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“Hidden” Messages on Flatware
By William P. Hood Jr., Charles S. Curb, and John R. Olson
Inscriptions on flatware are at least as old as the first and second centuries AD. Some Roman silver spoons from that era have the owner’s name chased or engraved in the bowl or on the handle. One late Roman spoon has been found with the Latin equivalent of “good luck” engraved in its bowl, and there are Byzantine spoons from the sixth century with Greek verses on their handles.1 A seventeenth-century Italian serving knife has engraved musical notations and text on both sides of its iron blade.2
It is common for American flatware to have inscriptions as well.3 Most often these take the form of engraved initials or names (rarely family crests) identifying the owner(s) who may have purchased the item or received it as a gift. In the case of a presentation piece, sometimes the name of the giver will be present as well as additional wording if space is available. An inscription will often include the date of a wedding, birthday, anniversary or other occasion worthy of commemoration. From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, funerary spoons bearing the name, age, and the date of death of the deceased were sometimes given to pallbearers and other survivors as mementos.4
Whatever the flatware inscription, its message is immediately obvious to the viewer in the overwhelming majority of cases. Not that every cipher is easily readable, because its complicated design may render it tedious or impossible to make out individual initials, but at least it is recognizable as a monogram. Whatever its form, a perceptible inscription is usually not an integral part of other decoration (if any); rather, it is an addition that could just as easily have been left off.
It is unusual for an inscription on flatware not to be obvious on first viewing, and even in such a case, it is unlikely that the message is intentionally secret. What we mean by “hidden messages” in this article is monograms or words on a piece of flatware that are not extraneous to any other decoration, but are rather an integral part of it. As a result, their message is not readily apparent. One can imagine that the main reason for creating a message that is not easily discernible is to cause a little frisson of delight on the part of a gift recipient when the message is at last perceived or pleasure on the part of the giver when the message has to be pointed out.
One of the most unusual ways of putting a message on flatware is by piercing, which is usually more difficult than engraving. Piercing of flatware is a technique that dates probably from the dark ages5 but during most of the ensuing time has been used for functional reasons or adornment rather than to convey messages. The first pierced spoons were made of wood or non-silver metals and were designed for kitchen use as strainers. French inventories from as early as the fourteenth century mention pierced silver spoons, but it is unusual to find such objects datable before the late seventeenth century.6 By the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for straining spoons to be made of silver; essentially they were long-handled gravy or basting spoons with holes or a central pierced divider in their bowls.7
The eighteenth century also saw the development of other specialized pierced silver implements: spoons for olives,8 mote spoons and strainers for tea,9 pierced servers for fish,10 and sifters for sugar.11 In the nineteenth century came pierced asparagus servers, ice spoons and tongs, nut spoons, Saratoga chip servers, tomato servers, vegetable spoons and forks, and more.12 Piercing became fashionable as a purely decorative device, e.g., on the blades of waffle knives/servers, and sometimes as an innovative way of monogramming.13 As an art form, piercing probably reached its apogee in the decoration of eighteenth-century French sugar sifter bowls.14 Even in these cases, however, pierced messages were rare; we are aware of a single example of a pierced monogram in the bowl of such a sifter.15
During the nineteenth century, various American firms including Tiffany & Co. of New York and Gorham Mfg. Company of Providence, RI, made some elegantly pierced sugar sifters and other dining implements.16 To our knowledge, only one American manufacturer, Reed & Barton of Taunton, MA, executed inscriptions other than monograms by piercing. Between 1893 and 1902, Reed & Barton introduced multiple fancy patterns with French names, at least three of which included serving pieces with pierced hidden messages. The three patterns were La Reine (1893), La Marquise (1895), and La Touraine (1895). These messages take the form of piece type names spelled out in the pierced designs of certain bowls and blades. Because of the complexity of the design and the highly stylized lettering, the words are by no means obvious and must be discovered.
