Posted on Tuesday, July 31st, 2018 at 11:06 am by Shelley's
Many people know that the term “coin silver” refers to silver that is 90% pure as opposed to “sterling silver” which is 92.5% pure. So how has “coin” come to mean “90%?” It is because the purity of most silver coins is 90% and until a time well into the 1800s coins were melted and made into utensils. Pure silver is too soft for producing spoons, cups, bowls, and so forth, so silver is alloyed with 10% copper to give it strength. The U.S. Mint Act of 1792 said that silver had to be at least 892.4 parts per thousand silver and at least 100 parts per thousand copper, so it is possible that some coin silver from the late 1700s and early 1800s is slightly less than 90% pure.
The silversmith did not normally melt his own coins to make inventory. The silversmith was a service tradesman to whom one took coins to be melted and made into objects. By far the most common objects made were spoons. Other flatware items such as forks, knives, and ladles were also made. Hollowware such as pitchers, cups, tumblers, sugar bowls, trays, and bowls were also the products of silver coins.
Figure 1: Example of 19th C. Coin Silver Spoons (courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com)
Why would a person melt his coins? As people accumulated wealth, the only thing they could do with coinage was hide it, while flatware and hollowware had other advantages. Monogramming or otherwise decorating silver objects was advantageous because it allowed for the possibility of positively identifying items if they were stolen. Another reason for converting coins into silverware was the practicality of the utensils being made. But the third reason for this transformation is probably the most important. The person who converted his excess wealth into silverware could showoff his financial success to his friends and neighbors.
The silversmith was an important part of town life in the 18th and 19th centuries. He made and repaired silver implements, but he also stored silver coins for his customers making him a quasi-banker. Most of the time when he made objects for people, the silversmith did not emphasize quality. The silver had the same value whether it was in the form of coins or silverware, so the value of his labor was lost and thus it made no sense to invest inordinate amounts of time fashioning quality products.
Silversmiths like Paul Revere, who did craft highly finished pieces, were the exception. Another silversmith of note is Jabez Gorham. He started in 1831 as a typical New England silversmith, melting people’s coins to make silverware for them. He quickly started producing quality wares and directed his firm toward fine silver production. Regional interest is sometimes a factor in collectability. For example, silver pieces made in Salem, North Carolina can have extra value because of the famous enclave of craftsmen there.
Only seldom does the designation “coin silver” actually appear on an item. Some objects are marked “coin silver” to indicate 90% purity, not to imply that coins were melted down to make them. This is usually true of pocket watches marked “coin silver.”
Collectors should remember that coin silver objects often have only precious metal value. If one knows the maker of the item, then he/she can do research to see if there is a dollar premium associated with that silversmith.
Figure 2: Rare "COIN" mark on silver (courtesy of Ruby Lane)
If you have silver, flatware or hollowware, and you are unsure what it is, feel free to bring it in or send us an image and we will try to help!