I was all set to delve back into manners with a discussion of proper nose-picking etiquette in the 16th Century, but then real life interrupted. Sort of. I’m getting ready for Thanksgiving and that means my once a year dusting of the dining room and polishing of the silver. My mom kept most of her silver wrapped in plastic wrap or hidden in a shoe box under the sofa, so it didn’t tarnish. We never used it, but we never had to polish it either. I was happy to follow in her footsteps. So my silver polishing chores consisted of cleaning two bread trays each and every year.
And then last year my mother-in-law downsized her apartment and we inherited a collection of silver knick knacks of every shape size and conceivable purpose. (See the silver-plated pickle jar in the center of the picture. Why? Why? Who needs a fancy silver jar for pickles?) I could only put so much of it in the attic to save for the grandkids. I had to put some of it out. And that meant that this year I had to polish it, and that made me really take a look at some of the pieces for the first time. One of them, a sugar bowl, is marked “quadruple plate.” A note from my mother-in-law says that it’s the forerunner of sterling silver.
I always thought “sterling” just meant “real.” As in solid, not plated.
So then I had to find out what sterling silver really was. Although the word “sterling” has come to mean “excellent,” according to Webster’s dictionary, it’s probably due to its association with high quality silver, rather than the other way around. Sterling silver is an alloy containing at least 92.5% silver (which is considered too soft to hold a useful shape on its own). That is a legal definition established in England in 1238. So I somehow doubt that the quadruple plated silver bowl is a “forerunner” of sterling, much as I’d like to own a piece of metalwork that’s 800 years old. Some countries have set a standard allowing a higher percentages of other metals and the U.S. did not formally adopt a standard until 1907, so earlier American sterling may consist of 10-20% copper or another metal.
Quadruple plating, I learned, was a apparently a fad in the late 1880s. It was the next best thing to sterling, and maybe that’s where the erroneous “forerunner” story began in my husband’s family. Before the invention of electroplating in the mid 1800s, silver pieces were extremely expensive. But once metallurgists learned how to attach a thin layer of silver to a base of stronger and cheaper metal such as copper, then the middle class could afford to buy silver pieces that looked as good as solid sterling–until they were used or polished so much that the plating wore off and the items had to be replated. Strangely enough, silversmiths later invented a machine to give silver a satin “Butler’s Finish” which simulates the tiny scratches put into the silver by years of polishing. So too much polishing wears off the silver, but not enough polishing leaves the finish too “new” looking, apparently.
These are things you don’t have to worry about if you just keep your silver wrapped in plastic under the sofa, which is, I think, just the perfect place for that pickle jar.