Figures 1, 1a, 2, and 2a illustrate two pea spoons in La Marquise with the words “PEA SPOON” created by the ingenious piercing of the bowls. In the same pattern, Figures 3 and 3a show a macaroni spoon with “MACARONI” spelled within its asymmetrically pierced bowl. The stylized lettering of the two inscribed words is similar but not identical (compare the letter “A”).
The small La Marquise ice spoon in Figures 4 and 4a has “CRACKED ICE” spelled within its pierced bowl. Its conventionalized lettering is different from that in the pea spoons and the macaroni spoon. Figures 5 and 5a illustrate a large ice spoon in La Reine with “CRACKED ICE” in the pierced bowl. The design is confined to the left side of the bowl, opposite to that in the macaroni spoon in La Marquis, but the lettering here is in almost the same style as in the La Marquise pea and macaroni spoons (compare the letters “A” and “R” among the four pieces). Examination of all these Reed & Barton servers with a loupe shows the presence of irregularities and minor differences in the lettering that confirm all were pierced by hand and not by machine.
A dealer-friend tells of having seen a crumber in La Marquise with “CRUMB KNIFE” pierced on its blade. In the La Reine pattern, we know a pea spoon exists with a pierced “PEA SPOON” inscription, but no details are available. We do not know how many other piece types in these patterns may exist with pierced messages; nor do we know if such inscriptions were standard or special-order. Notably, we have not observed a single example of the same piece type as any of the above that lacked pierced wording. The current historian at Reed & Barton has no knowledge of inscriptive piercings on any of the company’s flatware; nor are there any records relating to such in the archives.17
Hidden inscriptions can also take the form of openwork rather than piercing. Some distinctively inscribed flatware was made circa 1898 for one of the yachts of financier and industry organizer John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913). The ship was likely the 304-foot long CORSAIR III, launched in 1899, the third of four steam yachts christened with this name.18 Figure 6 illustrates pieces from this service sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York.19 The butter spreader, at the top of the illustration, has an openwork handle that spells out “CORSAIR.” To the casual observer, especially one who might be unfamiliar with the ship’s name, the word is not immediately obvious. On the probable ramekin (or terrapin?) fork at the bottom center, the tip is formed as an openwork monogram not easily recognizable as “JMP.” This piece also has a less than conspicuous “CORSAIR” applied in the middle of the stem.
Inscriptions can also be hidden within applied, die-stamped or etched designs. The Whiting Manufacturing Co. of North Attleboro, MA, and New York City, made a “servers only” pattern apparently intended as presentation pieces for weddings, graduations, retirements, and other special occasions, as their handles convey a wish for good fortune. To many viewers, this message is not immediately apparent. Figures 7 and 7a illustrate a cheese scoop and berry spoon and Figure 8 an asparagus fork in this pattern. The handle on these pieces has a complex design of applied stylized vines against a background of etched (or die-stamped?) four-leaf clovers. From the top down, the vine stems spell out “GOOD LUCK,” and the vine appliqué encircles the lower handle stem at one point. The total number of piece types offered with this handle design is unknown to us, but we have also observed a two-piece fish set and a cake knife. As far as we are aware, this pattern does not appear in any surviving catalogue or pattern guide, but goes by the descriptive name Good Luck.
Tiffany & Co. made at least one set of melon forks (actually a fork-knife combination) with a complex etched Art Nouveau whiplash20 design with the initials “WBS” incorporated within it ( Figures 9 and 9a). The design covers all sides of the handle but the monogram appears only on the front. Obviously this set was a custom order and was expensive. The Tiffany & Co. Archives house a drawing for a related handle design, also for a melon fork;21 whether that design was executed is unknown. Tiffany & Co. incorporated monograms in the designs of several custom patterns it made for wealthy families in the nineteenth century, but these were very conspicuous.22
Figures 10 and 10a show a Tiffany & Co. bon bon spoon in the Forget Me Not pattern. The message, unobtrusive and not easily visible without a loupe or magnifying glass, identifies the pattern name. At the bottom of the stem, in a vertical format, is a slightly raised “FOR / GET / ME / NOT.” This scarce and charming little piece is found more often without the hidden message than with it.
