Buying Antique and Vintage Silver Plate for the Table

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Silver plated serving itemsAntique and vintage silver plate tableware has to be one of the most amazing bargains you can buy. (If you are looking to sell your silver plate read How to Sell Silver Plated Silverware and Flatware.)

There was a time when all elegant homes would have had  silver to put on the table and most of it was silver plate (sterling silver coating a base metal like copper).

 It fell out of favour in the 1960's when modern metals and plastics became popular. All those silver plated wedding gifts and heirloom silver plate were shoved to the back of cupboards and forgotten about. Improperly stored  they tarnished and on the rare occasions they were used had to be cleaned and shined. Silver plate got an undeserved reputation of being difficult and fussy to take care of. 

Silver has a richness to it that no other metal can equal, if you want a entertain with a show stopping table there is nothing so stunning as one filled with gleaming silver. So is buying vintage and antique silver plate expensive? Actually no. If you know what to look for you can find beautiful pieces of silver plate for only a few dollars.
Sterling silver (silver that is 925 parts pure silver) table ware was always the standard on the tables of the very rich. In the mid 1800's a technique was discoved where an object made of one metal, like copper, could be covered using an electric current with a thin layer of silver to make it look as if the whole piece was solid silver. 

Since so little silver was actually used the cost of the object was far less expensive than a solid silver piece and the middle classes finally could start setting their tables with silver plate at a fraction of the cost of sterling silver. Silver plate became a status symbol and millions of pieces have been made for the table in the last 120 years. Like all things in life you will find very good quality silver plate and very poor quality silver plate.

The difference between an antique silver plate piece and a vintage piece is its age. An antique is an object that has been made over 100 years ago, a vintage piece is generally considered something made 50 to 100 years ago and a retro piece is something made 30 to 50 years ago (anything 30 years and younger is just considered "used"). All silver plate in England and North America had to be stamp marked until the 1970's when stickers were allowed to be used in Canada and the U.S. When looking at a silver piece the first thing you want to do is flip it over and look at the markings on the underside. There might  be several markings.

  • country it was made in
  • markers name and possibly a trade mark symbol
  • product number
  • E.P. marking

So it might have stamped in it Made in England, a  trade mark of a bird, a product number of N897 and E.P. on Copper. Some very old pieces and some very new pieces won't have all the information. Country of origin had to be placed on all items as of the 1930's so you know if it has "Made in .... "  it won't be older than 1930.  But, some factories that were famous in their day didn't mark their country of origin, just their company name. Don't get product numbers confused with actual dates, Rogers 1881 is not a date code but a product line.

E.P. is short for Electro Plating and it might have been electroplated on Copper, Brass, Nickel Silver or Britannia Metal. Copper and Brass are two recognizable metals, Nickel Silver (also  known as German silver) has no silver in it and is a mix of Copper and Zinc and is marked E.P.N.S. Britannia metal was very popular between 1880 and 1920 and is a mix of tin, antimony, zinc and copper and is marked E.P.B.M. (Some modern pieces are electroplated on Zinc, there is often a lot of problems with this as the electroplating can rub off as Zinc is not a good base.

Thumbnail image for Silver plated serving
Items like flatware and serving pieces (serving spoons, cake servers, butter knives, etc.) that were silver plated often were not marked. They would only have the company name on the back of their handle and/or the pattern name.

 It is generally assumed that if you are looking at antique and vintage flatware that looks like silver and does not have a hall mark (sterling mark) on it then it is silver plate.

So what can you buy for your table that is silver plated? A better question you might ask is what can't you buy. Everything from candle holders to toast racks to turkey domes were made in silver plate. In a age where dinners were eaten by candle light silver would shine at the table. Walking through antique stores and antique malls you will see item after item of silver plate. Millions of pieces of silver plate were produce. The question should be what do you want to buy for your table that is silver plate.

It is with tarnished silver plate that you will find your best deals. Silver plate tarnishes when it is not cleaned properly and left in the open elements. If it has been stored away without being wrapped up in either a tarnish resistant cloth or plastic then the colour will start to dull, turn golden, then eventually black. When it is at this state most people who don't know how to clean it think that it is ruined or they just don't want to put the effort into cleaning it. 

If the piece was clean when it began to tarnish then it should, with some elbow grease, come back to its original glory, but if it was stored away dirty with food spills on it then the silver plate might be damaged. If a piece is highly tarnished it is hard to tell if all the silver plate is still intact or if it has worn off over years of use. If the base metal is copper it is easier to tell if the silver has worn off by rubbing a tarnished area and seeing what the colour is under neath. But if the base metal is Nickel Silver or Britannia Metal then they both look like dull silver or tin. 

