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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 July 2008

Women and Silver

How often have we turned over a piece of silver to look for the "925" mark to ascertain if it is sterling? Some time ago, in high school chemistry perhaps, I learned that silver (AG) is too soft for use in its purest form, but if a small amount of a stronger metal is added the alloy is ideal for utensils and serving pieces as well as cups and tankards.

According to an essay by Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, "there are dozens, if not hundreds, of silver alloy formulas." The best known is the alloy used in Britain for centuries. It is called "sterling" which is 92.5 percent silver with 7.5 percent copper and trace metals.

When you think about it silver is a classic recyclable. It can be melted down again and again and reconfigured to suit the taste and needs of the time. Its value has varied over the centuries but it has always been a popular metal for coins since it has value even in small amounts and is easy to work with.

The Romans found deposits of precious metals, including silver, in Britain and it is thought to be one of the reasons for the conquest. After the fall of Rome, silver became increasingly rare and it was reserved for use by the church and royal households. The designs for those silver pieces were elaborate but seen by very few.

The amount of silver available grew significantly after trade began with the Americas in the late Seventeenth Century. As a result the middle class (such as it was)could afford silver. The elaborate working of the middle ages gave way to simple and more affordable designs as the demand for it matched the increased supply.

The regulatory responsibility for maintaining the quality of the silver was entrusted to the goldsmiths guilds -- goldsmith meaning silversmith as well. The Guild of London Goldsmiths was incorporated in 1327. Thus the process of maintaining the quality of silver was in place well before the pressures of demand led to a rapid increase in production.

With the need to increase production, wives and other women in the silversmith's household were drafted into service. They usually worked in the background performing the more routine tasks of engraving and polishing. But widows of silversmiths, as early as the 1600s, continued to run the businesses after the death of their husbands, with the help of male partners who were usually shop managers or journeyman. On occasion the widow assumed the role of shop managers. There were even some women who were accepted as apprentices and artisans though most entered the field through marriage.

According to Peter Earle (The Making of the English Middle Class 1660-1730) about one-third of all women of property in that seventy year period ran a business. Many of these women were involved in the silver trade, either as makers or retailers. The distinction between the two and the overlap is complicated and not what fascinated me about this subject. Here in the goldsmith guild is a niche where women made their mark (pun intended) as early as the 17th century. It was significant enough that The National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington DC) has a permanent exhibit of the work of English and Irish Women Silversmiths (1685-1845).

Do any of you collect silver and can you elaborate on this admittedly introductory view?

12 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

A very intriguing post, Mary! I had no idea how active a role women played in the art and craft of silversmithing.

I love silver, but I'm a fan of the simpler, less baroque styles that can be found in the 18th and 19th centuries. And I was lucky enough to inherit my grandmother's silver flatware, which is a "modern antique." It's a bit art deco-y and each piece was hand hammered by Alan Adler, a famous Beverly Hills silversmith.

I've recently learned a bit about the role of silver during the Middle Ages (high Gothic era) and the form it took. I didn't realize that although the monetary values of shillings, pounds, and marks existed, those were mathematical constructs only. There were no coins of those values minted. The only coins were silver pennies. So if a pound was worth 240 pennies, that's what was delivered, in a rather weighty bag. If payment of X-amount of pounds was expected, it could be paid in pennies or else in the weight equivalent, literally that number of pounds of silver, or in a combination of the two. So you could pay with a candelabra, reliquary, jewelry, etc. That's one reason the crown demanded everything they could to ransom Richard I from Henry VI, the German sovereign/Holy Roman Emperor, loading wagons with objects of silver in addition to actual coinage, in order to meet the 150,000 pound ransom.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Mary! My mom and I wrote a Regency novella ("The Christmas Knight") with a heroine who was a silversmith. I learned enough about it to be intrigued to know more.

Like Amanda, I love silver. I recently bought a silver pendant that's part of a series of designs based on 19th century letter seals. Mine has a griffin, which I love, because Charles's crest in my books is a griffin and dragon.

2:59 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

The only thing I can elaborate on is the 92.5% as I used to work in a jewelry department.

I do wish there were more historicals featuring craftswo/men as protagonists. The loving work that went into making Chippendale furniture or even Fortuny's sumptuous gowns is fascinating.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I didn't know anything about silver, so I found this fascinating. And yes, I agree -- there is something very attractive, physical, sexy even, about the idea of craft.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks for the comments -- I have some computer trouble today and am just now catching up.

Amanda --thanks for that explanation of silver weight -- I can recall the image from some movie of the sheriffs collecting any and all silver -- and, hey, they got something right.

Tracy -- where did you find info on silversmiths - I want to know more.

La Belle Americaine -- you touched on another one of my favorite "artists" Fortuny --if Kalen doesn't do a post on him, I will someday.