In combing through numerous published private and public collections of European flatware,23 we found examples of monograms incorporated into handle designs, but in general these are not difficult to recognize. Figure 11 shows an exception. This elegant and most unusual parcel-gilt silver French melon fork, from a set of eighteen, has a mother-of-pearl handle and a pierced monogram. Its intertwined “R” and “S” cipher falls into the category of hidden messages. The maker was Jean Granvigne (sometimes spelled Grandvigne), active 1868 to circa 1889, generally considered to be one of the best French flatware makers of the nineteenth century.24
Another European exception is shown in Figures 12 and 12a, which illustrate a German-made individual fish fork and knife in Muster Nr. 2000 (pattern no. 2000), designed circa 1901, by Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908).25 The die-stamped decoration on the front of their handles incorporates a highly stylized and almost unrecognizable “JO,” the designer’s monogram, meant to be read with the flatware turned horizontally with the functional ends to the viewer’s left.
In the cited European collections, we found no examples of European flatware with obscured words spelled-out on handles or serving ends. We did locate, however, three British pieces in the collection of our friend, Dr. Dale Bennett. Figures 13, 13a, and 13b illustrate a fish set dated 1876, by J. Whipple and Company of Exeter with “F I S H” within the intricately hand-pierced designs on the knife blade and the fork bowl. The ivory handled slice has a scimitar blade, and the fork has a four-tined serving end with a slightly smaller ivory handle. Both pieces have the same lettering style.
Figures 14 and 14a show a solitary fish slice, also with “F I S H” within the elaborate piercing on its blade, made by the brothers Joseph Savory (no. 2) and Albert Savory (no. 1) of London, 1838.26 This all-silver slice has a scimitar blade and a handle in the Fiddle pattern. One wonders if Reed & Barton knew about these or similarly inscribed English fish serving pieces and used them as the model for their flatware with inscriptive piercing.
The question invariably presents itself: why were such pieces made? It is significant that, as far as we know, no American silver maker thought of incorporating hidden messages into flatware until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, by which time the pressure to compete in the silver trade by being highly innovative had become intense. Since such pieces were made by only a few makers in a narrow range of offerings, we can only conclude that they did not sell especially well and that little or no competitive advantage was gained. Today, both the scarcity and the charm of flatware with hidden messages make these pieces eagerly sought by a small but determined group of collectors.
The authors are grateful to Jamie Doerr of M. S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans, LA; Phyllis Tucker, of Phyllis Tucker Antiques, Houston, TX; Phil Dreis, of Antique Cupboard, Ltd., Waukesha, WI; and John Ward, of Sotheby’s, New York, for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
William P. Hood Jr., M.D., is a retired cardiologist and former university professor. Readers with other examples of flatware with “hidden” messages are invited to communicate with Dr. Hood at Bhood2000@aol.com.
Charles S. Curb, Ph.D., a former university English professor, has been an antiques dealer for many years.
John R. Olson, M.D., practices pathology.
1. For pictures of the ancient examples cited, see Simon Moore, Cutlery for the Table: A History of British Table and Pocket Cutlery (Sheffield, UK: The Hallamshire Press, 1999), 44-45, and 48.
2. Jean Van Trigt, Cutlery From Gothic to Art Deco: The J. Hollander Collection, introduction by Alain Gruber (Antwerp, Belgium: Pandora, 2003), 26. Notated on this knife are the tenor parts of two polyphonic songs.
3. In this article, we exclude commercial-type souvenir flatware and flatware with non-identifying symbols (patriotic, religious, etc.) without accompanying writing.
4. For an example of a rare early American funerary spoon, see Important Americana (catalogue for Sale N08158), Sotheby’s, New York, January 20, 2006, lot 176.
