Sterling Silver NoveltiesBy Mark Chervenka
Sterling Silver Novelties
Victorians' love of ornament for its own sake is quite obvious in their personal accessories. Look through any period catalog and you'll find hundreds of fanciful goodies designed to pluck a mustache, pounce some ink, and pick out bags and bicycles. One of the favorite materials for those daily essentials was sterling silver.
Sterling was not cheap but generally inexpensive enough for the broad middle class to use to enhance their respectability. Most items were hand finished but basic pieces were mass produced in molds and dies which kept costs down. It was well within most budgets to own an elegant sterling handled corn trimmer (for use on toes, not fields) or give a sterling used tea bag holder as a wedding present.
Collectively, these odds and ends are today called novelties. That is also how they were described when first made (see catalog, Fig. 3). This term is used to distinguish such items as glove hooks, pen wipers and garter clasps from the presumably more serious silver such as flatware (knives, forks, etc.), holloware (teapots, butter dishes, etc.) and decorative or artistic pieces.
In the Marshall Field & Co. catalog of 1896, sixteen full pages of sterling silver novelties are shown. These gadgets are as popular with today's collectors as they were with Victorians. Original sterling novelties are sought after for their own sake, or more commonly, as specialized collections of a novelty subcategory such as match safes, sewing tools, scent bottles, chatelaine accessories, wax sealers and so on.
This popularity created a ready market for reproductions. The sheer number of different pieces, both new and old, makes a side by side comparison very difficult. However, if you study marks, construction details and basic design, you can quickly learn to spot the majority of new pieces.
Since the mid-1860s, items marked "sterling" in the United States must have 925 parts pure silver for every 1000 parts of total material. This is expressed as the ratio 925/1000 or, more simply, 925. This is known as the "sterling standard".
The great majority of original Victorian era silver novelties made and sold in the United States that met this standard were marked "sterling", not "925". Although 925 was perfectly legal, it was nothing more than a mathematical expression. "Sterling" was the word the public knew and associated with silver and had more impact for marketing purposes. By contrast, almost all reproduction silver novelties made today that meet the standard are marked only "925". Why?
Keep in mind that both "sterling" and "925" are legal descriptions of silver content. The use of the word "sterling" as a silver standard mark is unique to the United States. However, "925" was adopted by European nations as a silver standard since a 1975 treaty. This eliminates the expense of applying separate spelled-out marks in each separate language. New items marked "sterling" only, for example, would be for legal sale only in the United States. New items marked "925", however, are for legal retail sale in any country which has agreed to the 925/1000 standard. New 925 markings are generally very small, usually only 1/32″ to 1/64″ and very uniform in size (Fig. 4A).
While many original Victorian novelties do have manufacturer's marks, many other originals do not. The absence of a factory mark does not necessarily have any bearing on age. The presence of a factory mark (whose years of use are known) and the word "sterling" generally, but not always, indicates a piece is authentic (see exceptions at end of article).
Logical and Practical Design
When examining a suspect piece, always ask yourself, "Can this object logically perform the job for which it was designed?" Ask this question while looking at Fig. 8 which claims to be a cigar cutter. The idea is to put the tip of the cigar in the middle hole and slide the two halves of the cutter together. The only problem is that the blade is made of the same single piece of silver as the back half of the cutter. Ever try to put a cutting edge on a piece of silver? It can't be done. Original cutters, of course, had a steel blade held by a silver frame. But this isn't a cigar cutter. It's a reproduction meant to be collected, not used to cut cigars.
The large hair comb in Fig. 7 also fails the test of logic. It too is entirely silver. The teeth, almost 3½″ in length, are too soft to actually hold hair. Original combs this large had sterling decorative tops but almost always had steel, bone, shell or synthetic teeth below which could withstand practical use.
Also beware of solid silver pins used to fasten small accessories like flower holders, chatelaines, etc. to clothing. Original pins were steel; silver is too soft. The new pins ACRN bought as samples bent just trying to pierce ordinary fabrics.
