Before the rulers of Ur, who lived 6,000 years ago, held silver utensils in their hands, they ate out of silver bowls, or so the remnants of silver holloware—and lack of silver flatware—found in their tombs would suggest. Silver flatware designed to bring whatever was in those ancient bowls to royal mouths came later—a container for one’s meal was the obvious first step.

Unearthed evidence also reveals that the ancient Greeks hammered silver into the shapes of bowls, as did the Etruscans, Egyptians, and Romans. But for most contemporary collectors of antique sterling silver bowls, such facts are little more than history lessons, since the pieces and fragments from those eras are the stuff of museums. More available are the European sterling silver pieces created from the 17th century to the present.

From the beginning, the techniques for hammering silver into shapes were similar from region to region. In sinking, a sheet of silver was hammered into a form, often carved from the stump of a tree. The silversmith would begin by hammering around the edge of the form, moving toward the center of the sheet slowly in concentric circles. Because of this, sunk bowls were usually thicker on the bottom than the sides, which helped stabilize ones with round bottoms.

Raising took the opposite approach, although it was more commonly used for deep objects such as pitchers and tea pots. Both techniques were followed by planishing, in which a wide, slightly rounded planishing hammer was painstakingly used to smooth the outside of the sunk or raised surface. Sometimes the honeycomb-like marks of the hammered were disguised by polishing and burnishing, although during the Arts and Crafts era, there was no attempt to hide the hand of the silversmith at all.

Decorative effects on silver bowls ranged from enameling and niello, which were used to add color to a piece, to engraving and bright-cutting, which was like engraving but was, despite its name, more like scratching the surface than cutting it.

Pricking produced almost pointillistic designs, chasing was favored by artists wishing to depict scenes and landscapes on their bowls, and repoussé was perhaps the most demanding technique of all—to create repoussé patterns on the outside of a bowl, the smith had to hammer his design into the piece from the inside.

Other examples of decoration include openwork effects, which were achieved by piercing a bowl with a punch, fine saw, or both to create lace-like patterns...

While these techniques were almost universal, the types of bowls produced varied widely. For example, brandy bowls, which had two horizontal handles projecting from their rims, were particular to 17th-century Holland—the brandy was sipped warm. A close cousin of the brandy bowl is the single-handled porringer, which was popular in the American colonies but was known as a bleeding bowl in England where it originated. Despite their grisly name, bleeding bowls were used to eat out of.

Punch bowls were perhaps more universal, but the bright-cut or engraved designs on their surfaces were not. Dutch punch bowls, for example, might feature images of tulips while English ones might be decorated with coats of arms featuring dragons and castles. A monteith was like an extremely fancy footed-and-handled punch bowl, whose rims were crowned with excessively scalloped and decorated crowns. These remarkable bowls were filled with ice and used to cool glasses. Later examples had removable crowns so the bowls beneath them could be used for, you guessed it, punch.

Finally there were bowls for silver tea services. Of course these included a sugar bowl, whose contents were often dropped into a teacup using a pair of sterling silver sugar tongs. In the mid-1700s, tea services also included something called a slop bowl, which was the receptacle into which one would pour the cold tea sitting at the bottom of a cup before refilling it with fresh, hot liquid. Now that’s civilized!

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Chicago Silver

Chicago Silver

Paul Somerson's incredible reference on handwrought metalwork from the American Arts and Crafts movement of the ear… [read review or visit site]

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

An extensive reference guide to silver marks, hallmarks, trademarks and maker's marks found on antique and vintage … [read review or visit site]

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

This is a great reference site on silver, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can view silver items acc… [read review or visit site]

The Gilbert Collection

The Gilbert Collection

The late Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of European silver, gold, enamel, and other items is now housed at the Vic… [read review or visit site]

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

“Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” was the title of a 2008 exhibition at Columbia University’s Mi… [read review or visit site]

