“Visions of good and ill breeding, of old vulgarisms and new gentilities, were before her; and she was meditating much upon silver forks, napkins, and finger-glasses.”–Susan Price in Mansfield Park
In Georgian England, good “taste” reflected both style and moral goodness. Elizabeth Bennet’s visit to Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice revealed Darcy’s good taste: an indication that he was a better person than she had thought. One way to show a wealthy family’s good taste was through their fine silver.
Kristen Miller Zohn showcases lovely examples of Georgian-era silver in her book entitled The Currency of Taste for the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi. She shared many examples with our Georgia chapter of JASNA* recently, and has kindly agreed to let me share some of the photos and information with you. (Please hover over the photos for details on each item.)
The Georgian era includes the reigns of four King Georges (1714-1830). Jane Austen lived during the reign of George III, including part of the Regency of the Prince who became George IV. During this era, beautiful silver was used by the wealthier classes for dining, for drinking tea, coffee, and alcohol, and for household luxury items like candlesticks and even baby rattles!
In Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s sisters fight over a silver knife, which was obviously very precious and special in their poor family. (Austen herself considered giving her sister-in-law a silver knife as a gift, in 1808.) When Fanny’s sister Susan goes to Mansfield, she is worried about the proper use of “silver forks, napkins, and finger-glasses.” Silver forks were relatively rare and used only by the wealthy.
Properties of Silver
What chemical and physical properties of silver made it so valued and so useful?
Silver, like gold, is valuable because it is not commonly or easily found. In the earth, silver makes up about 1 part in 20 million. Although it is about ten times more abundant than gold, in ancient times it was even more valuable than gold because it was harder to find and refine than gold was.
In the Georgian era, people sometimes stored their wealth in the form of silver. If needed, silver items could be melted down and reworked or even made into coins. Austen mentions the “new silver coinage” in a letter in 1816. Britain needed to stabilize its currency after the Napoleonic Wars and so introduced new gold and silver coins.
Jane Austen’s family had some “old or useless silver” melted down in 1808 to make a tablespoon, a dessert spoon, six teaspoons, and a silver tea-ladle. These new items made their sideboard, where food was laid out and silver was displayed, “border on the magnificent.”
100% pure silver is too soft to keep its shape well. As we do today, the Georgians used “sterling” silver, which is 92.5% silver. It was stamped with a “Lion Passant,” a walking lion with the right forepaw raised. The other 7.5% is other metals, mostly copper, which make it harder, stronger, and slower to tarnish.
- Malleability and Ductility
A “malleable” metal can be easily hammered or rolled into flat sheets and other shapes. A “ductile” metal can be easily stretched and drawn into thin wires. Silver’s malleability and ductility make it easy for craftsmen to form it into jewelry as well as elaborate, decorative vessels.
Silver objects are shiny, and beautiful, because silver is the most reflective of any element. It reflects more than 95% of visible light.
Mirrors, by the way, are glass with a reflective metal coating on the back. Many mirrors are now made with silver, but Georgian mirrors were produced by a very expensive and dangerous process using tin and mercury. (Probably the nearly-bankrupt baronet Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion had spent large amounts of money on the “looking-glasses,” or mirrors, that filled his dressing room!) Around 1835 a process was invented to coat glass with silver from silver nitrate, making much higher quality and less expensive mirrors. Modern mirrors often use aluminum instead, which is a little less reflective but a lot cheaper.
Sterling silver is fairly heavy per unit volume. Its specific gravity is 10.36, meaning that it is 10.36 times as dense as water. (Pure silver’s specific gravity is 10.49). More common, cheaper metals used at the time, such as copper (8.96), tin, and iron, as well as brass (copper combined with zinc), are substantially less dense. Lead (11.34) is heavier, though, and gold (specific gravity 19.32) is much heavier than silver.
Since silver was so heavy, punch ladles often had handles made of wood or whalebone. This made the handle lighter, so that if someone dropped a ladle into the punch bowl, it was easier to find it and pull it out.
In 1742, about 35 years before Austen’s birth, a craftsman in Sheffield, England discovered that copper could be “plated” with silver. An ingot of copper, slightly alloyed with zinc and lead, was covered with silver on the bottom and top. Since silver melts at a lower temperature than copper, it could be heated until the silver began to melt and fuse with the copper. The resulting sandwich of metal, called fused plate or Sheffield plate, could be worked like silver and looked like silver, but it was cheaper since the bulk of it was inexpensive copper.
Because of density differences, though, as well as the need for multiple layers, it was not the same weight as sterling silver. It was mostly used for serving platters or other items that the servants would handle, not the guests. The guests might have noticed that it was the wrong weight, and therefore not truly silver!
Silver does not react with most foods, meaning that it will not contaminate the foods (as lead vessels do), or be harmed by the foods. So it is ideal for plates, spoons, cups, coffee pots, and other containers.
However, eggs contain sulfur, which reacts with silver, so egg containers might be lined with glass or gold to protect the silver.
Silver also reacts with salt and mustard powder, so silver containers for those were also lined.
Silver does tarnish slowly over time, as it reacts with sulfur in the air and forms a black compound, silver sulfide (which, by the way, is used today in photography). Zohn pointed out that polishing the silver actually removes a layer of the silver. The best strategy is to use your silver regularly, which keeps it from tarnishing. It can be washed in a dishwasher with very hot water and no soap.
- Thermal Conductivity
Silver conducts heat better than any other material. It heats up quickly and cools down quickly. So it is not good for keeping foods and drinks warm or cold, and silver teapots are usually small, holding only enough to drink immediately. External heat sources were needed to keep food warm.
Because of silver’s thermal conductivity, a completely silver coffee or tea pot may burn whoever picks it up. Therefore many have wooden handles, and sometimes wooden disks for lifting the lid. Alternatively, there might be an ivory disk in the handle to prevent the heat of the silver pot from being transferred to the metal handle.
Antibacterial properties of silver are a recent discovery. However, the Georgians knew that silver was healthy. They even made baby rattles out of it, with coral for the baby to teethe on. There were many infant deaths for many reasons, but silver was considered a safe choice for babies.
The novel To Refine Like Silver (reviewed earlier) compares social “refinement” with the process of refining silver (based on the Bible verse Malachi 3:3). Are there qualities of silver that we would like to have in our lives? We might want to be pure, truly beautiful, and healthy. If we consider God as the silversmith, we might want to be malleable (easily formed into the right shape) or reflective. What do you hope for in your life?
* “The Currency of Taste,” talk by Kristen Zohn Miller, for the Georgia chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America on May 19, 2018
Letters of Jane Austen, in order of mention: June 9, 1808; Feb. 20, 1816 (to her niece Fanny); Dec. 27, 1808.
Physical and chemical properties of silver:
The Currency of Taste and links at beginning of post
The Mirror: A History, by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, pages 62, 64, 97 at books.google.com
Sheffield Plate (silverplating)