If there is any tiny lumps or bumps on a tarnished piece of silver plate then pass it by. These little bumps are called pitting and it means that the silver has come loose from the base. You should never pay more than a dollar of two for a piece of highly tarnished silver plate. You might go to all the effort of shining it up to find that one small section is damaged.
The pieces that you want to buy might have tarnish on them but no dents, pits or scratches.   

Most people want to start with the basics, cutlery. They might remember their grandmother's pattern and hope to find that or they might be looking for something completely different. Buying individual pieces of cutlery hoping to make up a set might be fun and a challenge to some but it will turn out to be more expensive then buying a complete set. 

Complete sets of silver plated cutlery turn up on a regular basis at auctions and at antique stores and at antique malls. They generally run from about $35 to $195 depending on the condition and if they come in a wooden caddy. The auction price would be about the same. (Read our article How to Buy at a Live Auction )You will also come across partial sets being sold at garage sale and rummage sale, they often are asking a much higher price because the sellers don't know how common they are. 

If you buy a very popular set then finding serving utensils that will match will be much easier. When buying a set always  check that there are 8 of each item and that each item is of the same pattern. If the handles look very dull then the silver might have worn off them but generally most people didn't use their good cutlery enough to wear it out. 

The Victorians loved their serving pieces and would have serving knives and spoons for every conceivable dish. These can be fun to look for. That fish serving fork does not have to be used for fish if you need to use it on your table for vegetables instead. We are not so bound and constrained by etiquette as our grand parents were. You will find tomato servers, jelly servers, and pie servers of all types of designs. Look for them at antique malls lumped together in baskets. They sell for under $8 and for as little as $1 at rummage sales. 

Rimmers were very popular from the 1930's onward. These were silver plated bottomless dishes that you could put your glass oven proof dish in (like Pyrex) and take to the table to serve. They had small feet so the heat of the dish would not harm the table and there would be no need to use a hot pad under the dish. Up until 30 years ago it was fairly easy to buy replacement glass for these rimmers.

RimmerYou can now buy Pyrex dishes that might fit some of these vintage rimmers. Since the size of the rimmer varied from maker to maker you have to be sure that you have a size that will fit a modern Pyrex piece. 

Once you start looking for them you will see rimmers everywhere. They are a staple in antique stores and malls but they often show up at thrift stores with out a glass dish and many people don't know what they are used for. With out a glass dish these generally don't sell for more than $8 and considerably less at rummage sales and thrift stores

Silver plated serving items
Butter dishes, covered serving dishes, trays and candle sticks can sell for high prices once they are cleaned up and put out on display at high end antique stores. You want to find these pieces before the dealers do. 

There are times at auctions that they might bring out huge boxes of tarnished silver plate. Never bid on anything that you have not checked over first. Amongst all the rubbish that you know you will end up throwing out or donating there might be some real gems that will be stunning once they are cleaned up.

When cleaning silver plate NEVER use any cleaners that promise to clean them instantly by dipping them. These are very harsh cleaners and they will not give you the effect that you hope. They tend to strip all the glow off a piece and in the end it looks like a piece of tin. 

The best types of cleaners to start with are soap cleaners like Twinkle that you use with a sponge to clean them under water. These type of cleaners are great because instead of rubbing the dirt, grime and tarnish into the piece you are washing it off the piece. If you have spent some time cleaning it with Twinkle and it still has some tarnish on it dry it very well and switch to a good silver polish like Goddard's or Town Talk. When you are finished cleaning it there will be a glow to it.

Never store away your silver dirty. After you have used it wash it in dish soap and dry it with a clean soft cloth. Let it sit our for 24 hours before you put it away to make sure that there is no moisture on it. You can store it either in a tarnish resistant cloth or wrap it in flannel and put it in a plastic bag that you can close.

Now that you have your silver plate use it. It is sad that something so lovely should stay hidden in a cupboard only to be brought out during the big holidays. Breakfast with silverBring out your silver plate for smaller occasions as well, like this Valentine's Breakfast for a group of 11 year old girls. Breakfast is given a touch of class by using a delicate silver cutlery set, silver toast rack and silver serving dishes (while you can't see it in this photo the large flower arrangement is set in a silver bowl). 

Treat yourself on the weekends and have breakfast in bed with your fine silver plate.
With a little bit of work searching for good pieces and cleaning them up you can have the elegance of a by gone age with the gleam and shine of silver on your table at amazing price.




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Copyright Ingrid Talpak 2009
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14 Comments

How can I sell my beautiful silver plate serving platters? Thank you.

