Family Archivist: Caring for Your Old Heirloom Silver

Family Archivist: Caring for Your Old Heirloom Silver

You can have Great-grandma's silver and eat cake with it, too. Learn the best ways to care for the old silverware, silver tea service and other silver pieces passed down in your family.

If you’re the fortunate owner of an heirloom silver set, perhaps it’s time to take it out of the drawer and mark a special occasion by sharing family history as you set the table. With a little time and careful handling, you can bring back the luster of old silver. You can have Grandma’s famous pumpkin pie and her heirloom fork to eat it with, too. 

Q. My grandmother’s silver has been in a drawer for years. I’d like to use it during the holidays. How should I clean and polish it?
Fine china, silver and crystal fall in and out of fashion like ladies’ hemlines, but the glorious sparkle of polished silver always makes an occasion extra special. Unfortunately, silver reacts with hydrogen sulfide in the air and surrounding materials, resulting in tarnish. Tarnish doesn’t harm the silver, but overzealous polishing of this soft metal can obscure engraved designs. 
You should clean silver pieces, though, to remove dust, food particles and oily residue from handling. First, spread a thick, soft towel on your kitchen counter to cushion the silver and protect it from scratches. Place another thick towel on the bottom of the sink. Remove your rings and bracelets. Fill the sink with warm, sudsy water, using a mild liquid dish detergent.
Working with six to 10 pieces at a time, place flatware gently into the soapy water and use a soft sponge or cloth to wash the individual knives, forks and spoons. Rinse in warm, clear water and dry immediately with a soft cloth (water spots speed tarnishing). 
Next, apply a small amount of nonabrasive silver polish or foam such as Hagerty’s Silver Wash or Silver Foam or Malco Twinkle Silver Polish. Lightly rub the polish over the silver using a soft cloth and rinse well with warm water. Make sure no polish remains in engraved areas. Keep rubbing to a minimum—polish and excessive rubbing can remove silver along with the tarnish. 
After rinsing, gently polish the metal with a soft cloth until the silver is tarnish-free. You may want to wear white cotton gloves as you set your sparkling holiday table to avoid transferring fingerprints to the metal. Store the clean silver in a special silver flatware box or storage tray lined with tarnish-preventing silvercloth. 
SOS for Your Silver
Museums that display silver add tarnish prevention inside the glass cases. Anti-tarnish paper, such as strips from 3M, is treated to absorb the sulfides in the air that can cause tarnish. Tuck them inside your china cabinet or silver drawer and replace as directed.  
Silver Care Tips
Using your silver is the best way to appreciate it, but keep these tips in mind to ensure the pieces last for generations:
Avoid plastic wrap. “We see a lot of silver ruined after being tightly wrapped in plastic wrap for storage,” says antiques appraiser Joseph Baratta of Abell Auction Co. in Los Angeles. The ingredients in plastic wrap can interact with silver to cause irreversible pitting. 
Wash promptly. Salt, coffee, tea, vinegar, eggs and other foods high in sulphur can cause pitting and staining, and accelerate tarnish. After contact with these foods, wash silver pieces promptly as directed in our Q&A—never in the dishwasher. Empty salt shakers immediately after use and clean the spouts of coffee and tea pots with a cotton swab and a small amount of silver polish. 
Store in silvercloth. Store your clean and polished silver in commercial silver-care cloth, such as Pacific Silvercloth, which absorbs tarnish-producing gases. It comes in bags or as liner for flatware storage trays, which also help keep utensils from bumping together and becoming scratched or nicked. 
Make a Silver Roll to Protect Old Silverware
In less than an hour, you can create your own flatware rolls to protect your favorite silver pieces or give to a new bride in your family. Here’s how:
1. Start with tarnish preventing silver­cloth, which you can purchase by the yard, and a 16-inch length of ribbon. (Pacific Silvercloth costs $19.95 per yard, and comes with instructions for making bags and rolls.) You’ll want a flatware roll for each place setting, which typically includes six pieces, but you can customize this project to hold more or fewer pieces. For one flatware roll, measure and cut a 12×24-inch rectangle.
2. Fold up one short side of your rectangle to create a pocket about four inches deep (it should accommodate the handles of your knives, forks and spoons, as shown in the photo). Fold the ribbon in half and insert the crease under the top edge of one side of the pocket. Sew up the pocket sides with your sewing machine or a needle and thread, catching the folded ribbon as you go.
3. Use chalk to mark five vertical lines on the pocket, which will make six slots to hold a place setting. Stitch along each line. To personalized a gift, embroider the bag with a monogram.
4. Insert each piece of flatware into a slot. Fold over the top flap to cover the flatware. Roll closed starting with the non-ribbon side, and use the ribbon to tie closed.
Heirloom ID: Southern Coin Silver 
These silver engraved teaspoons are Southern coin silver, named after the early practice of crafting silverware from coins. Before the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Utah Territory in 1858, the United States had no major silver mines. Those wanting custom-made silver would have to purchase imported silver ingots, usually from Great Britain. Americans wanting to avoid “buying British” would melt down silver coins for raw material.
Master silversmith John Withers of Salem, Va., made these spoons, a family heirloom of California genealogist Jane Millar, in the early 19th century. The handles are engraved with his initials, with “J. Withers” marked on the reverse.
You can identify sterling silver manufactured since 1868 by a 92.5 stamp, showing it complies with the silver content standards the United States adopted that year. Coin silver is usually 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper.
Southern coin silver is especially collectible today because of its rarity. A shortage of silversmiths, wartime plundering and economic hardship all took their toll on Southern family silver.
From the October/November 2014 Family Tree Magazine

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