of their public created many more interesting and often exquisite pieces. Some are now part of museum collections; others the pride of a few privileged collectors; still others may yet remain to be found.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.