Food Worth Writing For

Types of Silverware Used for Food and Drink in the 16-19th Century

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Many silver works of art produced by Paul Storr’s workshop in London. Picture by Author.

If you are ever in Los Angeles and are interested in checking out a unique exhibit related to food and drink  – I’d recommend you check out The Fowler Museum at UCLA. The museum is admission free and they have a permanent exhibit titled “The Francis E. Fowler, Jr. Collection of Silver”. The exhibit compromises 251 silver objects from the 16th to 19th century Europe, England, and the US. These silver objects were used for many social occasions, especially for meals (these owners had to show off their silver to guests somehow, right?)

The collection was originally owned by Francis Fowler who collected silver objects for over a period of fifty years since 1930. He had developed an interest in arts and objects as a young boy when his grandfather would bring home memorabilia from his travels. He even opened his own museum to house his collections of silver and other objects such as ivory, jade carvings, antique firearms, and more. After Fowler passed away, his museum was run by Francis III who managed the Fowler Foundation. The collections were gifted to UCLA on the agreement that everything but the silver could be sold to build a new museum. And thus, a brand new museum was built and the Fowler collection of silver is still housed in the Fowler Museum today.

I want to go into the background of Francis Fowler because it gives some color into how this silver collection came to be and how much effort collecting all these silver objects took.

History of Francis E Fowler, Jr.

Francis E Fowler, Jr was born in 1891 and accumulated a good amount of wealth during his years as an entrepreneur; he made several inventions for the automobile, but his most successful venture was his company that sold Southern Comfort whiskey. The recipe for Southern Comfort was originally made by Martin Wilkes Heron, a bartender in New Orleans in the 1870s. Back then, whiskey tasted horrible due to the lack of standards of producing whiskey. Heron was ahead of his time and mixed the whiskey with a blend of fruits and spices.  Southern Comfort unsurprisingly became popular.

Heron grew the brand until 1920 when Prohibition set in. Heron passed away 3 months after Prohibition began and the recipe of Southern Comfort was lost with Heron.  After the end of Prohibition, Fowler discovered a bottle of Southern Comfort and sought to reinvent the recipe. After much testing, he filed a patent for his own formula;  Southern Comfort was born again. The brand was a favorite of ladies during World War II. This was because a famous rock singer by the name of Janis Joplin would have a bottle of Southern Comfort during her concerts to soothe her throat. The marketing she provided made Southern Comfort very successful. With Southern Comfort’s growing success, Fowler was able to pursue his interests such as collecting memorabilia.

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A vintage ad on Southern Comfort. Photo on Public Domain.

The Francis E. Fowler, Jr. Collection of Silver

The silver objects give some color into how people in 16th to 19th century Europe, England, and the US used silverware as part of their daily lives. Many objects you see at the Fowler collection were intricately designed; these objects came from renowned workshops at the time silver smelting was at its peak. While you may know Paul Revere (c.1760) as the patriot who yelled “The British are coming, the British are coming!” during the American Revolution, he was also a very skilled silversmith. The collection has several of his pieces and it was pretty surprising to find out that Paul Revere was a well-known silversmith during his time. I bet it is a fact that many people do not know.

The Fowler Collection has many silver objects, most of which were food or beverage related. It was fun learning more about the type of silver objects they used during that era such as large decorative silver platters for presenting meals and serving drinks. The rest were decorative pieces that were made to give as gifts and for display.

Many silver objects had intricate designs and it is amazing that these were all made at a time when automation and machines were not in existence yet. Each object must have taken a lot of time, energy, and effort since each object had to be painstakingly made one at a time. I also can’t imagine how tiring it must be to carry these silver platters and containers to serve guests of a household. The servers must have been really burly! They probably had carts to bring in all the silver platters, but they still had to lift the heavy silver platter (filled with food or liquids) onto tables and counters.

 

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Silver rocco-style basket for pastries. Photo by Author.

Prior to the creation of the stock market in the 18th century, people held their wealth through ownership of land and precious metals. It was important to show off one’s wealth, so silver and gold were both regarded as suitable forms to amass more wealth. Elaborate silverware plates could be displayed to guests and show off the extent of one’s wealth, but could also be melted down and sold for money in desperate times of need.

Silver and gold have always been considered valuable metals that symbolized wealth and prestige. Any silver works that were non-utilitarian only elevated a person’s status; many silver works of art were elaborately designed plates or cups that were too heavy for actual use but were used only for display. Even items made of silver that were intended for use were more prestigious to have by nature; someone could show off his or her status by using silver plates as it would be more prestigious than using ceramic plates since ceramic plates were more common and made of lower quality material.  Silver’s association with luxury and wealth also made silver an ideal gift to others.

