In Search of My Grandmother’s Silver

In helping my parents downsize, I took their silver off their hands. It’s the same stuff I used to have to polish as a kid, and I remember doing that, lazy circles with a rag on a coffee pot we rarely used. So awkward now in my modern apartment, these old silver set and the big box of flatware near my front door have brought up some questions from guests- and I finally decided to find out what exactly they were. This is a rather long post about this research. It was originally an email to my siblings, but I decided others might benefit from the research, if they’re trying to date their heirlooms. What’s interesting to me isn’t so much the actual value- marketplace or sentimental- but a snapshot of an earlier America and the choices made by my grandparents and their parents, and how this is all intermeshed with American history from 1840s to now.

History of silver- “The stature of the silver teapot in America might be gleaned from the 1765 portrait of Paul Revere painted by John Singleton Copley. In the portrait, Revere, who was a silversmith, holds a silver teapot. England’s Queen Victoria (reigned 1837 to 1901) was said to prefer her tea served in a silver teapot.” From eHow History of Teapots.

This is my grandmother’s set. Roger & Bro, Co. “1701” $97 on eBay

Baltimore 1830s coffee pot, Victorian. By Samuel Kirk / Samuel Steele.

1920s by Isadora Friedman. Modern style $5K at Christie’s (sterling silver)

Paul Revere 1768

First off, I like the Art Nouveau design of my grandmother’s more than the overly embellished detail work of Victorian (pictured upper right). Art Nouveau is largely the precursor to Modern design (bottom left). With the American Art Nouveau style, Tiffany & Co (who were early silversmiths) won the grand prize for artwork in silver, at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1878, shocking Europe. (source: “Century of Splendour”) This set is silver plate, which is frowned upon by true collectors, as it’s just a thin veneer of silver over baser metal, compared to sterling silver. It’s also massively produced, making it more available and less precious.

The silversmith stamp- (star) Rogers & Co. – has a long lineage in America. Three brothers from CT– Asa, Simeon & William– formed a silver company after two of them returned from apprenticing to a famous silversmith in 1840. Asa experimented with electroplating- later silverplating- and they started a manufacturing company. It flourished and reformed into various business entities, largely under William who was the head silversmith. (source) Later many of William Roger’s design patents were acquired from later companies.

This tea set was my grandmother’s- Edna- a dust bowl kid who came out from Missouri with her large British family. She was the oldest of either 4 or 5, and her father was a bricklayer, and while quite poor, Edna had a job at Pac Bell. According to my mom, her wedding was funded largely by herself and her new in-laws. It’s a well known story in our family that Edna bought her own wedding dress, from the set of It Happened One Night.

Edna’s dress modeled by Claudette Colbert

The tea set may have been, like the silver mirror, a gift from friend of her new in-laws, or passed down from the in-laws or friends. From my mom:

The Nelsons were pretty established in Los Angeles, were not wealthy but upper middle class. They had a lot of good friends, so, the mirror might hav been another wedding gift. Who knows, my mom could have bought it.

Edna married John Nelson, the son of a large Swedish-American middle class family. We think they got the silver flatware and a large silver mirror on their wedding day (early 1930s). This tea set, I learned on the phone while writing this blog, wasn’t a wedding gift but actually given on their 25th anniversary, in the mid-1950s. Either Edna bought it, or it was a gift she explicitly asked for. I can’t quite believe that this is from the 50s, though, so I’m thinking it was handed down from someone else- perhaps the Nelsons, or another friend. It’s psosible that she bought it at an antique store, though despite being notoriously thrifty, she did like new things.

My great-grandfather, Jöns Nelson’s house in Los Angeles, where my grandfather grew up and might have been the home of the tea set.

The pattern is “1701” and it’s fairly common and probably sold in a department store. She was very particular about design, and since this is an older one (1910-20), she may have wanted this style as reminiscent of tea sets she saw as a child, or admired. The option to buy silver plate, instead of sterling silver, is where it gets interesting. My mother admitted that Edna and John offered to buy her and my father a sterling silver set when they married.

When we got married, the big thing was the family of the bride or groom would buy a set of sterling, that was the big deal. They talked about it, and I should have taken them up on it. Instead I got a vacuum, which I’d asked for.

So Edna would buy her daughter a far more expensive sterling silver set, but a year or so before, she bought herself (or was given) a silver-plated set. When I asked why she bought silver-plated, my mother said: “Because sterling was so expensive, plated was cheaper.” But if you’re thinking of saving money, why even buy a silver tea set? Trying to figure this out- was it prestige? Wouldn’t your guests know that it wasn’t real silver?

I will probably never know exactly what was going on with my grandmother, but in reading more about the history of the silver industry in the US and our early American history, it is interestingly enough bound up with industrialization. Early marketing by silversmiths like Tiffany & Co, and Meridian (later owners of Roger’s & Bro) tout their silver service as a sign of the changing times, of modernization and innovation:

The innovation- compared to the smokeless electric train of 1907- of quick to make and inexpensive silver. It opens up doors that later will be thrown open with the dishwasher and clothes washing machines. For homemakers, this was a chance to get the silver set that was only owned by wealthy landowners and gentry. It was a way to make the home a castle, the classic American dream.

I keep on turning over the pots to find the silver marks, and after a while, I’m getting confused- that’s because one of the pieces, the sugar bowl, isn’t like the others. I like it, it’s nicer, seems older. I think because there’s soldering instead of seams. The design seems early Edwardian, with flowered feet and edges. That silver stamp is “Biggins-Rodgers Co. Wallingford, CT” with a big D and ‘Quadruple” and “1412.”. Quadruple means that there are 4 layers of silver on top of the copper or brass core metal. According to the, “BIGGINS – RODGERS CO – Willingford CT founded in 1894 by Henry E. Biggins and Frank L. Rodgers. In c. 1915-1920 the firm was succeeded by Dowd-Rodgers Co.” so this piece must have been made before 1915.

