J.H. has a delightful little silverplate dish, a curling stylized leaf upon which perches a silverplate squirrel.
And the stamp on the bottom says “Hatford Silver Co., Silver plate.”
J.H. knows her grandmother used the plate for nuts in the front room because she remembers a set of nutcrackers that to her childish ears sounded like castanets. This is correct. It was designed as a nut dish, but it was not meant to go in her grandmother’s front room.
It was designed for formal dining, and this form – the squirrel on a dish — was used by many silver makers during the last decade of the 19th century. This is in the spirit of the era, which loved allegory and metaphor in material objects, such as the cow finial on the top of a butter dish and the squirrel perched onto a nut dish.
Instead of embracing our modern aesthetic that focuses on geometric lines (form over function), people in the late 19th century coveted objects that had function bastioned by imagery of that function. Grape shears had grapevine designs, and lemonade pitchers had little lemons embossed in silverplate.
When I see evocative imagery on a piece of silver, I know it is from 1875-1900.
I said the nut dish was not designed to go into J.. grandmother’s front room. It was meant for a very long formal dinner.
And the dinner typically had such nut bowls placed down a grand table — perhaps a set of four identical dishes located within the long and massive centerpiece arrangement, which consisted of flowers, beautiful fruit bows, little condiment silver bowls for fine chocolates and glace fruit. Diners would reach out to pluck a few at any time during the meal but were not expected to take a piece of fruit until the last course.
Here’s how dinner went, as you read this over your cereal bowl this morning.
Dinner would be called at 8 p.m., and you would be served, in a very formal style, the first course of hot soup, at which point the wines would be poured, water and rolls brought, and a fine small plate offered upon each placemat of a cold appetizer. When this course was whisked away, the butlers placed a service plate upon your placemat because no diner should ever see the bare cloth of the table.
Now a platter would be offered of the second course — game or fish. Again, this would be whisked away, and the butlers would come in laden with larger platters upon which was the main course. It was distinguished because the main course was the only one in which you were offered a mixed bag of roast beef, fowl or game and drier vegetables (not watery types) along with potatoes, from one platter. You indicate what you wanted, and the butlers would serve.
Again, your plate would be whisked away when most of the guests had finished this course. Heaven forbid you were a slow eater.
The fourth course was a salad course, and for this the wine menu changed entirely so as not to disturb your palette because of the salad dressing (which was acidic). You would be poured a style of wine that would not fight with the dressing, and at this point the butlers would pass a cheese platter, from which you would select and place a piece upon your salad plate when cheese biscuits were offered.
That course was whisked away, followed by dessert.
This dessert course necessitated that the entire table be cleared of anything that was not related to dessert, down to the salt and peppers. And then that course was whisked away.
Now came J.H.’s nut dishes.
This was during the fruit course, and guests could select a piece of fruit from the beautiful fruit bowls at the center of the table. At this point, a guest may have picked up a little dish like J.H.’s and selected a few nuts to accompany the fruit and perhaps passed this little dish to his partner. This is why something is completed as “soup to nuts.”
So we see that as lovely as J.H.’s grandmother’s front room might have been, the little squirrel was used to something much grander as he was once a part of a massive formal dinner.
Collectors love these little squirrel bowls, as they were quite the style for the upper middle class (in silverplate) and upper class (in sterling of course), so the value is $250.
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.