A Lent Study: Polishing Silver


Victorian women, especially here in the United States had a soft spot for sterling flatware. Collectively, they were basically addicted to the stuff. Gorham Manufacturing was one of the first companies to mass produce sterling silver flatware in the US, in 1831. Two men could produce two dozen hand created pieces a day. Until that time silversmiths would slowly and painstakingly create pieces, one at a time. A women would save her silver coins, something which was not easy to do. She would then have the silver melted down into a new piece. It would be fairly thin, and not quite sterling, but it was a treasure, symbolic of her personal wealth. While the land and property might belong to the man, the silver flatware belonged to her.

Any good corporation is going to do their best to earn money off their customers. Any self-respecting Victorian woman who, by new custom, was in control of the household, the accounts, and usually how the money was spent, just had to have the latest pieces. Collecting sterling flatware was no different from a the modern person buying a food processor, mixer, coffee-maker, and so forth and so on.

For example there were salt spoons, table spoons, tea spoons, demitasse spoons, dessert spoons, fruit spoons, caviar spoons, mint julep spoons, crème soup spoons, serving spoons, luncheon spoons and dinner spoons, which were called place spoons and even iced tea spoons, along with chocolate spoons for hot cocoa. There were dinner forks, luncheon forks, salad forks, cocktail forks, fish forks, pie forks, ice cream forks and ramekin forks. Then there were the knives, for meat, dinner knives, luncheon knives, fruit knives, butter knives and fish knives. Serving pieces were remarkable and for any possible imaginable purpose.

Finally, the federal government stepped in and made it a law that a company could only have a certain number of active pieces for each pattern. As usual, the feds could not comprehend the new monster they created. As soon as a manufacturer would announce that they would no longer being making a specific ramekin fork for a specific pattern, every woman who owned that pattern would need that fork, along with the new piece which would be offered in its place.

The price of labor was so cheap, if a woman could afford twenty-five different pieces of her sterling pattern, then she could afford to hire a servant just to keep her sterling polished. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure. Fine silver is 99.9% pure. Neither is oxidized and should not tarnish, but it does. Sterling silver has copper in it. The copper is what causes it to tarnish or darken.

If not cleaned, the darkened tarnish on the sterling will eventually be so severe it cannot be cleaned. When this happens, the sterling needs to be re-silvered, if not professionally buffed and cleaned. As long as silver is kept air-tight, it does not tarnish. There are various ways to care for silver and to polish it. One of the main reason silver will tarnish and need to be cleaned is when it comes in contact with contaminates.

The analogy to our Christian lives is obvious. As long as we hide who and what we are, wrapped in a hermetically sealed plastic container we don’t tarnish. When we do, we need to be buffed, polished, cleaned, and maybe even re-silvered. It takes a lifetime of care. When we do tarnish, well, that’s the problem, isn’t?