Another great resource in dating your silver is to look up the manufacturer in “” and view all of the photos for each piece. Watch out, for Rogers & Co there are literally thousands of patterns. And, you need to know the pattern name. For Biggins, though, there is only one listing and one pattern, and it’s not ours, but, 1430. I can’t find this manufacturer in two comprehensive reference books on American silversmiths, but online someone wrote that they took over the Hartford Silver Manufacturing factory for the 20-year period they were in business. That is literally it for the internet. Off to call my mom.

So it is quite rare, but I’m not sure if collectors are interested. Since this was purchased when my grandmother was only 15, it’s unlikely she bought it. So here I wrote a big paragraph about how I thought the Nelsons bought it for Edna, but then my mom told me that her dad, John, picked it up as stolen merchandise from one of his cases. He was an insurance agent. Ha! So we don’t know where it came from, just somewhere around San Diego, where he worked at the time.

I honestly don’t get the whole “silver service” trend or fad. In researching this set, I find a lot of people doing exactly what I’m doing- trying to sell or value their inherited tea sets. Turns out there are a ton, literally, a ton, of silver tea sets.

What created this deluge of silver? Turns out, in the mid-1800s Europe was drowning America in silverware and hollowware (teapots, vases, etc.), and local American silversmiths couldn’t get a toehold in their own market. A few titans of the American silver industry lobbied hard to enact a tariff on imported silver, and in fact consumers had to pay for the tariff *with* silver, which increased the available silver, as well as making locally-made silver more economical. So there’s a proliferation of small silversmiths, and some large ones- such as Gorham (the White House favored silversmith) & Tiffany (leader in marketing practices & showrooms) later to become the famous jeweler. They helped America industrialize by setting up remote manufacturing plants and downtown showrooms, and changed a more lax, craft-oriented worker style to a more longer-hour, intense production (pre-assembly line) style more in common with our current 40 hour week. With World War 1, though, the maintenance of a full tea set, with regular polishing, required servants, and labor-intensive household items became less popular. Still, “… between the Civil War and World War I, American silverware production increased more than five-fold.” (see sources below: “Century of Splendor”). Modern techniques such as training manuals for salesmen, beautiful catalogs, efficient and semi-mechanized factories, all contributed to the burgeoning tradition of purchasing these tea set “heirlooms.”

Swedish 1848 silver teapot

During the late 1800s, when my great grandparents immigrated from England and Sweden, America was experiencing “new immigration,” a surge of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Scandinavian immigration alone had reached 2.5M, a large chunk of the 18M that was US Population. While America had quickly expanded with acquisitions in the West, the populations were small compared to Eastern seaboard immigraiton, and still, British descent was the most popular. I’m trying to posit that either it seemed more “American” to have an English tea set, or it was an Old World pretentiousness- to seem like the wealthy of Sweden or England. Acquiring a silver tea set in the old world would have been nearly impossible for someone like my grandmother- without the cost-savings of American manufacturing and innovation of silver-plating, the cost would be perhaps 10x more. I’d imagine that back in England and Sweden, these items were inherited and not bought, anyway. Even if an immigrant had a set, carrying it across the Atlantic, it would doubtlessly be used to buy land or their first house, if it wasn’t stolen first. The American dream meant buying new heirlooms, oxymoronic as that sounds, or wanting to appear like you’d inherited them, as impractical or impossible as it would be.

OK now I’ll just copy and paste from this great article – which is a teaching material for an exhibit of sorts, “1840-1940 American Silversmiths: A Century of Splendour ”

Silver had traditionally been a sign of wealth and high status, and newly rich Americans found it the perfect vehicle to announce their “arrival.” Silver objects were given to mark rites of passage such as weddings, births, and anniversaries. Silver trophies were the very image of excellence and victory. Silver tea and coffee sets emphasized women’s role in the home and in social interaction, as well as one’s ability to afford the luxuries of tea, coffee, or chocolate. Perhaps most importantly for nineteenth-century Americans, matched sets of beautiful silver tableware symbolized the importance of both the home and the rituals of etiquette associated with dining. To an extent almost unimaginable today, the social act of eating had become a gauge of a person’s status and merit.

From my mom: “We brought out the silver in the dining room whenever there was a dinner party, or celebration.”

And more from “Century of Splendour”:

The use of silver in American homes changed significantly from 1900 to 1940. At the beginning of the twentieth century, wealthy and middle-class people kept large, abundantly decorated homes that served as the setting for etiquette-regulated social events. This way of life required an enormous amount of upkeep. Cleaning the house, cooking and serving the meals, waiting on guests, and polishing the silver required long hours from family members or paid servants. During the years that followed, events occurred that brought an end to this lifestyle. After World War I, the rising cost of labor and a growing distaste for service work made the habit of using a large household staff of servants difficult to continue. Reform movements stressed the desirability of clean, modern-looking homes stripped of unnecessary ornament. The Great Depression devastated middle-class incomes and made conspicuous consumption suspect. But perhaps most significantly, a new American lifestyle was developing that embraced new technologies, leisure time, and informality. As a result, ownership of silver became far less significant in American lives.

Resources & Sources:

American silversmiths
from: “Silver in America 1840-1930: A Century of Splendour”
American silversmiths & their Marks: on Google books
Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Judy Redfield: on Google books Silver directory of manufacturers and patterns
Ruby Lane antiques forum on silver
History of the immigration to the United States, Wikipedia (and various sources)