Most antiques-lovers are familiar with the term “coin silver” in relation to American silver articles, but what does “coin silver” really mean? Seems like an easy question to answer, right? Well, not exactly. Let’s think about it in stages.
When looking at a finished silver article, say a teapot, for instance, it’s hard to imagine what it was before it became round, with a lid, handle, and spout. However, that piece may have started life as a blob, ingot or sheet of silver. Someone had to take the raw material and work it into its finished form with fire, hammers, chisels, anvils, and a whole lot of sweat and elbow grease.
So now let’s think about the colonization of America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Imagine you’re a struggling craftsperson--for our purposes, a silversmith. Perhaps you’re living with too many other people in a one-room cottage, maybe your boss is a jerk, or you’re simply looking for a change. You decide to take a chance on a new life in a new world. Well, how do you pack for that? You bring some clothes, maybe a trinket from your old life, and, if you’re a craftsperson, the most important possessions you own—the tools of your trade. You board a boat with your small bag of everything you own, and you cross a vast ocean, heading to a place you know very little about. Imagine emigration of this nature a little bit like “Survivor,” but without the bikinis . . . or the guarantee of safety. You’re headed to a place where, once you get there, everything you live in, wear, or eat, will come about through your own strength, intellect, or force of will. You’ll have to scrounge.
In these early years of colonization, people were pretty tied up in day to day survival, but as things became more established, a little easier, people started thinking more about the trappings of their old lives. A gentleman of means might attend church one Sunday, and miss the bright flash of the silver communion cup he remembers seeing at his old church back in England. He could visit the silversmith who lived down the road, and commission him to create the first silver communion cup for their American church. The silversmith is happy to ply his trade in his New World life. But where does the raw silver come from? OK, here comes the somewhat confusing part. The answer relates not only to silversmithing, but to New World exploration, and the history of currency—but let’s see if we can distill all that into a short answer.
Silver, like gold, is a mined material. You have to work to find it (or be extremely lucky), and toil to remove it from its natural state embedded in rock. Humans have been hunting for and utilizing silver for thousands of years. During the late 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish were the masters of “New World” exploration, and one of their greatest discoveries were vast sources of silver in regions of South America, and Mexico. They filled their ships with silver, brought it back to Europe, and used it to mint coinage.
So, again, think about being an early settler. There were no ATM machines. How were things acquired? The barter system was big, of course, but people still had some money brought with them on their journey. The money was a jumble of different silver coins. With this mix of French francs, British pounds, Spanish reales, etc., the denomination of the coins was no longer what mattered, but rather the value was derived from their quantity of silver. With the limited amount of this coinage, it was important not only for its use as money, but also for its use as a raw material.
And that bring us back to our colonial silversmith, who would need to scrounge for raw material in any form he could get it. Coinage was one source—and this is where we get the popular derivation of the term “coin silver.”
However, many people forget that silversmiths could also use older articles of fashioned silver as raw material. The well-to-do church-goer who commissioned the silversmith to craft the communion cup could have brought a bit of coinage, as well as an old family candlestick for the silversmith to melt down and use to make the new cup. Yes, early American silversmiths may have been using coinage, but there was also a good deal of “recycling” of older silver as well.
So, what is the more specific term for “coin silver”? In Colonial America, Spanish silver dollars (or eight reales coins, better known as “pieces of eight”) were one of the most widely circulated foreign coins, and one of the most consistent in silver content. They served as the basis for purity of the first silver dollars issued by the new nation of America, with a fineness of about 90% pure silver, or .900 fine.
However, as we discussed above in reference to our friend the silversmith, he didn’t have the luxury of a consistent grade of silver. Because of the scrounged mix of coinage, and recycled silver articles, the objects he produced won’t have a consistent grade. As such, when we use the term “coin silver” in reference to a piece of antique American silver, the piece in question could contain a grade of silver ranging from about 75% to 90% pure silver, or a fineness of .750 to .900.
In the 1800s, as America grew and expanded, a great thing happened for American silversmithing—in 1859 we found our own treasure of raw silver in the Utah Territory (now known as Nevada). This massive discovery, The Comstock Lode, allowed American silversmiths access to large supplies of consistent silver. Other discoveries and technological advances meant that by the latter part of the 19th century, most American silversmiths had settled on the sterling standard (92.5% silver, or .925 fine.
So there’s a lot more to the well-known term “coin silver” than you might initially think. I don’t know about you, but imagining what went into its creation makes me appreciate a beautiful piece of American coin silver all the more.
Watch the coin silver challenge round in