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After Work: A Sterling Occasion

...My mother adhered to some unwritten Southern rule that the only times to bring out the sterling silver was for dinner parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time it was lovingly tucked in burgundy flannel bags except for the years when the price of silver skyrocketed. Then my mother hid the silver in brown paper lunch bags behind the turkey-roasting pan on the top shelf in the pantry...

Dona Gibbs cannot bring herself to accept that sterling silver is for everyday use.

For lots more of Dona's gleaming words please click on After Work in the menu on his page.

“ Think of something romantic. Maybe something traditional. Perhaps combine the two. Hmmm, romantic past,” my copy chief mused, her head resting in her chin as she pushed the photograph of a silver spoon across the desk.

It was my first job as an advertising copywriter and I was to name a new silverware pattern. It was a fun assignment. A tough one, but fun nonetheless.

I started to work. The name was supposed to appeal to brides-to-be, the target group. I plundered my Southern roots, seeking the scent of magnolias, wanting to evoke swags of Spanish moss streaming from live oak trees and magical moonlight. I ran through plantation names. Fairfax Hall was one I submitted as I recall. It was a perfectly wonderful name. It was so perfect that it had already been taken. I then looked up rivers, lakes, stream and bayous. Towns and villages were considered and even roads and trails. Natchez Trace? Hmmm.

In the end, the new pattern was called Shenandoah. The name was the only one submitted by my boss. I had submitted an even hundred.

It was then I learned a very valuable lesson about being a boss and I learned even more about Southern geography -- and sterling silver.

Sterling silver flatware was all the rage from about 1840 up until 1940. Every middle class homemaker couldn’t get enough to put on her table. I recently read that in 1870 to 1920, the hey day of the festive table, there were more than 100 types of spoons: spoons for preserves, cream soups, teaspoons, sugar, marrow, and demitasse – the list goes on and on.

By the mid-1960s when I was writing about silver, it’s popularity as tableware had diminished. Sure, brides still picked their patterns and hoped for the generosity of relative and friends but stainless steel had trumped silver. It was less costly; stood up to the wear and tear of everyday dining better than sterling silver’s faintly less prestigious cousin, silver plate, and, best of all, didn’t need polishing.

Not wanting sales to slip further, silver companies tried their darndest to convince brides and brides-to-be that silver didn’t need to be babied.

“Those tiny scratches are what gives silver its character,” the ad copy purred. “It’s the prized patina that speaks of loving use and joyous occasions. The darkening of the scrolls and curves brings out the intricacies of the design.”

Efforts to get those new homemakers to trot out their sterling silver for everyday use fell right to the floor like a spoon in the hands of a two-year-old.

Darkening? Why they knew tarnish when they saw it. And they weren’t about to be convinced that the more they used their silver the more beautiful it would become.

Actually the silver companies did have a point. If those housewives had used their silver everyday, it would have developed a lustrous finish. And what’s more, silver that’s enjoyed everyday doesn’t have to be polished so often.

Old habits of thought die hard.

Case in point: me.

We have some lovely old sterling silver. At this point, unless I mangle it in the garbage disposal, there’s no way I’m going to wear it out, but I can’t bring myself to use it for everyday. Decades ago the silver company had even invited me to see how flatware is manufactured. And even as I saw spoons stamped out by the scores, I’ve never been able to put my “so precious and special” notions behind me.

Maybe I’ll blame my mother. Mothers are always handy to blame for one’s foibles.

My mother adhered to some unwritten Southern rule that the only times to bring out the sterling silver was for dinner parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time it was lovingly tucked in burgundy flannel bags except for the years when the price of silver skyrocketed. Then my mother hid the silver in brown paper lunch bags behind the turkey-roasting pan on the top shelf in the pantry.

“Your mom always kept the good silver up there,” one of my mother’s neighbors commented when I was clearing out her home of thirty years.

Some secret hiding spot that was.

Now I cosset what is my good silver in a flannel-lined tray in one drawer of the breakfront. In another drawer in a non-flannel protected heap is the everyday stuff.

And of course I only bring out the sterling silver for dinner parties and holidays. It’s too good to use.

Funny how little we value every day meals.

Ever-enthusiastic Husband recently went rooting around for a fork for dessert.

Before I could stop myself I yelled, “That’s the good silver. Use the other.”

That’s plain silly. Especially since he inherited that very same good silver from his mother, who if she were still around, would inform me that any meal with her son is, indeed, a sterling silver occasion.


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