Antique silverware often possesses a charm that more modern patterns do not. Whether silver plated or sterling silver, its heavy weight and ornate decoration are extremely hard to produce in affordable modern versions. Learning more about your antique silverware is usually fairly easy, although it helps to have ample curiosity to track down obscure and now-defunct manufacturers. Fortunately, research resources are fairly easy to locate--and to spur you on, old silver patterns often have stories attached to them.
Polish your silverware to make locating identifying marks easier. Most manufacturers and even individual craftsmen used a variety of metal stamps to identify their work. These are called "hallmarks"; medieval guild headquarters were called "halls," and marks or crests identify the work of silversmiths to this day. When polishing, pay particular attention to areas you usually don't take much notice of. Hallmarks were often made on the backs or sides of utensil handles to avoid disrupting the designs.
Use a magnifying glass to find marks that are not part of the design. Use your pencil and paper to record these marks as best you can (you don't need to draw very well to copy what you see).
Take pictures of your silverware--full pictures, pictures of designs, even pictures of the hallmarks if your lens permits. Your drawings and photographs are easier and safer to carry around for research--and prevent you from leaving a fork in the library!
Researching Your Silverware
Find out from relatives anything your family knows about the silverware. For example, knowing that your great-grandparents came to America from southern Germany or Alsace-Lorraine is very valuable to know, if there's a chance they brought the silverware from home. Knowing that silverware was a wedding gift for a marriage in 1903 helps even more.
Learn about the general systems of hallmarks, makers marks and date symbols used by silversmiths. An online encyclopedia is an easy way to start if you have computer access. Most libraries have books and online resources as well. Marks differ between silver plate and sterling silverware, and they differ from country to country. Begin with your family clues but look around if you like. Your French aunt may have fallen in love with a fashionable British silver pattern.
Zero in on the most likely country of origin for your pattern. Look at marking systems that at least somewhat resemble yours. You may find that you haven't noticed everything you might have. What you find and what you don't find are clues to your pattern.
Seek the help of those more experienced in identifying silver. Here you will probably be more comfortable putting a fork in your pocketbook--ideally, take a knife, a fork and spoon. Especially in Victorian times, deliberately mixing patterns was fashionable. And in large families, sets were sometimes divided among many members. If you have inherited silverware, even as a set, that set may be composed of several patterns. Taking photographs and drawings is a safer strategy if you're going to the silver department of a large gift or department store.
Search decorating magazines for silver-search companies. They will often advertise replacement or additional pieces to fill out your pattern. Many also offer researching services. Send your photos and notes; you may get just the answer you need in return. Those who love the quality and character of old silverware love learning even more about it, and there's nothing like a new mystery to spur them on.
Check with antique dealers in your area. If you're not familiar with the dealer, get a receipt for anything you leave behind for research. It's unlikely anything will occur, but accidents happen. Most dealers need a little time if you've not made much headway on your own; check back from time to time till they have time for your research. An antique dealer is also someone you can ask about the value of your silverware. These days, insurance policies don't always cover such treasures automatically.