Dear Helaine and Joe:
I purchased this boxed set of six pairs of cutlery (six knives, six forks) in England around 1986 at an antiques store in Sheffield. It is sterling silver with hallmarks and pearl handles. The hallmarks are on the blades. I was told at the time this was a fish set used for eating the fish course. Can you tell me about this type of set and what mine might be worth?
Dear B. S.:
Dinner can be a hurried affair in many modern American homes. Some of these dinners do not even require flatware of any nature — takeout chicken eaten over the sink, handheld hamburgers and French fries to name just two. What a pity.
On the other hand, dinner could often be a formal affair in many upscale British homes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To begin, the table might have been set with very fancy place plates that were whisked away when the hors d’oeuvres were served. (The phrase hors d’oeuvres means “before the works,” with “the works” being the main course.) This part of the formal meal was served on a more utilitarian, course-specific plate, which in some instances was placed on top of the service or place plate.
After this came the fish course. With this portion of the meal, fish plates might have been laid down, and the star of the course would have arrived on a special platter designed just to hold the fish. There would have been a matching sauce boat, and vegetables might have accompanied the aquatic offering, sometimes in a matching tureen. There might also have been bone dishes at each place to accommodate these pesky obstructions to eating.
With the special plates, platter, sauce boat, bone dishes and tureens would have come specialized utensils. These so-called “fish sets” might have had handles made from ivory, bone, celluloid, sterling silver or silver plate. The blades of the knives were almost always silver-plated on nickel or some white metal to withstand the wear they would receive.
B. S. believes her set is composed of mother of pearl and sterling silver, but she is only half right. The handles are most certainly mother of pearl, but the blades are clearly marked “EP,” which means they were electroplated. There may be sterling silver ferrules between the handles and the blades, but we could not see a sterling mark in the photographs.
The sets are rather commonly found even in the United States, and most complete sets are service for 12. Many (not all) come with a large, fancy, broad-bladed fish knife and matching large fork to facilitate moving portions from the serving platter to the individual plates. We feel the set in today’s question is only a partial set, and originally, there may have been at least six more knives and six more forks in the box.
To conclude the formal meal we have been discussing, there would have been a main course after the fish, followed by a salad course (simple greens and a vinaigrette), a cheese course (in Britain served with fruit and condiments) and a sweet dessert course, all served with specialized utensils and dinnerware. The six fish forks and six fish knives in today’s question with the box is worth no more than $100 to $150 at retail.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at email@example.com. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.