"Sterling" is a term used to describe silver that meets a legal standard of 925 parts per thousand. A feature of formal dining in the 19th and early 20th centuries, butter knives were used to transfer butter from a central dish to individual plates. Butter knives can be easily identified by the shape of their blades, while silver examples should have a sterling silver mark.
- Skill level:
- Moderately Easy
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Identify a butter knife by its shape. Look for a comparatively blunt, wide, cutlass-shaped blade terminating in a rising point. Cheese knives share a similar distinctive form, but are usually thinner with a forked point and a serrated bottom edge.
Establish whether the butter knife is sterling silver by examining it for hallmarks. If you see the words "Sterling" or "Sterling silver," then the butter knife is definitely silver, and probably American with a date from before 1900 -- in other words, undoubtedly an antique. A numerical standard mark -- "925" --- as well as or instead of these marks would also suggest that the piece is American, but of 20th century vintage. For other marks, continue on to Step 3.
Look for an emblem of a lion walking sideways. This is the "lion passant," the silver standard mark of British silver. Silver from Great Britain also comes with date letter and assay office marks which will enable you to find out precisely when and where your butter knife was hallmarked -- in other words, whether or not it is antique. Other useful silver standard marks to look out for are the kokoshnik, a woman in a headdress, on Russian sterling and the Minerva, a classical female profile, on French examples.
Tips and warnings
- Many manufactures of silver-plated cutlery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave their wares spurious sets of hallmarks to increase the resemblance to genuine silver. Lurking among these made-up marks should be the telltale stamps "A1" and "E.P.", standing for best quality silver plate and "electroplated" respectively.
- If buying or selling a butter knife, bear in mind that the handle could well contain filler and therefore might have far less silver content than you expected.
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