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Everyday silver

The writer’s silverware drawer
Ralph Gardner JR.
The writer’s silverware drawer

Have you given your silverware drawer much thought lately? I didn’t think so. Maybe there’s not a lot happening in yours, but there is in ours. And I don’t mean mice. They’re well under control for reasons I won’t go into at the moment, thought the half dozen or so spring-loaded peanut butter filled traps I have in the basement seem to be doing the trick.

I don’t know if it’s because I have too much time on my hands or the pandemic but I spend a fair amount of time selecting the right knife or spoon or fork for whatever the purpose. My hunch is that our silverware drawer – I’m not talking about “silver” silver but your everyday flatware – may be busier than most. It holds utensils dating back generations, each succeeding one making its small contribution. Because here’s the crazy thing about silverware: it’s virtually indestructible. Most of the metal spoons and forks made in the last hundred years, or ever, survive somewhere in some form.

Recently, Max Cane, a local historian, visited our house and scanned the front lawn with a metal detector. Among the items he unearthed, along with early 19th Century metal buttons and a horse jingle bell, was a metal spoon. It was broken, which may explain why it was buried, but based on its distinctive scallop design Max was able to identify it as a pewter C. Parker and Company spoon manufactured in the 1840’s. The spoon was, admittedly, a bit worse for wear. It had probably been sitting underground for a couple of decades short of two centuries, suffering the indignities of frost and moisture. But the point is that it remained.

I don’t think the silverware in our drawer is that old, or if it is it didn’t come with the house when my grandparents bought it in the late 1940’s. They probably brought or bought their own knives and forks. Also, they regularly attended country auctions and apparently couldn’t resist the dollar boxes. How else to explain some of the bizarre stuff I come across in multiples around the house – like cherub heads? That probably also explains the strange diversity of silverplate we own.

But that’s the other thing about silverware: it’s often hard if not impossible to place, its provenace impossible to trace. Did it come from a relative? Was it part of that cheap set you bought yourself when you moved into your first apartment? Did a friend leave it behind when she dropped off a casserole? You see? There may be more than meets the eye going on in the average silverware drawer.

Sometimes I take the first utensil I pick up. But there are certain pieces I favor over others. One of them is a sturdy fork with the words “Pittsburgh School Lunch 41” engraved on its handle. I have no idea where it came from. I’ve been to Pittsburgh once in my life. I certainly didn’t attend school there, public school 41 in particular, if that’s what the number signifies. The Internet’s usually pretty good about identifying even the most obscure objects but about this fork I’ve been unable to find anything, not a single reference or image.

I know more about my favorite butter knife, battered though it is. It says “Park Villars” on its handle. It comes from a Swiss hotel our family visited when we were children. My recollection is that the Parc, which sadly closed years ago, had more modern silverware. This piece probably dated from the 1920’s when the alpine resort first opened, and judging by its pitted surface – the blade, for some strange reason, looks almost new – had played its role in thousands of petit dejeuner croissant butter and jam breakfasts.

It’s not exactly on topic but I also have preferred bottle openers. My favorite, which once resided in my parents bar and I assume my father swiped from somewhere, is an Italian Coca-Cola bottle opener. How can I be so sure? Because it says Drink Coca Cola. In Italian. “Bevete” Coca-Cola. I’d probably have pocketed it, too.

I’m not above applying silver polish to some of our more ancient silverplated utensils. The result typically isn’t as edifying as it is with sterling silver, and the pieces aren’t as elegant. They range from almost attractive to quite ugly. But they can have their moments. I came across a cache of the stuff in the garage. My wife may have been responsible for putting it there. She doesn’t share my affection for tarnished old everyday silver and she probably hoped I wouldn’t find it.

I can sympathize. But I found several spoons in the shopping bag that once polished earned their rightful place alongside my Parc Hotel knife and Coca-Cola bottle opener. One of them is imprinted Rogers & Brothers and has a shell shaped bowl with vertical lines. But the decoration on the handle runs hortizontally. My hunch is that the design was never one of their best sellers, and frankly a bit much even accounting for the ideosyncracies of Victorian taste.

But I’m glad I saved it. It fits right in.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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