The term 'flatware' refers to the knives, forks and spoons that are used in a table setting. It was first coined in the 1700s, when manufacturers developed the process of cutting forks and spoons from flat sheets of silver. Most pieces of old flatware that you encounter will be made either of solid silver or of electroplated nickel silver (E.P.N.S.,) an inexpensive alternative. Understanding the marks they bear will help you to tell which is which, an important distinction as solid silver flatware is far more valuable than the silver-plated variety.
Look first for a maker's mark. Both solid silver and E.P.N.S. flatware should carry one. It will be in the form either of a full, impressed name or of a set of initials, such as 'W&H' for Walker and Hall. The maker's mark is always worth examining, because a prestigious name such as Tiffany or Liberty can make all the difference to the value of a set of flatware – it can take silver-plated flatware from being of little value to being very desirable.
Turn now to the remaining marks. This is where some confusion can occur. Most solid silver flatware will carry a hallmark to show that it has been reached a legal standard of purity – usually 925 parts silver per thousand. Many makers of silver-plated flatware - especially British ones - stamped their wares with marks that look like silver hallmarks – not with the intention of fooling prospective buyers, but simply so that their cheaper wares would look as much as possible like the more expensive ones. Many of the marks on silver-plate have absolutely no meaning at all and are simply intended to look impressive. However, in addition to these nonsense symbols, most silver-plate will carry one or both of these marks – 'E.P.' for 'electroplate' and 'A1' for best quality. If you see either of those marks, then the item in question is silver-plated. If you don't see these marks, then there is a chance the item might be silver, in which case you should move onto Step 3.
Look again at the remaining marks. In particular, search for the numeral '925.' The presence of this mark means that the item is solid silver. On U.S. silver flatware, you might also see the words 'sterling' or 'sterling silver'. British silver (which you might well encounter as it was widely exported) probably won't have the '925' mark, but there will be an emblem of a lion walking sideways known as the 'lion passant.' There will also be a date stamp and an assay office mark which indicate when and where the piece was made. Date stamps consist of a letter of the alphabet within a shield-like impressed mark; they run in cycles from 'a' to 'u', missing out 'j'. The three most common assay office marks are a leopard's head for London, an anchor for Birmingham and a crown for Sheffield. (For more help with British hallmarks, see Resources.)