Flatware (knives, fork, spoons) and hollowware (pitchers, teapots, trays) are made from a variety of metals:
- Sterling silver
- Coin silver
- Silverplate on a base metal
- Pewter or other alloys
- Stainless steel
You can identify the metal by its appearance, wear characteristics, and marks. For more about marks, see the next section.
Most of the silver you will buy or use is manufactured silver, that is, not handmade. The best key to identification of the maker is the mark on the back of the piece. I strongly recommend the book Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy Rainwater, which appears in my list Books about Silver. It is still in print in paperback and clearly shows the many marks associated with the different manufacturers, as well as providing important historical information.
Less complete than Rainwater’s book, but useful if you believe you know the manufacturer is the set of images at the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks website.
If you know the name of a pattern of manufactured flatware, you can buy more or sell what you have, as well as establish value by reviewing sales on eBay and other Internet markets. The following books are strongly recommended:
- For sterling: Sterling Flatware: An Identification and Value Guide by Tere Hagan
- For silverplate: Silverplated Flatware: An Identification and Value Guide by Tere Hagan
- For stainless: Stainless Flatware Guide by Replacements Ltd.
All of these books are further described in my list Books about Silver.
In order for some else to identify your silver, you need to provide a clear image of a sample piece, as well as the exact text of whatever mark appears on the back. Images can be made with a digital camera or scanner for transmission by email. You can also use a copying machine, but then you will need to mail or fax the resulting image.
Many dealers offer an identification service. For example, Replacements Ltd. will assist in identifying what you have. You will find clear instructions at their website.
For additional information about American silverplate, Click on American Silver Booklets for a list of digital publications available.