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    

Elsa Peretti For Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver & Vermeil 5 Inch Thumbprint BowlEnglish Sterling Silver Center Bowl Basket Wm. Hunter 1877 36 Oz CrestAntique Sterling Repousse Bowl By Baltimore Silversmiths (1903-1905) 512 GramsBirmingham 1898 Sterling Silver Scallop Dish/bowl - Enamelled Ship/titanic?Scottish Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl & Creamer Zodiac Glasgow 1876 George Edward Antique Tiffany & Co Holly Sterling Silver Heart Bowl Spoon Nut Server 34grElsa Peretti For Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver & Vermeil 5 Inch Thumbprint BowlSterling Silver Bowl Gorham #1327 92 GramsBeautiful Large Victorian Sterling Silver Ornate Sugar Bowl 1896, 236 GramsExcellent Sterling Silver Lion's Heads Bowl 1978, Garrad & Co LtdAntique Sterling Silver 3.1" Dia Bowl Chester 1902 By King & SonsSolid Sterling Silver Milk Creamer & Sugar Jug Bowl A An Americana American UsaShreve Sterling Silver Tazza Compote Neoclassical C1910 ExcRepousse By Kirk Sterling Silver Hand Decorated Bowl #179 11 3/8"Precious Retired James Avery Sterling Doggie/food Bowl Charm-no Res!Antique Spoon Bowl Salt Cellar Sterling Silver Large Thimble Mix Barware 8pc Lot Antique Tiffany & Co Blackberry Vine Sterling Silver Server Shell Bowl LadleSalt Bowl And Spoon Sterling Silver Sheffield 1890 Vintage Tane Orfebres Mexican Silver Sterling Gourd Lidded Box / Bowl With CoinTwo (2) Gorham Chantilly Sterling Silver Round Bowl Soup Spoons 74 Grams 925D955 Vintage Birks Sterling Set Of 5 Reticulated Candy / Nut Bowls 98.5grPersian Tiffany 12 Demitasse Spoons Sterling Silver Gold Washed Bowls Intro 1872Large Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Centrepiece Fruit Bowl 8 Inch Martin Hall 1904Towle Sterling Silver Bowl Vintage No Scrap 6++ Oz.Antique Solid Sterling Silver~pin Tray~nut Bon Bon Dish Mint Bowl~butter PatShreve And Co. Sterling Bowls, Creamer, Sugar & More - 845 Grams Of Old Sterling6 Sterling Silver Bouillon Cream Soup Holder With 10 Lenox Porcelain Bowl LinerLot Sterling Silver Jewelry Dish/bowl Scrap/use 224 GmsOld Sterling Silver Baker Manchester Pierced Bowl Nut Spoon Old Lily PatternEstate Dra Dunhill.....hairline Creck In Bowl.. Ad Sterling Silver Mount.....mbfVery Nice Large Solid Sterling Silver Fisher Paul Revere Bowl 10 1/4" 28oz.Very Nice Heavy Solid Sterling Silver Gorham 41659 Paul Revere Bowl 7 1/2" 19oz.Vintage ~ Sterling Silver Footed Lidded Sugar Bowl And Creamer 950Antique Meriden Sterling Silver Bon Bon Bowl Nut Mint Dish Candy Bowl~pin TrayVintage Sterling Silver Gorham Nut Dish Bowl No MonogramElegant Antique Sterling Silver Lenox Insert Bowl Green Mark Hand Painted 3.6 OzVintage J.e. Caldwell Sterling Silver 9" Bowl Dish B114Large Signed Japanese Prime Minister Sterling Silver Cup Bowl 140 Grams 4.9 OzFrank M. Whiting Antique Sterling Silver Bowl 570 Grams W/ Hallmark Ep Roberts#7) Vintage1949 Reed And Barton X 569 Francis I Sterling Silver Candy Nut Bowl Sterling Silver Bowl 80.1 Grams For Use Or Scrap Vintage Alvin Co. Antique Sterling Enamel Bowl City View Omaha Nebraska Souvenir SpoonVintage Birks Sterling Nut Bowls (2) #3/18/1Antique London 1886 Solid Sterling Silver Chalice Cup Bowl Goblet 61.3g 8 X 5cmAntique Sterling New Orleans Enamel Bowl Souvenir Spoon Sterling Souvenir Spoon Atlanta Black Americana Theme Cold Painted Bowl Antique Redlich & Co Sterling Silver Footed Open Sugar Bowl Not ScrapInternational Sterling Bowl 71 Grams 6" NrHeirloom Sterling Damask Rose Round Bowl Soup Spoon (cream Soup) 6 1/2" 1946Cute Gorham Pierced Sterling Silver Small Bowl 4"l. 1$ Starting No ReserveBeautiful 1890 European Sterling Silver BowlVintage International Sterling Silver Prelude B 179 Bon Bon Bowl 5 7/8" 106.2grGorham Sterling Silver Bowl P Revere 41661 Gene Towry (usga Champion)Antique Sterling Silver Bowl Royal Danish Oval Sterling Serving Bowl X127 RareSterling Silver Bowl Marked Unknown 9" Diameter 151 Grams #2Vintage Sterling Silver Bowl Marked On Bottom Sterling 96-1 OldGreat Arts And Crafts Hammered Sterling Silver BowlHeavy 9.25" Sterling Silver By Fina Paul Revere Bowl Beautiful! 28ozVintage Sterling Silver Scrap Baby Cups, Pierced Bowls 31 Grams 11 1/4 OzRare Antique Sterling Silver Enamel Bowl Souvenir Spoon Mint! Daytona, Florida!