Where did all the silver go?

I was visiting my parents recently, and, noticed a small square coaster-like thing, like what you might put under a bud vase. From it’s appearance I assumed it was some kind of bronze or brass, but then when I examined it I saw that it was tarnished sterling silver. And when I was in college (late 1970’s), a friend of mine owned a stemmed sterling silver cup, like a chalice, which was about the size of a large wineglass. The very name SILVERware indicates that it was once assumed that knives and forks were made out of that metal, and one of the things that makes me cringe is when that name is used for substitutes such as plastic.

All this got me thinking: It seems that people used to have real silver furnishings–teapots, SILVERware, little coaster things to put under bud vases, and so on. The list goes on:
my parents have a couple of golf trophies that my grandfather won in ancient times, and these are silver. Not pewter, and not plate, but silver.

So where did it all go? I realize, of course, that silver
left our pockets about 35 years ago when most governments stopped minting it, and that silver is now a great deal more expensive than it used to be. But wages and salaries have
gone up a lot since then as well. I can understand why silver would be somewhat rarer in household objects, but it seems to have totally vanished. You might find silver objects for sale on Rodeo Drive, but not in premium department stores like you used to.

Any ideas or comments?

Actually, silver isn’t much more expensive than it was 50 years ago. Here a silver website with a 50-year graph.

A rough calculation –

Silver in 1950 was $0.75/oz. in 1950, today it’s around $4.50. This is a 3.6% annual increase over 50 years, which isn’t much worse than the 3% average inflation over the same period.

If anyone has more accurate numbers, feel free to correct me :slight_smile:

I think it’s more a cultural thing- maybe people today would rather spend the extra money on a TV, DVD player, stereo, etc. than silverware, china, etc.


Ever try and clean a large set of silverware? What a pain. Real silver tarnishes and stains pretty easily. I think since most of us in these hard times have let our butlers go we don’t really have the time to keep up silver or brass objects much and the demand has diminished over time… BTW, silver jewlery seems to be making somewhat of a come back…

Dolphinboy’s right about silver jewelry. I think silver looks much better than platinum, though it lacks prestige because it’s so much cheaper.

I wonder if anybody has tried to come up with a non-tarnishing silver based alloy?

I have heard it said that silver does hold up better if you use and wash it on a regular basis. Obviously, too, you’d have to wash it right after using it. For holidays my mother would usually bring out the sterling, and if it had been put back in its box after the last use and wash, it was usually OK. In fact, we could probably have gotten away without polishing it.

Yes, I have cleaned silver service sets–huge ones that took hours and to get “just right.” Wow! What a pain! Now, here’s a surprise: first, some purists insist that this “patina” should be left undisturbed and used as is. Something along the vein that distressed antiques should not be retouched. Second, I’ve read a number of “experts” (whatever) say that this discoloration in no way hurts the silver. Seems cointerintuitive to this non-expert. I’ve always thought of it as a super-weak form of, well, rust. Not exactly like it, no, but something that isn’t good for the silver.

Yes, I have cleaned silver service sets–huge ones that took hours and to get “just right.” Wow! What a pain! Now, here’s a surprise: first, some purists insist that this “patina” should be left undisturbed and the silverware used as is. (Something along the vein that distressed antiques should not be retouched.) Second, I’ve read a number of “experts” (whatever) say that this discoloration in no way hurts the silver. Seems cointerintuitive to this non-expert. I’ve always thought of it as a super-weak form of, well, rust. Not exactly like it, no, but something that isn’t good for the silver.

While we’re on the subject, what exactly is silver tarnish?
For some reason I keep thinking it’s sulfide, but where wold the sulfur come from? I know sulfur will quickly oxidize silver, however.

The sulfur comes from foods likes eggs, the air, your breath, fingers, etc. It’s always around in trace amounts.

