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    

Incredble1894 Victorian Sterling Silver Repousse Figural Centerpiece Basket BowlRare 1727 George I London Sterling Silver Brandy Warming Pot Sauce Boat Bowl N/rSuperb Pair Poul Petersen Modernist Sterling Silver Peapod Pedestal Bowls DishesJapanese Sterling Silver & Gold Bowl Signed Minju For Mitsukoshi Co. Meiji Rare Poul Petersen Mid Century Modernist Sterling Silver Porringer Bowl PineconeAcquisto & English Miniature Sterling Silver Cruet Stand & Bread Basket BowlVery Fine 1937 Art Deco Birks Sterling Silver Footed Candy Dish Nut BowlInterestng Pair Poul Petersen Modernist Sterling Silver Candy Bowls CandlesticksRare Miniature Sterling Silver Footed Revolving Entree Serving Bowl Supper Dish Rarec1910 Birks Sterling Silver Thistle Rose Repousse Abp Cut Glass Serving BowlHand Wrought Mid Century Sterling Silver Compote / Tazza By Carl Poul Petersen Elsa Peretti For Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver & Vermeil 5 Inch Thumbprint BowlExceptional 1907 Mauser Sterling Silver Abp Cut Glass Trophy Centerpiece Bowl5 Fine Miniature Dollhouse Sterling Silver Wine Cooler Platter Tray Basket BowlTwo Reed And Barton X569 Francis I 1 Sterling Silver Bowls English Sterling Silver Tazza Compote Bowl Putti In Garden 13 1/2 "Large Sterling Silver Basting / Gravy Spoon London 1812 - Long Bowl Good CrestAntique 19c Chinese Export Silver Bowl, Hand Made Aesthetic Bugs, Crabs SterlingAntique Whiting Sterling Silver Reposse Reticulated Bowl Floral Decorated 3213Very Fine 1834 William Iv English Sterling Silver Repousse Sugar Serving BowlGorham Chantilly Sterling Silver Bowl 6" Dia. 1$ Starting No ReserveGale & Willis Sterling Silver Basket Center Bowl 1859-1862 31 Oz ExcMauser Sterling Silver Fruit Bowl Cascading Grape C1895 Exc6 Vintage Watson Sterling Pierced Salts?, Small Footed Bowls, "b" MonogramAntique Fisher American Sterling Silver Footed Seashell Bowl Nut Dish Pin TrayVintage Native American Sterling Silver 3 Salt Spoons & Cellar Dish Bowl NavajoBig Antique American Sterling Silver Whiting Repousse Bowl Poppy Flower Motif4 - English Sterling Silver Salt Cellar Bowls SetPeterson Pre-smoked Pipe Dublin Ireland Sterling Silver W Hallmarks Carved BowlAlvin "bridal Rose" Sterling Sugar Spoon W/ Rose In BowlAntique Reed & Barton Sterling Silver Bon Bon Repousse Bowl PoppyVintage Sterling Silver Large Repousse Footed Bowl - 12 5/8" - 17.68 Troy OuncesEnglish Sterling Silver Center Bowl Basket Wm. Hunter 1877 36 Oz CrestVintage Mueck & Carey Sterling Silver Footed Creamer & Sugar Bowl SetDurgin Sterling Silver Bowl Swirl Fluted C1885 Early Dove & D MarkDominick & Haff Sterling Silver Bowl Shell & Leaf Star Form 18961915 Old Mappin & Webb Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl Heavy English Sheffield Vintage Sterling Silver Floral Bowl Dish 6421Sterling Creamer & Sugar Bowl Set - Fisher #721 - No MonogramAntique American Or English 19th C Reticulated Sterling Silver Fruit Bowl BasketWeighted Sterling Silver Handled Compote Basket Bowl International 237 GramsLovely Pair Victorian Pierced Solid Sterling Silver Sugar Tongs,acorn Bowls,1880American Sterling Silver Bowl Dish C1940 Pineapple Finial SignedHadad 925 Sterling Silver Honey Bowl Dish W/glassRussian Silver 84 Sterling Egg , Russia Bowl C.1900 , Russian Enamel EggAntique Repousse Decorated Sterling Silver Bowl Hallmarked 1901Russian Silver 84 Sterling Vodka Cup Russia Bowl C.1900 Russian Enamel Gorgeous Old Colonial 5 1/8" Gw Bowl Mayonnaise Ladle .620 Ozt By Towle Sterling2 - Webster & Matthews Sterling Silver Trivets + Candleholder & Rimmed Bowl12 Vintage Towle Arlington Sterling Ice Cream / Desert Spoons Gold Wash BowlsAntique Repousse Silver Bowl W/classic Scene Probably SterlingFlorentine Lace Sterling Silver 89 Grams Reed & Barton No. X785 Bowl VintageRussian Silver 84 Sterling Kowsh , Russia Bowl C.1900 , Russian Enamel KovshBeautiful Gorham Sterling Silver Floral / Repousse Nut Dish, Bowl 120 GramsAntique American 19th C Reticulated Sterling Silver Handled Basket Or Bowl Mm Whiting Solid Sterling Silver Bon Bon Floral Repousse Bowl 6507Alvin Old Orange Blossom With Decorated Bowl Sterling Silver SpoonUnusual 1847 James Edwards Ironstone Tureen Tiffany Sterling Make-do HandleWhiting Solid Sterling Silver Bon Bon Floral Repousse Bowl 6507Adirondack Mountains, Sterling Silver Souvenir Spoon, Hunting Scene In Bowl