Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections

Silver: Reflecting the Ages

A Selection of Silver from the Bryn Mawr College Collection
Curated by Lauren Ward '03

September 27, 2002 through December 27, 2002
Rhys Carpenter Library for Art, Archaeology, and Cities
Kaiser Reading Room and Fong Reading Room

Luminous, functional and malleable, silver reflects the history that has shaped this "impressionable" metal. Over the centuries artisans and silversmiths have profited from silver's functionality and artistic possibilities. It is difficult to correctly chronicle the use of silver throughout the ages because of its endless "recyclability," which often resulted in the alteration of its form and function in order to conform to the current demands of the time. Due to its status as a precious metal, silver was often victim of theft and pieces were frequently melted into coined currency during periods of economic instability. Apart from its monetary value, silver has always maintained its distinguishing role of denoting status, rank, and opulence thus; it often resurfaced during the "decadence" of each epoch. Silver wine cups accented the revelry of ancient Greece and Rome. Religious silver, such as relics and reliquaries, were significant players in the pageantry of medieval Christian ceremony.

Much later, in the nineteenth century, silver found its way into the secular settings of bourgeois bedrooms and dining rooms. The Industrial Revolution brought advances in the mass production of silver pieces and allowed for creating alternative forms of silver manufacture, such as electroplating and electro-deposition, which made silver available to the common man. However, these advances did not demote but rather reinforced silver's status of luxury and beauty. Silversmithing followed congruously with the stylistic characteristics of high art; silver works can be found in the baroque, rococo, neoclassical, and the art nouveau movements. Today, we find silver in the most familiar places, throughout our home and adorning our bodies, which leads one to question what form silver will take in the years to come.

The Bryn Mawr silver collection reflects the changing tastes, styles, and functionality of silver artistry over the centuries. Pieces range from Saint Spoons, handcrafted by unknown artisans in the 16th century to such secular 20th century works as the Tiffany & Co. tea set. Silver's versatility and malleability are exemplified by original and rare pieces, such as the silver encrusted half-skull of a Buddhist priest, to recycled pieces and stylistic revivals such as the College's elegant reproduction of a medieval chalice. Bryn Mawr College boasts a richly diverse collection which has been assembled from generous donations of various friends and alumnae.

Exhibition Checklist

Upper Shelf, Case 1

A. Platter - An oval silver meat platter with scalloped and gadrooned (a decorative pattern consisting of convex ridges) edges with shell and acanthus points on each end. A Prince of Wales insignia with feathers engraved to top of the rim. This piece is an example of a Sheffield plate, which is a plate consisting of an overlay of silver on copper, brass, or other metals so as to simulate solid silver.

B. Trumpet Vase - A Sterling silver trumpet vase with a stand featuring two volutes holding three detachable "trumpets". These types of works were used for various floral arrangements.

C. Covered Cup - A heavily incised covered cup inlayed with various semi-precious stones and gilded on the inside. This piece is believed to be a German reproduction of a medieval style covered cup or chalice due to its intricate design and use of gems.

D. Skull - The top portion of a skull of a young adult who is believed to have been a Lama, a priest or monk in Buddhism. The interior portion of the skull is plated with silver and is inlayed with a semi-precious stone in the center. This piece is presumed to have been used as a vessel, perhaps for containing relics or other religious materials, and was most likely supported with a stand.

E. Serving Platter - Silver (plate) serving tray; bordered with plant motifs and figural scenes of revelry depicting dancing figures with beer steins. This object was "over-polished" before it was placed in the College's Collections and illustrates the importance of responsible curatorial care and conservation.

Lower shelf, Case 1

A. Platter - A Sterling silver oval platter with a repoussé floral border, produced by hammering the back of an object into a carved wooden mold. The platter also features a cavetto molding in a double scroll design.

B. Covered Dish - Silver covered consisting of a dish with an elaborately chased vintage band and a bell cover with a chrysanthemum finial.

C. Salt Cellar - This Sterling Silver salt cellar, with a pierced stand, comes for the Deanery and was once in the possession of M. Carey Thomas. Salt cellars are generally ornate low open vessels used to hold salt at the table.

D. Art Nouveau Pastry Server - An early twentieth century Sterling Silver pastry server with a broad flat blade accented with the common sinuous vine and tendril motif of the Art Nouveau style and an Old English handle.

E. Fish Slice - Mid-eighteenth century English silver fish slice with a delicately pierced and chased blade and a handle of dyed green ivory with a button finial.

F. Dining Hall Silverware -
1) Silver Server with scroll and shell on the handle, a straight serving edge, and a curved lip.
2) Fork with "Pembroke Hall" engraved on the handle, with a thread decoration
3) Silver knife with "Merion Hall" engraved on a handle with a shell design.

Dining Hall Silver continued:
4) Silver spoon with "Merion Hall" engraved in block letters on a handle with a shell design.
5) Silver teaspoon with "Rhoads Hall" engraved on the handle, with a thread decoration
6) Silver paté knife

G. Place Card Holder - An Art Nouveau style place card holder that dates to circa 1910.

H. Ceramic Plate - from M.Carey Thomas' personal china collection. She had this set, with her initials in the center, custom made in Italy.

I. Pepper Mill - A Sterling Silver pepper mill with a basic design.

J. Spice Caster - Casters are small perforated containers of varying shapes, used to sprinkle salt, sugar, mustard, or other spices at the dinner table. They were referred to as a "casters" because they were used to "cast" seasonings over food. This is an example of an English urn-shaped spice caster circa 1779-80 in octagonal form with a flame finial and a pierced and engraved dome top.

