What’s in a name? Using your vintage silver

by Nan Stuckwisch 

The power of names never ceases to amaze me. A name can entice and captivate, equally it can repel and restrict. I’d be willing to bet that I’m not alone in having been in a paint store looking at several paint strips, trying to decide between a couple of colors and then looking closer to see what their names are. Once you’ve seen the names, suddenly they factor into your decision about which color is best! It happens in the world of vintage silver too — in beneficial and detrimental ways.

how to collect silver - Chawner spoon reverse

A Georgian shell pattern spoon — the name conveys a lot of subtle cues about whether it will appeal to you or not.

Pattern names

Silver pattern names are extremely evocative. Louis XV, Chantilly, Etruscan,  Acorn, Puritan, Chrysanthemum are only a few of the thousands of silver patterns ever made. Without seeing even a single piece you already have a cue as to what the designers are attempting to convey and whether it will fit into your lifestyle.  Just like in the paint store example above, I’ve seen people debate between two flatware sets with the name of the set as a major influence.

Piece names

Piece names can become tricky and detrimental to your enjoyment of silver.  Here names all too often become rigid traps, signalling an unbreakable exclusivity.  Cold meat fork, fried oyster server, fish slice, mayonnaise ladle, sugar tongs, tea strainer, lemon fork…if that’s what it’s called then you can’t use it for anything else, right?

Certainly that’s what the silver manufacturers wanted you to believe.  In the heyday of Victorian silver production there was a piece for everything, even down to the level of four o’clock spoons versus five o’clock spoons!

acid etch silver - overview

Do you see an asparagus fork and a fish slice? Or do you see two versatile and gorgeous serving pieces?

But the real answer is a resounding no.

Think of the names as a suggestion rather than a life sentence.  For too many people using the ‘proper’ implement is a real hindrance to using their silver.

I promise you, unless it’s in the most formal of circumstances — think Embassy reception or State dinner — Miss Manners is not going to rap you over the knuckles for using a piece in an unconventional manner.

Honestly, most people won’t even know.

A conversation I had many years ago with a stylist for a major house and home store has stuck with me ever since that day.  He told me that the company had stopped giving pieces descriptive names — ie salad fork — and instead gone to evocative ones — ie the Annabelle — because people would get stuck on the descriptive name.  Even though everything about that salad fork would be perfect, they would reject it just because it was a ‘salad’ fork and they needed a different kind of fork. 


Categories not Unbreakable Commitments

Generally speaking, serving pieces break fit into one of the following categories:

  • Forks – including cold meat, lemon, toast, oyster, strawberry, sardine, asparagus
  • Spoons – closed bowl spoons like tablespoons, berry, gumbo, bouillon, cream and slotted or strainer type spoons – bon bon, mote
  • Tongs – ice tongs, sugar tongs
  • Spatulas – tomato lifter, cake slice, fish slice, pie server
  • Ladles – soup, gravy, oyster stew, sauce, punch
  • cutting implements – steak carving knife, quail carving knife, master butter

When you run across a fabulous piece, think about it in broad terms rather than sticking to the name and description.  A Saratoga chip server can be used for just about anything that needs to be transferred from point A to point B, and can do it in great style.


Nancy Stuckwisch has had a life-long fascination with silverware. Silver Magpies is where she sells, values, researches and blogs about vintage silver. She believes we should get the silver out of the cupboard, onto the table, and then into the dishwasher.

In addition to writing for The Daily Basics, Nancy also blogs on her own website and is a featured columnist for Silver magazine.  Her shop features a large assortment of unique pieces.

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