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    

Stieff Sterling Silver Bowl C1930 Hand Decorated 36 OzSolid Sterling Silver Meriden Britannia Large 13" Vintage/antique Bowl Dish 580gEnglish Sterling Silver Bowl Compote 1914 Rogers ExcTop Quality Antique Solid Sterling Silver Bowl 1879 Hunt & Roskell/ 285 GVery Rare Signed Tiffany & Co. Sterling Silver Richly Decorated Bowl Dated 1875Tane Mexican Sterling Vase/bowl Pre-columbian Figural Monkey 39oztBest! Antique American Brilliant Cut Glass Bowl W/gorham Sterling Rim - Hawkes?English Sterling Silver Bowl Oak Leaf & Acorn 1930 RareGeorge Sharp Sterling Silver Bowl C1850 Phila. Bailey Co. 18 OzFine Alvin Art Deco / Arts & Crafts Sterling Silver Bon Bon Basket Bowl C 1517Russian Sterling Enamel Silver 84 Kovsh For Vine C.1896 Aa Cirilica Russia BowlWalker & Hall Victorian Sterling Silver Fluted Sugar Bowl 1890Antique 276g Sterling Silver Relief Decorated Table Dish / Bowl From London 1888Georg Jensen Denmark Sterling 180d Pedestal Base BowlEnglish Sterling Silver Bowl Compote 1934 ExcVintage Sterling Silver Master Salt Bowl By S C, Sheffield 1979Gorham 1166 Stamped Sterling Silver 925 Bowl (86g)Georg Jensen Denmark Sterling 580a BowlVintage Sterling Silver Paul Revere Repro Bowl By Gorham, 774 Grams 27+ OzSterling Silver BowlDoll House Miniature Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl By Peter Acquisto W Box Sterling Silver Bvlgari Bulgari Cup Bowl Dish 925 Made In ItalyRussian Sterling Enamel Silver 84 Kovsh For Vine C.1896 Aa Cirilica Russia BowlAntique Unique Chinese Export Sterling Silver Bowl Dragon Wang Hing Hong Kong 19Bowl And Spoon Victorian Sterling Silver Sheffield 1892 Antique Victorian Decorative Solid Sterling Silver Bowl, B.b, 75g, London 1894A Victorian Sterling Silver Bowl, London 1897 - 228gmsMauser Sterling Silver Basket Bowl New York C1890 RareLot Of Two Antique Bowls German 800 Silver & English Sterling * Hunting SceneOnc Sterling Silver Bonbon Bowl, #207, Hand Hammered, 277.3 Grams, Rare Piece!Antique Indian Colonial Repousse Sterling Silver Bowl Lucknow Calcutta VillageCartier Sterling Bowl Paul Revere Reproduction #1227 1/4 C.1900 Pest Hungarian Solid Silver 13 Lot Hi Sterling Sugar BowlSigned Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver Footed Wedding Bowl, #925-1000Sterling Silver Bowl ~ International G65 ~ Spring Glory ~ 155 Grams Not Scrap NrPair Antique Thomas Aitkin Octagonal Double Handle Sterling Silver Compotes,bowlInternational La Paglia Design Solid Sterling Silver Soap Dish Compote Tazza Antique Solid Sterling Hallmarked Silver Milk Jug & Sugar Bowl 120grams ,S. Kirk & Son Sterling Silver Repouse Candy Bowl 139.5gSet Of 6 Vintage Sterling Silver Figural Japanese Ice Tea Spoons Engraved BowlsMalta Silver - Large Sterling Siver Dish/bowl 1769 Emmanuel Pinto Centre - 162 GRussian Sterling Silver Serving Spoon 7 Inches Long Gilted Bowl Engraved Back NrAntique George Sharp Sterling Silver Dome Handle Shell Bowl Preserve Spoon,7.5"Antique Sterling Baker-manchester Pierced Bowl Olive Spoon Georg Jensen Acorn Sterling Silver Set Of 4 Round Bowl Soup Spoons Vtg 6 3/8"Pair Of Vtg Old Sterling Silver Open Salt Cellar Bowl Dish Cobalt Blue Glass (gsBeautiful Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Spoon Snowdrop Flowers Buds Gilt Bowl 1915English Sterling Compote Bowl Classical Mask & Shell 3-4Antique 258g Solid Sterling Silver 2 Handle Sugar Bowl From Sheffield Dated 1925Vintage Hawkes Sterling Silver / Cut Crystal Glass 9" Serving Bowl 1914~1959Antique Rare Alvin Solid Sterling Silver Repousse Serving Bowl 9" S110 Sterling Silver Bowl Large 435.7 Grams Scrap Or UseVintage Webster Sterling Silver Porringer Bowl Scrap Or Use 88 GramsRetired James Avery Dog Dish Bowl Sterling Silver CharmAntique Frank Whiting Sterling Silver Pedestal Candy Dish Bowl Violet CompoteReed & Barton 925 Sterling Silver "damaged" Bowl Holloware (86.4g) - 999-004Fisher Paul Revere 1768 Liberty Reproduction Sterling 925 Bowl (433g)Rare Handwrought Karl Lienonen Sterling Silver Arts & Crafts Bowl / Candy DishVintage Sterling Silver Cliff House California Enamel Bowl SpoonVintage Very Nice .925 Sterling Silver Hallmarked Elephants Repousse Bowl