K. Spice Caster - Another larger example of a Sterling Silver octagonal spice caster with a pierced and engraved dome and a baluster finial.

L. Russian Carving Set - A Russian knife and fork set. The knife has a steel blade imprinted with a Russian family name and a hallmark featuring a family crest of two imperial style eagles. The fork has silver gilt tines and both utensils have handles adorned with niello-work, a technique which silver is engraved with designs and filled in with black enamel inlay.

M. Argyle -Silver plated, paneled argyle with an S-shaped handle, featuring a scrolled spur; a scalloped rim, and three knuckled trefoil feet. These vessels kept sauces warm by means of warm water, which was poured into an internal chamber.

Upper Shelf, Case 2

A. Italian Spoons - These four Italian spoons have intricately sculpted stems and feature a variety of scenes on the finials. They are believed to be Renaissance versions of the Apostle and Saint spoons.

B. Maiden Head Spoon - A Maiden Head Spoon from the mid 16th century with a teardrop bowl and a terminal depicting the bust of the Virgin. Maiden Head spoons were made in the latter part of the 14th century through the 16th century. They are believed to depict the Blessed Virgin, usually portrayed in contemporary fashion, which sets them apart form other artistic representations of religious figures at the time.

C. Spoon - This is an example of a 17th century serving spoon which is for the most part simple in appearance except for the engraved monograms and dates of the spoon's various owners which lends the piece a particular charm.

D. Mote Spoon - A mote spoon from the mid 18th century with a lemon finial and the end of a round handle and a bowl, pierced with diaper pattern and framed by scrolls and chasing. This pierced bowl is characteristic of mote spoons, which were most likely used during tea service.

Apostle/Saint Spoons - After the advent of the Maiden spoons began the appearance of Saints' spoons, which featured important personages of the Bible. The Saints depicted on the finials were identified by that saint's particular emblem, an image that could be easily recognizable by people of various Christian countries and by those who knew no written language. During the 17th century spoons depicting Buddha and Hindu deities began to appear.

E. Apostle/Saint Spoon - This first Saint spoon has a twisted stem which separates a full figure at the base of the handle, possibly depicting the Virgin, and a full figure at the top. The pilgrim's staff in his left hand indicates that he is Saint James the Greater. This staff alludes to his travels around the world preaching the Gospel after the Ascension. Saint James the Greater later became the patron saint of Spain under the name of St. Jago, the modern Santiago.

F. Apostle/Saint Spoon - A Saint spoon with a teardrop-shaped bowl chased with a scene of the Virgin and Child and topped by a finial of Saint James the Greater, who holds a pilgrim's staff prominently in his right hand.

G. Apostle/Saint Spoon - A Saint spoon with a pear-shaped bowl and a finial depicting Saint Simon the Zealot, who holds a saw and wears a round, flat ornamental disk atop his head. According to Christian lore, St. Simon traveled Persia with Saint Jude where both were martyred. Saint Simon was cut in half with a saw, hence why he is depicted with this tool.

H. Apostle/Saint Spoon - This Saint spoon features an oval bowl with the inscription "Senior Luncheon Deanery, June 4, 1918" which indicates that this piece once was a part of the collection at the former Deanery (where Canaday now stands). The stem is twisted and topped by a column and a finial figure representing Saint Andrew. Saint Andrew preached the Gospel in Russia and many other eastern countries and was later crucified in Patras after he converted the wife of Aegeus, the Pro-Consul. In his hand he holds a Saltire Cross.

Lower Shelf, Case 2

A. Coffee Spoons - This is a set of six after dinner coffee spoons dating from the early 20th century with chased and gilded bowls, featuring a scroll and shell motif, and a handle that tapers at the end and includes a medallion at the lower end.

B. Dish - A Sterling silver dish with openwork and a scalloped edge with three initials engraved in the center.

C. Tea Strainer - A silver tea strainer with a gold plated interior, three legs, a floral motif embossed around the top of the bowl rim, and a wooden baluster handle.

D. Spoon, Caddy - An English caddy spoon dating from the early 19th century with an oval bowl pierced in a sunburst and scroll design and a short tapered handle with chamfered corners. Spoon caddies were primarily used for removing and measuring dry tea from a tea caddy.

E. Spoon, Caddy - Another smaller example of an English caddy spoon dating from the late 18th century with a drop-shaped bowl and a chased Old English handle.

F. Dish - A sterling silver round dish with a beaded edge and engraved in the center with three initials.

G.Tiffany Tea Set - A six piece Sterling silver Tiffany & Co. Tea Set consisting of a tea pot, stand and lamp, a tea kettle, a two handle covered sugar bowl, waste bowl, and a cream jug, all in octagonal form. All pieces are engraved on the side with the initials "DSW" and have a harp form handle with ivory bands ornamenting the tea pot, stand and lamp, and tea kettle. The tea pot, tea kettle, lamp and stand, and sugar bowl are topped with a fluted finial.

H. Platter - A platter with a beaded edge and a cavetto chased design in geometric bands on the rim, with handles.


The majority of items on display are from the collection of Mary S. Rupert, Class of 1918; Margaret Hines McKenzie, Class of 1930; M. Carey Thomas (First Dean and Second President of the College).

Additional items have been contributed by Louisa C. Brown Class of 1901; Hilda W. Smith, Class of 1910; Olive Floyd, Class of 1922; Ann A. Sprague Brown, Class of 1944, and the Bryn Mawr College Dining Halls.

I would like to thank Tamara Johnston, Carol W. Campbell, Sarah Gettys, Molly Greenfield, Janet Monge, Ursula Spont, Will Bucher, and Danielle Kurin for all their help and support.

We would like to know what you think about this exhibition. Please email with your comments.

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