Due to the demand for silver works of art, this was an era (prior to the 18th century) where many workshops produced many beautiful and elaborate works of art. However, by the late 18th century, silver works of art were on the decline as ceramics and glass companies had more industrialized methods of producing their wares. To make matters worse, the availability of commercially rolled silver and of cheap Sheffield plate, which is made of copper fused between thin sheets of silver, were undermining age-old traditions of high-quality, handmade silver.

Nonetheless, smiths were able to fend off the competition of lower-quality, cheaper products with their quality and designs. For example, Paul Storee, who was regarded as one of the most well known English goldsmiths, ended up creating his own workshop that was able to mass-produce a diverse amount of silver without undercutting the quality. He was known for his elegant and classic creations. In the early 19th century, he and another famous goldsmith Benjamin Smith employed over a thousand workers between them.

The Fowler collection has many pieces made by Paul Storee’s workshop and you’ll see it in the pictures here.

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Silver wine cooler produced by Paul Storr. Photo by Author.

You’ll notice that high quality and beautifully designed silverwares played a big part in the lives of many wealthy families during this time.  For those who could afford it, silverware was used for serving guests in many contexts from eating to drinking beverages.

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The assortment of silver pieces made for coffee, tea, and chocolate. Photo by Author.

For example, in the picture above, the display shows many types of silverware used for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.

While coffee came to Europe later then chocolate and tea, it quickly became a favored beverage. It first came to Europe through Arabia from Egypt in the mid-17th century. Coffee was originally consumed at the shipping ports at the end of a trading route. When coffee reached Europe, it simultaneously made its way to Venice, London, and Amsterdam.

Coffee was first taken in small quantities as a medicinal drink like how tea and chocolate were originally consumed, but people began to appreciate its taste and began drinking it for leisure.  Within a few years, it was drunk in all types of venues, public and private.  To this very day, coffee is the preferred drink in Europe and the United States.

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Silver coffee pots in the 18th century. Photo by Author.

Besides silver pots and containers for coffee, tea, and chocolate, silver tankards were made since beer was also a popular beverage.

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Various tankards of different designs. Photo by Author.

During this time period, wives who gave birth to their firstborn would receive a beer tankard from their husbands. Husbands often gave their wives a beer tankard and a porringer (a type of bowl for feeding a child) as gifts. Beer was thought to improve lactation (though I am sure the new mother would greatly appreciate a pint of beer after childbirth).

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A drawing of a husband presenting his wife with a beer tankard. Drawing by Jonas Arnold. Photo by Author.

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Two tankards – one of German origin and one of Chinese origin. Photo by Author.

Besides silverware for drinking beverages and eating, the silversmiths also created many other unique and interesting works of art.  For example, in the picture below, this ship-on-wheels is an extraordinary adult toy that served as a bottle caddy. Modeled after the galleons of an earlier era, it was made in the 19th century and is of German origin. The top lies on a hollow hull where bottles could be stored.

These unique bottle caddies were used to roll bottles of wines from one end of the dining table to the other. For this bottle caddy to have served its purpose would mean that it would have been used on a rather large table.

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This silver ship-on-wheels was a bottle caddy that was used to roll bottles of wine from one end of the table to the other. Photo by Author.

Besides this giant bottle caddy,  there were other objects created such as this egg warmer shown in the picture below. This egg warmer was actually owned by Abigail Adams, daughter-in-law to John Adams, second President of the United States.

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Silver egg warmer. Photo by Author.

There were many silver plates and platters that had intricately designed borders and coats of arms to indicate which family owned the object. As you can see with this salad plate, it has an engraved seal in the center. The ridges of the plate also show the level of detail that silversmiths put into each work of art.

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Other silver works of art such as a salad dish and mustard pot. Photo by Author.

Another fascinating one I saw in the exhibit was this silver bacon warmer in the picture below. According to the exhibit, it turns out that informal breakfast buffets were fashionable to throw in the early 19th century. Silversmiths, taking the opportunity to profit from this, created new products to keep dishes warm. The bacon warmer was designed to have a separate compartment to hold hot water under the inside tray to keep the bacon warm. Otherwise, the fat from the bacon would congeal. It is a pretty elaborate bacon warmer that has a coat of arms on its cover (of course, the owner had to show off who owned this bacon warmer).

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Silver bacon warmer made by Paul Storr. Photo by Author.

All in all, the Francis E. Fowler, Jr. Collection of Silver was an amazing exhibit to check out. It was great getting the opportunity to see all the different types of silver works of art and to learn more about how they were used for eating and drinking during the 16th to 19th centuries.

It is interesting to think about how industrialization has contributed to the disappearance of this type of silversmithing since items today can be mass-produced by machines. Most people today won’t have these types of silverware to use for serving guests; even if they did, they would probably only keep it on display instead of using it!

I hope you’ve learned a bit from this post – you’ll have to check out the Fowler Exhibit in Los Angeles to see the silverwares in person – pictures don’t do these works of art justice!

References

https://www.themanual.com/food-and-drink/brief-history-southern-comfort/

 

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