Of all the serving implements at a dinner table, tongs are perhaps the most fun to use. Unlike knives, forks, and spoons, or utensils such as butter picks and soup ladles, tongs are slightly mechanical, which means they must be properly manipulated to successfully carry everything from sugar cubes to asparagus spears to one’s plate. At a dull dinner party, the opportunity to operate a pair of tongs may be the high point of the evening.
Sterling silver sugar tongs were easily the most common type made in Great Britain. They were preceded in the mid-1700s by sugar nips, which are sometimes called tea tongs. Like sugar tongs, sugar nips were designed to clasp a cube, but the device pivoted at its center on a fulcrum, just like a pair of scissors. As a result, they were costly to produce and their engineering was perhaps needlessly sophisticated for the task at hand (grabbing a cube of sugar and dropping it into a cup of tea).
Sugar nips were used from the 18th to 19th centuries, but pivot-less tongs were also produced during this period. The earliest sugar tongs, whose center section resembled an upside-down U, were cast in three pieces—the arms, which were often pierced, and the center U, commonly called the bow.
The most valuable cast sterling-silver tongs are from the Georgian Era (1714-1830) and were made by English smiths such as Hester Bateman, John Langlands, and John Robertson. Cast Georgian-style tongs were also widely produced during the Victorian Era, so you need to be familiar with the hallmarks of several hundred years worth of silversmiths to be able to tell the difference.
Tongs formed from a single piece of silver can be dated to the late 1700s. These were often engraved, and many had a noticeable concave running on the inside of the tongs, from tip to tip. Sometimes the arms ended in a spoon or shell shape, other times they were more like a three-tined fork, or even a claw.
Intricately engraved and pierced tongs were typical of the Georgian Era, but as the 1800s dawned, more and more smiths toned down the decorations on their flatware. Contemporary tongs of the day got plainer, more solid, except, of course, for those that deliberately copied the older, more rococo styles of the previous century.
In addition to tongs for clasping sugar, larger, wider serving tongs were produced for everything from asparagus to small sandwiches. There were also tongs for ice cubes, whose s...
For the most part, New World smiths emulated the styles of their Old World forebears. Colonial and American silversmiths such as Paul Revere and Charles Oliver Bruff made sugar and other types of sterling silver tongs.