The most obvious example of illogical design is the figural pig on top of the thimble in Fig. 10. The pig's only purpose is to attract collector's. There is no way this piece–with its ears, snout and legs sticking out–could protect your fingers while sewing and handling fabrics.
General Construction, Common Sense
Side by side, the majority of new silver novelties almost always show much less detail than originals (Fig. 4). However, out in the field this difference is not always apparent to inexperienced buyers. A number of new pieces, like the buckle in Fig. 5 and cigar cutter in Fig. 8 have surprisingly good detail.
Always remember that modern products, antique reproductions included, can be made more cheaply by using standardized parts. Therefore, finding matching parts on otherwise dissimilar pieces is almost always a warning sign of a modern product.
For example, if you are looking at silver scent bottles, inspect the screw on caps. The majority of new caps on new scent bottles will fit any other new scent bottle of similar size. Likewise with hanging loops. Of ten hanging loops on samples purchased for this article–ranging from match safes to needle cases, to other objects–nine loops were identical in size.
This is not to say that original manufacturers did not use standardized parts; they did, especially in jewelry. But if you're looking in a showcase at 30 mixed shapes and all hanging loops are the same, caps are interchangeable and the majority of pieces are marked 925, be suspicious.
While the great majority of new sterling novelties is marked "925" only, a few new pieces are found marked "sterling" (Figs. 7 & 8). A small number of pieces are also marked both 925 and sterling. English silver, new or old, is always fully hallmarked and never marked "925" or "sterling".
You're always better to consider construction details to determine age rather than marks. Ask yourself if the object can perform the job for which it was designed. Marks can be easily forged and added with stamps and punches. Never rely on marks alone or any one single feature as your only test of age.
Most new pieces shown in this article are made in Thailand. Only a small number of the many reproductions were able to be shown in the space available. Expect to find many more, perhaps hundreds, of different new pieces available. Guidelines in this article apply to the majority of new silver novelties.
New Sewing Items
There are a great many sewing related novelties being reproduced. They include scissors, scissor holders, thimble holders, hem markers, pin holders, as well as numerous needle cases and thimbles like those shown here. The majority of new pieces are marked 925.
Be sure to check needle case lids for snug tight fits. Beware of loose or poorly fitting lids. Many new cases offered as chatelaine accessories come apart if suspended by their hanging chains. Be suspicious if every needle case a seller offers has a hanging loop. Only needle cases intended for chatelaines should have hanging loops. Most needle cases were originally sold as part of a sewing kit which would be kept in the original box, a sewing chest or sewing drawer. Those needle cases did not have a hanging loop. Every reproduction needle case ACRN ordered has a hanging loop. Most new loops are the same size. Many pieces are entirely silver where originals would include stronger metals like steel or brass.
New Match Safes
Match safes are among the most widely reproduced sterling novelties. Many new pieces, like Fig. 1, are direct copies of originals.
There are several key features to inspect when evaluating match safes. First, look at the striker, the grooved area used to light the match. Original strikers are generally a convex groove (curved inward) to keep the match head from slipping out while it is struck (Fig. 16). Look for sharp, well defined ridges that show normal wear. Expect scratches in random directions.
A number of new match safes do not even have strikers (Fig. 15). Others, like the piece in Fig. 14, have shallow, poorly formed ridges. Also note the raised ridge seam (arrow) in Fig. 14 which would make striking the match difficult.
Most new safes also have hanging loops. American made Victorian safes rarely had hanging loops. Hanging loops are found primarily on English made vesta boxes which are about half the height of American match safes (see page 22). Authentic English silver will have hallmarks. The number ″.925″ and word ″sterling″ virtually never appear on English silver.
Unless damaged, expect original matchsafes to have snug fitting lids that close crisply. Many reproductions have poorly joined, loose fitting lids that do not close properly. Also inspect the tension bar as described in Figs. 4 and 5.
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