About Silver & Silverplate Tea Sets
Antique Silver Tea Sets and silver-plated tea sets were once practically a time honored and universal wedding gift. Today, they are sought after collectibles!
- Generally, the more individual pieces in a tea set and the heavier the tea set, the more it will be worth. Look for extras like the convenient “kettle stand". This would be the piece which is shaped like a tea or coffee kettle mounted on a swiveling base to allow for easy pouring. Some kettles feature a built in burner - good for keeping tea and coffee warm during the meal. These finest silver tea sets can sell for up to $1,000.
A "Classic Twelve" is a silver or silver plate tea set consisting of a coffee pot, a tea pot, a chocolate pot, a hot water jug, a sugar bowl with gilded interior (for brown sugar), a sugar bowl with non-gilded interior (for white sugar), a cream jug, a milk jug, a waste (slop) bowl, a tea strainer with stand, a kettle on stand, and an enormous tray. Some sets also included a covered butter dish. The Classic Twelve was the style to serve High Tea. Very few Classic Twelve's have survived intact.
- Over the years, many of these fine "class twelve" silver tea sets were broken up after a matriarch or patriarch's death, with one family member inheriting the coffee pot, another gifted the tea pot and yet a third getting the kettle and the tray, and so on. (Perhaps this is how the term "Ma & Pa Kettle" came about?) During the years of the Great Depression, many of these huge silver tea sets were sold for scrap just to pay the bills. Many fine pieces of silver were melted down for cash during this time.
Near the mid-1600's, tea was introduced into England, but it was very expensive and only the very wealthy could afford it. When tea reached the Colonies, few liked it, and it is told that many boiled it as if it were a vegetable and ate the leaves with butter. But over time tea became fashionable in London, where it was served Chinese fashion from china teapots and tiny china cups, and with no silver appointments.
- One of the first English silver teapots, which still exists and is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is designed to look like a Chinese porcelain wine pot. The teapot even has a detachable lid and is very small in size, for tea was still very expensive. When one silversmith designed a new object, others copied it, so teapots were soon being made to order and tea-drinking in England became a social custom. Thus began the history of British tea drinking!
Near the end of the 1700's, a British knife maker, by accident, discovered that when heated, copper and silver effectively fused into one metal. The discovery of “Sheffield plate” presented the world with an inexpensive option to sterling silver. Today, brass has replaced copper as the base metal of choice.
- The beginning of the eighteenth century saw silver items more in use amongst the general population. The availability of 'spendable income' allowed more people to be able to afford silver pieces, and opened up new opportunities for silversmiths to practice their art and make a 'living wage'. Demand for new designs for household pieces increased.
Early Americans adopted the London vogue of drinking tea and the demand for teapots rose accordingly. Some of the early silver teapots show how well Colonial silversmiths kept up with the current designs from the other side of the Pond. Resembling the first English pots, early Colonial teapots were small in size, some shaped like a ball, and usually with a lovely crest or monogram beautifully hand-engraved to indicate a family name.
- Coffee and chocolate pots were made as well, as these beverages became popular, but not until well into the eighteenth century were there complete silver tea sets such as we find and use today. There were silver pots, but no one used sugar or cream for some time, so there was no need for the sugar bowl and creamer. These pieces were added later in the century.
Antique silver tea sets with a maker's marks (hallmark or touch mark) together with the name or crest of a family, can often lead to clues to identify families. This information can often be found and traced through wills and church or court documents. A few identified pieces have considerable historical significance.
- An advertisement in the Boston News in 1724 indicated that sugar was sold for three shillings a pound. This was quite expensive for the average household back then, and it explains why sugar wasn't initially used with tea. As the price of sugar became for affordable, more households could now afford to purchase and use it. However, a container was now needed to store the sugar, which the intuitive and inventive silversmith offered to supply together with the tea or coffee pot. Some households used a porringer or a small silver or even china bowl for sugar.
Silver tongs came into being when it was evident that some type of tool was needed to serve the sugar from the bowl. The first tongs were called nippers and worked like scissors. Afterwards, sugar tongs were made in one piece.
As milk and cream came into general use with coffee and tea, a small pitcher, usually called a creamer, was needed for the table. This, too, was made by the silversmith in a matching design to the pot and sugar bowl.
- A silver tea set from Reed & Barton enjoys something of a sterling reputation. The American company started crafting silver goods in 1824. In 1906 it introduced the Francis I tea service, with each piece fashioned by hand from single sheets of silver. The manufacturing process changed to a molding technique by the 1950s. Even with molded sets, craftsmen still devote hours of hand finishing to create the finished pattern and luster.
- Reed & Barton's company literature refers to the Francis I set as “the centerpiece of any fine sterling silver collection". Prices tend to back up that claim. New sets retail for $6,000. Antique sets can command similar prices. Look for a set without an engraved monogram – it’s worth a bit more.
Reed and Barton’s most popular pattern, Francis I, was released in 1907. The company’s artists spent more than 3 years developing the Francis I design.
by Mike Deming/Chris Landon
Published May 05, 2004