Then & Now: Popcorn and a silver ladle

The late 19th century sterling silver soup ladle is in the Versailles pattern, and the open salt cellar and matching salt spoon are medallion coin silver, both by Gorham.

By RANDY FLETCHER — Tiffany, Gorham, Wood & Hughes, and Gale are just a few of the names as important to a silver connoisseur as Gucci, Prada, Channel and Wang are to a fashionista. I don’t consider myself either a silver connoisseur or a fashionista, but I am fascinated by some of the odd sterling silver pieces that my wife and I have collected over time. I often wonder what it would have been like to sit through a formal meal during the height of the Victorian era, when a properly set table could include as many as 24 pieces of silver per place setting to accommodate elaborate menus of up to 12 courses.

At that time, American silver was increasing in popularity, and demand for lavish tableware was high. Even average Americans were adorning their tables with silver or silver-plated items. Wealthy Victorians, however, took their obsession with silver even further. 

Sterling silver place settings were the showy jewelry of the table, and setting the proper table was almost more important than what one wore. While both reflected the taste of the times, a properly set table was a way to really showcase a family’s wealth and status in upper class society. There was a separate serving piece for everything imaginable. The detail and ornamentation on each piece of silver was executed as perfectly and purposefully as when a goldsmith sets a sparkling diamond in a shiny gold brooch. 

Growing up, I never really thought twice about what we ate with or on. We never ate formally, but we did eat together as a family in the dining room. My dad would get home from work, and we would immediately sit down to a meal, which usually consisted of a meat, a vegetable and a homemade roll or biscuit. There were times, though only a few, that I remember having popcorn for dinner. My mother would make a big batch and fill the wooden salad bowl. She’d use a big, heavy silver ladle to dole popcorn into our bowls. 

I remember that on special occasions, like when my dad’s boss came to dinner or when distant relatives were visiting from out of town, my mom would pull out her mother’s silver pieces, and we kids would help polish them and then set the table. Using silver made the meal seem special, and I think it even made the food taste better. 

Only during the holidays did we ever get to experience the full radiance of all the silver service and fine china displayed on the table at the same time. With only a few courses, our holiday meals didn’t touch the opulence of the Victorian feasts, but the dining table — and our dining experience — was elevated by the gleam of silver and a little touch of formality. 

Formal dining really began in the medieval era, when one’s status was put on display at the table. The true sign of prosperity was the salt cellar, which stood on the table in front of the master of the house. He sat at the exact center, with his wife or lady on his left and members of the household on her left. On his right sat the guests, who were very carefully arranged in order of wealth or merit, from the most important on his immediate right down to the least important at the end. How they were placed was the most important element of table etiquette and was recognized as sitting “in order of the salt.” According to John Bly’s Discovering Hallmarks on English Silver, two of our present-day phrases are derived from this: “worth his salt,” and “right hand man.”

Thirty years ago, I inherited a salt cellar, which aroused my interest in them. I have been collecting them ever since, along with fish servers and other unique pieces of silver. I once came across a long slender fork with three tines that were widely separated at the end. It was a lettuce fork. When new foods were being introduced into the American diet in the second half of the 19th century, salads were considered a luxury. Greens were perishable and expensive, and they were given high status on the table. The more exotic the food — like celery, asparagus, sardines and oysters — the more elaborately decorated were their serving pieces. 

Dining today is vastly different than it was years ago, and rarely do we set a formal table. My wife and I have found, though, that it’s fun to bring out the servers of old, especially when we entertain. Sliced tomatoes look elegant, plated with an antique aspic server. Asparagus tongs are great for serving grilled vegetables, olives or sliced turkey. Salt cellars can hold a host of condiments and look amazing on any table, formal or not. 

So don’t let those old pieces of “jewelry” sit neglected in the back of your cupboard. Bring them out and find cool ways to use them, even if it’s just to serve popcorn into individual bowls, like my mother did. That heavy ladle she used to serve up our popcorn? It’s a sterling silver soup ladle in the Versaille pattern by Gorham. We use it today to serve soup and punch, and, yes, sometimes even popcorn. 

The Hyattsville Preservation Association seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city. www.preservehyattsville.org

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