Scott Perkins is an enthusiastic evangelist for The Stieff Company, a significant Baltimore silversmith and maker o… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Very Large Estate Lot Sterling Silver & Continental Solid Silver Bowls Trays EtcRare Huge Museal Chinese Export Japanese Dragon Bowl Solid Silver 880 Gramms Viking Ship Longboat Open Salt Bowl Pair 835 Norwegian SilverAntique Chester George V Sterling Silver Milk Jug & Sugar Bowl, 1917, 197 Grams Lovely Estate Lot Sterling Silver Nut Bowls Butter Dish Perfume Bottle & FunnelExquisite Mid-1800s Coin Silver Repousse Footed Bowl, Je CaldwellJapanese Sterling Silver Basket Bowl Iris Samurai Shokai Meiji Victorian Silver Rose Bowl, 1897, 473gmGood Large ~ Silver Plated ~ Lions Head ~ Punch / Fruit Bowl ~ C1950A Beautiful 19c Antique Islamic Damascus Silver Inlaid Brass BowlBig Lot Georgian Sheffield & Quality Silver Plate Butter Dishes Serving Bowls ++Kirk Silver Sauce Boat Gravy Bowl 17 Oz. C1880 917 SilverGeorg Jensen Sterling Silver Oval Footed Bowl Denmark * 113.0 Grams *Estate Lot Sterling Silver Pedestal Bowl Vase Art Nouveau Figural Mirror Brush +Solid Silver Tea Strainer And Bowl Djs Of London 1964.for The Loose Tea DrinkersEstate Lot Antique Silver Plate Entree Dishes Vegetable Casserole Serving BowlsSuperb Antique Solid Silver Fruit Bowl By Atkins Brothers Silversmiths 1904A Large Quality Antique Vintage Pierced Indian Silver Bowl With Gilt InteriorSolid Silver Rare Tea Set, Tea Pot Sugar Bowl Milk Jug Date 1925 Hallmark SheffiAntique Gorham Sterling Silver Shell Plate-bowl-5 Ozt-6inch-#42677-nr!Victorian Silver Sweet Bowl, 1890, 174gm V. Important Antique Islamic Egyptian Mamluk / Mamluk Revival Silver Inlaid BowlNice Kitchenaid Pro 500 Stand Mixer With Bowl Splash Shield Beater 5 Qt SilverOne Tiffany Sterling Silver Nut Or Candy Dish Bowl 22954 MAntique Victorian Solid Silver Pierced Sweetmeat / Bon Bon Dish Bowl 1896Spanish Silver Goblet Tazza Maiden In Garden Signed 1-2Sterling Bowl By InternationalEnglish Sterling Bowl Montieth Punch Bowl 17th Century Style 37 OzImperial Russian 84 Silver Bowl Design By Faberge. Very Rar!Art Deco Birmingham 1933 Solid Silver Dish / Bowl - Adie Brothers Ltd (d36)Superb ~ Silver Plated ~ Covered Sauce Tureen & Ladle ~ C1900 By Atkins BrosItalian C.1930's 800 Solid Silver Caviar Bowl Repousse No Reserve 196 Grams No RStriking Victorian London 1896 Floral Chased Solid / Sterling Silver BowlFinest Redlich Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Gilt Sugar Bowl 221 Grams No ReserveSuperb Large ~ Christofle ~ Silver Plated ~ 3 Section Snack Bowl Sugar Bowl, 875er Silver Persia Solid Silver Relief Flower 321 GrLovely Antique Heavy Solid Silver Arts & Crafts Bowl 254 Gram London 1913Sterling Silver - Heavy Antique Floral Nut Bowl 88g - Jewelry Dish He7032Randahl Sterling Silver 5" Porringer Bowl Art Nouveau Flower BlossomLes Six Fleurs X276 Reed Barton Nut Bowl Sterling Silver Repousse Art NouveauAntique Sterling Silver Holder Bowl Jar Dresser Tel-aviv Israel 925 Circa 1900'sIndian Silver Tray Tazza Indian Warrior C1880 Was $4200Chinese Export Silver Dragon Tazza Bowl Wang Hing Dragon In Waves Superb Antique George V Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl, 370 Grams,1925,walker & HallCarl Poul Petersen Sterling Silver Gravy Bowl5 Spanish Sterling Silver Bread Bowl Or Ashtray Shaped Like A Lotus BlossomLa Pierre Sterling Silver Compote Bon Bon Candy Dish Nut Bowl 154 GramsFinest Japanese Sterling Silver Duck Open Salt Cellar Bowl/dish Dip Figural PairVintage Silver Chinese Dragon Pierced Bowl. Hm. 90 Pair Chinese Export 900 Silver Footed Lotus Motif Bowls - Chop Mark (pew)Sterling Silver - Industria Peruana Coin Bowl (lot Of 4) 288g - Coaster Fz4302Sterling Silver - Heavy Antique Floral Bowl 42.6g - Jewelry Dish Fz4112Rare Ultra Fine 19th C Persian Qajar Islamic Solid Silver Lminiature Salt BowlLarge 12.5" Alfredo Sciarrotta Sterling Silver Tobacco Leaf Bowl #23Antique Gorham Sterling Silver Serving Bowl - 625g - 22ozReed & Barton Sterling Silver Salem X1554/105 Serving Bowl 9"Nice Antique Solid Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl 1904/ L 14.5 CmSterling Silver Bowl Paul Revere Exemplar 1768 2853l 6 In. UsedVery Fine 19th Century Indian Repousse Decorated Silver Table Bowl.Smart Solid Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl 1923/ L 14.8 Cm, 178 G