J.H. sent me a silver christening mug from London, and she told me that her husband’s family’s grand patriarch was also a J.H. Because this christening mug was engraved with “JH,” the family purchased it and brought it back to America many years ago.
British silver markings are difficult to understand because there are so many, and I leave it up to the statisticians among you to figure out how many ways four marks can be attributed.
Generally, the marks can be read in this order: First, one mark, generally a “lion passant” (if it is London silver, the primary center for silver), “guardant,” certifying silver quality. Second, you will see the maker’s mark, identifying the silversmith, who is presenting the piece to the assay offices — and here I need to stop.
What are the assay offices in Britain? There was, from the 16th century on, an office which certified the amount of silver in a piece.
This was an important development in the history of silver, because without this ancient “guild” of the silversmiths and the office that oversaw them, we would have no sterling silver. Every piece was judged on a mathematically relative scale because silver is a combination of metals — and not all silver is sterling.. Thus the assay office oversaw monitoring. The laws in England specified that pieces brought to the market should be “assayed.”
The next making is a date letter, in a cycle of 20 letters of the alphabet in different shapes, used to identify a year in which the piece was presented to the assay office.
No other country were the regulations as strict for silver as in Britain, which set the standard for silver quality. In America, we had no such grouping of makings, so we had no way of identifying the place, the silver maker, the date and the quality.
The fourth mark on British silver is a mark called an identity mark, which is placed there by the assay office certifying the payment of duty which was required for centuries upon silver objects, and one of the reasons that silver objects had an added value attached to them: people who were purchasers knew what they were getting, and what quality of silver (how much silver was in the piece).
J.H., your husband’s family might have purchased this in the famous silver vaults in London, where dealers could have read this hallmark in a minute. For me to decipher it, took a few hours.
The piece is not actually sterling but Sheffield Plate, which is a wonderful and resonant combination of silver and copper. This technique, which was a poor man’s version of sterling, was discovered at the repair shop of a Thomas Boulsover in the 18th century, and was a combination of silver and copper. The thinnest sheets of silver could be easily fused with the larger sheet of copper between two sheets of silver, and of course, this was not sterling. And these pieces have their own hallmarking system- one of which I found that matches yours.
You might think that Sheffield Silver is less valuable than sterling, but that is not the case. Many people love the glow of the orange copper showing through, or as collectors say, “peeking through” the silver, and repeated polishing brings this out. And it tarnished differently, and that’s what I see on the feet of your little mug.
The date mark on yours in an “O” in a distinctive “antique” style, and therefore, I put the date at its creation at 1869. That makes sense as the initials of the baby who is being gifted this mug was born Oct. 9, 1878.
Because Sheffield pieces of this date have four marks just like hallmarked English Sterling, many people think their Sheffield pieces are Sterling, but this is not the case. However, later Sheffield pieces, post 1890, do not have the four hallmarks and are simply stamped “Sheffield,” with a “sovereign” head, which signifies that the assay office has ascertained the silver content in the piece.
This mug is interesting in its design; the ball feet are set off by the acorn leaves, and this is quite appropriate in a christening mug. “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree” is the spirit of that design. Because of the pristine condition of the mug, I would put the value at $300.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.