5. François Baudequin and Bilgi Kenber, “Présentation Historique,” in Bilgi Kenber et al., Les Cuillers à sucre dans l’orfèvrerie française du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Somogy éditions d’art, 2003), 19.
7. Ian Pickford, Silver Flatware: English, Irish and Scottish, 1660-1980 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1983), 194-195.
8. Baudequin and Kenber, “Présentation Historique,” 27-28.
9. Pickford, Silver Flatware, 209-211.
10. Benton Seymour Rabinovitch, Antique Silver Servers for the Dining Table (Concord, MA: Joslin Hall, 1991), 37-149.
11. Baudequin and Kenber, “Présentation Historique,” 28-31.
12. For many types of pierced servers, see William P. Hood Jr., with Roslyn Berlin and Edward Wawrynek, Tiffany Silver Flatware, 1845-1905: When Dining Was an Art (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2000), Chapter 4.
13. Ibid., 161, Figures 237, 238, and 162, Figure 239. See Figures for examples.
14. Kenber et al., Les Cuillers à sucre, 121-251.
15. Ibid., 234, entry no. 113.
16. For examples of Tiffany & Co. sugar sifters, see Hood, Berlin, and Wawrynek, Tiffany Silver, 156, Figure 226.
17. Susan MacKenzie, Reed & Barton historian, e-mail message to William Hood, February 14, 2006. Ms. MacKenzie was the historian at the time of our request but has since retired.
18. John Pierpont Morgan, nothing if not a ruthless businessman, was called by some during his lifetime a robber baron and pirate. Yet he defiantly named his yachts CORSAIR, which means pirate or fast ship used for piracy.
19. Important Americana (catalogue for Sale N08158), lot 104.
20. Paul Greenhalgh, “The Style and the Age,” in Art Nouveau, 1890-1914, ed. Paul Greenhalgh (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 26-27 and Figure 1.12. This term comes from Peitschenhieb (whiplash) embroideries designed by the German Hermann Obrist circa 1895. The whiplash became one of the icons of Art Nouveau.
21. Hood, Berlin, and Wawrynek, Tiffany Silver, the design drawing at far left on 78, Figure 86.
22. Ibid., 293, Figure 446b (the Mackay service); 295, Figure 450 (the William K. Vanderbilt service); and 297, Figure 453 (the Searles service).
23. Barbara Grotkamp-Schepers and Reinhard W. Sänger, Art Nouveau Knives, Forks and Spoons: Inventory Catalogue of the Deutsches Klingenmuseum, Solingen, Germany (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2000); Jutta Krauss, Bestecke: Die Egloffstein’sche Sammlung (15.-18. Jahrhundert) auf der Wartburg, ed. Jochen Amme (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 1994); Peter Brown, ed., British Cutlery: An Illustrated History of Design, Evolution and Use, (London: Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd., 2001); Elisabeth Schmuttermeier, Metal für den Gaumen: Bestecke aus den Sammlungen des Österreichischen Museum für angewandte Kunst (Vienna: Österreichischen Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, 1990); Erlesenes aus Jugendstil und Art Deco: Die Sammlung Giorgio Silzer, eds. Museum für Kunsthandwerk/Grassimuseum, Leipzig (Leipzig: Passage-Verlag, 1996); Klaus Marquardt, Eight Centuries of European Knives, Forks and Spoons: An Art Collection (Stuttgart, Arnoldsche, 1997); Karl H. Bröhan, ed., Metallkunst: Kunst vom Jugendstil zur Moderne (1889-1939), Vol. 4 (Berlin: Bröhan Museum, 1990); and Van Trigt, Cutlery From Gothic to Art Deco.
24. We are grateful to David Allan of Paris for identifying the mark of the maker and supplying his working dates.
25. For more about this pattern, see Reinhard W. Sänger, Das Deutsche Silber-Besteck: Biedermeier – Historismus – Jugendstil (1805-1918) (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 1991), 176-177.
26. John P. Fallon, Marks of London Goldsmiths and Silversmiths, 1837-1914 (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1992), 255.