If you are thinking of selling them then try finding a local antique dealer and ask if they will sell them for you on consignment. This would mean that you would agree on a selling price and they would keep them in their store and try to sell them with in a certain time period, generally 3 months. They will take part of the selling price as their fee, about 25% to 33%. Make sure that there is a contract stating what would happen if they are damaged in the store or stolen and if the antique dealer has your permission to sell them for less money than originally agreed.

I would love to purchase a silver flatware set...Anyone out there want to sell or know where I can purchase?
Thanks

Hi Judy,

It really depends on where you live on where I would suggest you but a silver flatware set.

These items are a regular staple at antique markets and antique stores, generally silver plated flatware sell from about $35 to $195 depending on the pattern, how worn they are and how long the dealer has had it in their stock.

You can also find them listed on sites like Kijiji and Craigs List. If you are near an Auction house then see if there is any listed in upcoming auctions. You can also ask around friends and family to see if they know of anyone who is going to be having a garage sale that might be selling off a flatware set.

When you do find a set that you like make sure that you count to make sure that there are 8 of each utensil and that they are all alike. Often if one piece goes missing people will substitute a similar looking piece.

Good luck, let me know if you find something! Ingrid

What a great article! Full of useful information. I use the flatware that belonged to my parents. They kept it stored away but I use it daily and love the feel of it. I don't have a complete matching set, but I like the mix-and-match look of the old pieces together.

I did not know I could store it in plastic bags. I bought some of the tarnish-resistant bags at an antique mall and use them but I don't have enough. Thank you for that tip. I also did not know about the rimmers. I've seen them but assumed it would be difficult to find replacement glass pieces for them.

Thanks again--

Hi Susanna, I'm delighted that you enjoyed the article!

Hi Susanna,

Did you sell your silver plateserving platters? I am interesting it.I like beatiful kitchen ware things.If you not yet sell it,can you send me photo of your plate?

Sincerely,
Erka

I love the history lesson in the article regarding when stickers came in to use and how to "date" a piece based on that or the "made in.." info.
I have started using odd creamer and sugar dishes in the guest bath with cotton balls/q-tips, etc. stashed in them.
I also have a rather large collection of silver water ptichers and only one that I will not part with. I have recently given some to new brides-to-be with a handwritten note telling how growing up in Georgia, I polished many a piece of sliver and I believe every new bride should own an heirloom piece handed down. It is a big hit and a very special gift.
I agree...silver is special and adds elegant beauty to any room.
Also, you are spot on with how inexpensive it is to pick up at antique malls, estate sales, even Goodwill stores.

Hi Becky, I love silver and am always telling people how easy it is to take care of when you know how. I like the idea of giving silver water pitchers to new brides!

Hi Erka- I have been given th etask of selling my bosses silver plate. Neither of them are interested. What kinds of pieces are you looking for?

Thanks, Pamela
pyellin@gmail.com

Hello

I have started a little collection of silver plated items. I love polishing it ... I could spend hours polish. I love the very bright silver shine, I buy old pieces and after couple polishing it comes to a very nice shine.
I am afraid I will damage it for over cleaning it, how much is too much cleaning?

I have a variety of Serving Platters to serving pieces that must go! These items have been in my family for 40 years or more.. I grew up in our Family owned Catering Business and much of these items were required for table presentation... please email me at charleskinnard@ymail.com if interested...Too much to list!

I recently sold a 4 piece tea set of Pairpoint Mfg. Co. Quadruple plated silver. The buyer wants to return the set because the teapot only says "pewter" on it rather than including "quadruple plated" on it.

The teapot has the same finish as the others, and looks like it is silver plated. The pattern matches exactly, and the teapot has the same small signs of aging, indicating the set has been together for some time.

Is it possible that the teapot is from the exact same pattern and set...but is not quadruple plated? Or were some pieces just not marked as such?

Thanks

Hi Linda,
This is a bit tricky for me to answer without seeing the set.

Pairpoint Mfg. Co. are a difficult company to research since they had a great deal of financial problems and changed their manufacturing several times.

The short answer is yes, it is possible that they produced a teapot in pewter that they also produced in silverplate, I have run across examples of this with other companies. The problem is that that I can not find Pairpoint manufacturing much pewter other than candlesticks and components for other pieces.

Pairpoint silverplate had a reputation of beautiful design but poor craftsmanship, its latter pieces were difficult to re-plate.

It also seems that the bulk of their silver plate was produced before 1900 so I am wondering if most of your pieces from the set were pre-1900 and the original teapot was replaced in pewter after this time and then the whole set was replated.

Hope this helps, Ingrid@morestylethancash.com

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