Featured Museum Piece
3-Piece "Coin Silver" Tea and Coffee Service by R. & W. Wilson
This month's museum feature is especially unique, we have selected a 3-piece “coin silver” tea and coffee service with some very out-of-the ordinary characteristics. This unique service consists of a coffee pot (this piece can also be used as a tea pot), a creamer, and a sugar bowl with lid and was manufactured by the R. & W. Wilson Silver Company of Philadelphia, PA. Each piece features a repousse design that includes wild flowers, a fence, grass, trees, birds, houses, and other buildings.
Repousse is a form of ornamentation created by hammering a design into silver from the inner side of the metal, with added sharpness of form provided by surface chasing. This method of decorating metal became popular in the United States during the 1820’s. The lids on the pieces in this service are connected with hinges that have a floral pattern and are accented with swirls. The finials on top of each piece are done in the form of men of eastern descent. One of the most unique attributes of this extraordinary service are the squared handles which feature a ram's head design, complete with beard and a set of curled horns! The coffee pot stands 13" tall, the sugar bowl is 9 1/2" tall, and the creamer is 9" tall. Our curating staff believes that these pieces were specially ordered by a men’s group or lodge between the dates of 1825 and 1850. Each piece has a prominent mark on its side that shows a hand holding a dagger. It is unlikely that this is a family mark, coat of arms, or family crest. However, it could have been the calling sign of a fraternity, men’s group, or other organization. It has been speculated that the oriental design was a tribute to the origin of tea and coffee ceremonies. From the finials to the very base of each piece, the oriental influence on the design of this set is quite noticeable.
Very little is known about the company that produced this set, the R. & W. Wilson Silver Company. Apparently, their pieces were produced during the first half of the 19th century during a very competitive time in the silver industry. It was during this time that coin silver became popular. The term “coin silver” refers to silverware produced in America during the early colonial times through the late 1860’s, when setting a standard for sterling quality became both more culturally desirable for table silver as well as legally required. The phrase “coin silver” began being used around 1820. It was at this time that the US Federal Trade Commission required that all national currency contain at least 90% silver and 10% copper. Silver coins were often melted and used to make tableware because colonists and travelers brought silver coins from Europe which could not be used as currency in the United States. Because the coins were not usable outside of Europe, and in part to retain the value of the silver, these coins became the raw materials used to make American silverware during this period. Silverplate was also being produced during this time and it is often difficult to distinguish coin silver from silverplate made during this period. Coin silver historically has a silversmith’s backstamp consisting of at least the first initial and last name of the maker on the back of each piece, and also the city of the location of the manufacturer. If a piece from this period is unmarked, it is most likely silverplate. The three pieces described in this featured tea and coffee service are each stamped “PHILADELPHIA – R. & W. Wilson.” Though dependent on which coins were used as raw materials in coin silver production, coin silver will almost always be lower in silver content than traditional sterling, and there will usually be some variance in the actual silver content from pattern to pattern. However, coin silver is extraordinarily rare and collectible, and typically very valuable. Coin silver is actually part of American and European silver history.
As a reminder, the rare coin silver pieces we feature here are not for sale. Fear not though, we do have a huge collection of great silver that is for sale, by makers including Gorham, Reed and Barton, Wallace, Towle, International, and many more. Come visit us and see these amazing coin silver pieces in person! While with us, you can browse our 12,000 square-foot showroom, take a tour of our facility, and leave with an armload of unique sterling silver pieces of your own with which to dazzle your family and friends. Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week; free tours are available from 10:00am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The Showroom and Museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you soon!
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