Pam -- you could make any job sexy -- even night cart driver.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Great post, and a topic I'm very keen on! I consider myself enormously lucky that as part of my day job I get to steward an amazing collection of silver, with pieces ranging from the 15th-20th century. English silver in particular is a love of mine for the meticulous system that was employed to mark the objects, with maker's marks, city marks, duty marks, and date marks - to me it's like a puzzle, and every piece can be identified if you have the right tools and know what you're looking for. I'm also fascinated by early American colonial silver, which is tougher to identify since the English method of marks did not carry into the colonies - often you'll find early American pieces with just maker's marks, and since those maker's marks were seldom any more than the maker's initials they can sometimes be devilishly hard to track! Early American silversmiths can also be interesting on a more individual level, since you can watch known makers travel and settle from one place to the next, learning their craft on the East Coast and sometimes moving west. French Huguenot silversmiths are also interesting - watching them decamp from France and the Low Countries and set up shop in England, and there are several very famous ones like Paul de Lamerie. It's as if one can follow the events of the time by watching marks move and migrate.

One of my favorite silversmithing families is the English Batemans, who had a tradition of silversmithing for over 100 years - and two of the most well known were women. Hester Bateman registered her mark in 1761 after her husband's death, and brought into the business her sons Jonathan and Peter; after Jonathan and Hester's deaths Peter brought in Jonathan's widow Ann and her son William; William eventually registered his individual mark and produced yet another silversmith, William Bateman II, who continued the family tradition until his death in the 1870s. Phew! And you can track this all by their marks, individual and groups! Call me a geek, but it's amazing to me.

(And Amanda, I do envy you your Adler flatware - American arts & crafts silverware is a favorite style of mine.)

6:08 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary and Kalen -- I adore Fortuny! And the 2 times I've visited Venice the Fortuny Museum has been closed. When I played Rebecca in a stage adaptation of Ivanhoe, I designed a green/gold pre-Raphaelite-style gown with the closest thing I could find to an iridescent Fortuny crinkle/pleat.

I, too, love the idea of a craftsperson as a hero[ine]. It is indeed sexy, it's passionate, it's tactile. My contemporary fiction editor once discussed the carpenter-hero one tends to find in contemp. romance (I wrote one in TEMPORARY INSANITY without knowing it was a "thing" -- the character was just based on a guy who installed a countertop in my kitchen; very sexy, asked me out in lieu of his fee, but I was already seeing someone). Part of the carpenter allure, she said, is because a he works with his hands, makes things, it's a physical job that often entails a man doing something to take care of a woman (like install a butcherblock countertop??) :)

... (and he's possibly shirtless while he works, at least in Romancelandia) ...

Tracy, your pendant sounds fabulous! Are you like me, and end up buying certain little treasures that have resonance to whatever you're writing to "feed the muse" as you continue to work?

5:13 AM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Mary--isn't Fortuny amazing? I think I blogged about him earlier this year and also linked to a website where two costume historians attempted to recreate his super-secret pleating process.

I have toot my favorite author's horn, but Rosalind Laker has written many books with craftswo/men, my favorites being Jewelled Path (the Arts & Crafts movement in the 1890s), Banners of Silk (couturier in the Age of Worth), and The Sugar Pavilion (female confectioner who settles in Brighton after escaping the Revolution).

I'm dying to write a crafty person, but it's so Middle-class and I think it's cheating to give working-class/middle-class characters aristocratic love interests. Hmm..maybe I'll just make them a secondary character? *g*

2:12 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the recommendation about Rosalind Laker. I just looked up her web-site, and I see that she actually wrote a book about Hester Bateman. Interesting. I love books where the hero/heroine are craftsmen, whether they are dressmakers, silversmiths, painters. It adds an extra dimension to the novel and gives an insight into the lives of people who actually had to work for a living.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I have an honest question, la belle: If you're passionate about writing a middle-class craftsman or woman as a protagonist, then I say go for it ... unless there are some unwritten laws about writing Regency-set romances which state that all protagonists must come from the upper crust. Are those really the expectations from Regencies as a genre?

9:54 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Mary, my mom did most of the silversmithing research. I remember she started with some of our basic research books (the Connoisseur's Guides are great for metal working, china, textiles, etc...) and then got some specific books at U.C. Berkeley. I remember chapters devoted to women silversmiths.

Amanda, I do love collecting treasures that have a resonance with my books and characters.

And speaking of Fortuny, I recently acquired a Fortuny silk evening bag at an auction for a nonprofit I'm involved in. A bit late historically for me to claim it resonates with my books, but I adore it :-).

11:30 AM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Amanda, I am seriously considering it. The fact that I don't write Regencies (post-1900 for me) puts me beyond the pale already, so I don't think non-traditional historical characters could push me out any further. *g*

11:27 PM  

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