Updated: May 23, 2020
If you are like me and fascinated with the history of things, you should enjoy this post. Further, if you wish your things could talk, tell the stories of where they've been, whom they belonged to and what they've seen, then you really do get me. However, if you believe your things are talking to you, seek immediate medical advice. Unless of course it's your old stuffed animals. Everyone knows they talk, but only talk to you.
Today, I want your fork to tell you a story. Your spoons, knives and other flatware may have things to say too. Okay, enough speaking in hyperbole, and yes, I did just google that word to make sure I was using it correctly. What I am talking about is Hallmarks and I don't mean greeting cards. I mean the "little symbol thingies" on your old flatware, silver sets and tableware. I can't tell you how many people have had these things in their houses for decades and never noticed. It’s almost like a magic or parlor trick when I look at someone' fork and say, this is 120 years old, made in Dublin and by Edmond Johnson. Did it speak to me? Yes...okay, no. I just knew the hallmarks.
Of course, I only learned this by researching someone else’s fork or flatware set, previously. It only takes a good loop, a little practice and a few websites to figure out just about anything with hallmarks. Here’s a quick crash course education, plus a few links and more. Let’s use English or British Silver and soon you too will amaze or bore your friends.
British Silver is some of the most common you'll find in a relative’s closet or drawers. It has always been well known for its quality and its legendary hallmark system. Their marks tell us a great deal. I am using their silver as an example due to the abundant output of their silversmiths. And also, the fact that British silver was just about the most collected silver in the world. So, you should find some in the family tree somewhere.
Here's how to read it and a few visual aids for you.
1st - You will generally have what's known as a standard mark and/or city mark (2nd). Most common I have found is the lion with his paw raised, denoting Sterling .925. Glasgow has a unicorn, Edinburgh a thistle and so on.
2nd - Maybe your city mark if that's specified. London had a Lion Head, Birmingham an Anchor, Sheffield a crown, Glasgow a tree, and so on.
3rd - The Duty mark or reign mark, as I like to call it. It was to indicate a tax paid to the crown and featured the reigning monarch at the time. Really helps with dating. 1786-1821 King George III, 1822-1833 George the 4th and so on. Here's a few examples, some are more stylized. Note facing right and left to help you.
4th - Date code "letters." This is where it gets fun, as there are just so many letters in the alphabet. So, the changed fonts, outer edge symbols surrounding the letters and so on. A few can cause confusion but if you know your monarch you should be just fine. Here's "a few examples."
5th - The markers mark. Beginning in London in approx. 1363 a maker’s mark was established so it would be known who made the piece when it was presented to the assayer for purity, forgery, taxation, etc. Here's some examples....
Here’s a practical example. Look at the back of this fork and you see all the elements, not necessarily in the order you'd expect but they are all there. Maker, City, Date Code, Standard and Duty.
So, what do we know? We know it's sterling, it has the lion with his raised paw. (Lion passant) We know it's from Sheffield, has the crown mark of Sheffield. We know it bears the mark of Queen Victoria, so it's made between 1838 and 1890. So, what Sheffield maker had the mark HW&Co during this period. That would be Henry Wilkinson & Co so based on all of that and bearing a Capital "E" in a square with clipped corner, that tells us 1872.
And yes, I had to use my field guide (or here's a link to my FREE SEARCH) list of websites included the best FREE silver hallmark site in the business. But if I was at your grandmother’s house and said, "What a beautiful British Silver Fork. Did you know it was made in 1872 in Sheffield by Henry Wilkinson & Co.”? Wouldn’t she be impressed. So now, what does that mean, can it talk? No, but it just solve a mystery for your Grandmother. Now she would know that it was from her mother side of the family that emigrated from Sheffield at the turn of the century. A question, she always had wanted to know the answer to.
By the way, this hallmark game can be played with thousands of things you never may have dreamed of. Say you are trapped in the house with nothing to do this weekend or next? Look at the old silver, old family estate jewelry and so on. These little hidden clues are everywhere. If you get hooked, you will look at your friends forks next time you are over for a dinner party. I can't help it. It's actually fun...for nerds! Until next time.
PS - if you are thinking about selling the family silver or gold....you might have missed - "5 Things to Know When Selling Silver & Gold"
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