Rhodium plating is sometimes used to do just that. Purist that I am, I won’t make my silver jewellry like that, and i won’t buy it if I know it’s plated.

javaman, I believe that those items were more commonly known as flatware or utensils, or just knife, fork, and spoon. They didn’t get labeled silverware until the rich upper crust who could afford butlers and maids and servants and slaves and people who’s sole job was to rub the tarnish off the forks after every meal. Then those items (the beaucoups used in formal dinners) were actually made of silver for its shine and expense. The terminology caught on for whatever various reasons words get into the culture, and carried over to those of us who use steel instead of silver, and now even plastic. More correctly it should be “plastic dining utensils” or “plastic dining ware”, but the language often doesn’t make sense. Just look at the list of questions Cecil won’t answer, or Gallagher’s act.

So why do we not use nearly as much silver? Steel is cheaper, and much lower maintenance. Plastic is even cheaper, and even lower maintenance. Nobody is too formal anymore, where we want exquisite table settings for the ultra formal environment.

tsunamisurfer, I don’t know what the deal is with antique silver and wanting to leave it unpolished. I think it has some connection with the general attitude toward antiques to leave them with their original finishes and such. I don’t know why someone who wants a beautiful silver dinner set would want to display their set for a formal dinner with tarnish. The whole point of using the silver is for the beauty and austentation - which comes from polishing the chit out of it. However, the question of the tarnish hurting the silver is a different matter. While tarnish is an oxidation process, as is rust, the effects to different metals as they oxidize is very different. Rust on steel will continue to grow and eat through the metal, due to the reactive nature. However, aluminum has a similar oxidation process. It oxidizes very quickly in contact with air, but once a protective layer is formed, the oxidation stops. It will not rust through. I am not certain, but it sounds like the tarnish on silver is more along those lines - once it’s covered, it won’t progress.

I think silver tarnish is just silver rust, right? Silver Dioxide, or whatever chemical name we have for silver (I don’t remember; I’m no chemist.)

As for why it’s good to leave it and not remove it, well, it just is. It protects the untarnished silver beneath it. If you remove the tarnish, you remove minute amounts of the silver that have oxidized, leaving fresh silver to oxidize again. Repeat a couple hundred thousand times, and your silver spoons develop holes.

Obviously, clean it when you’re going to use it, but if it’s stored and out of site, don’t bother.

Actually I usually haven’t thought of it in terms of using silver flatware. But I always thought it would be kinda cool to have a silver tankard or beaker to drink from. Arising from which, can anyone comment on the potentially hazardous effects of using such a vessel? My wife thinks
it could cause silver poisoning.

WRT the difficulty of maintenance argument, what about silver plate? Everyone seems to have that, at least, but wouldn’t it be just as prone to tarnish?

Remember stainless steel came out? It looked like fresh polished silver & didnt tarnish. Spiffy.

Actually, rust consumes steel not because of its reactivity (iron oxide in paint actually protects steel from corrosion), but because it’s porous and flakes off and exposes fresh metal to be corroded. If rust were hard and stuck to the metal as tenaciously as aluminum oxide does, then corrosion in iron wouldn’t be much of a problem. Iron can in fact be protected from corrosion by alloying it with other metals, like chromium, that form oxides that stick to the surface. The reason a rusty spot on your car spreads if you don’t sand off the rust and repaint is that the iron oxide expands and flakes the paint off, exposing fresh metal to the elements.

A chemistry instructor wanders by…

Metallic silver is tarnished in air by reacting with oxygen and traces of hydogen sulfide (formed in nature primarily from decomposing vegetation). The black tarnish is indeed silver sulfide.

The reaction is:

4Ag (s) + 2H2S (g) + O2 (g) —> 2Ag2S (s) + 2H2O

(Sorry, I don’t know how to produce subscripts in this message board.)

Similar reactions occur if silver utensils are left in contact with sulfur-containing foods such as eggs or mustard.

That’s why most of the body panels on non-plastic cars are now galvanized (i.e., zinc-coated). It acts as a “sacrificial” metal in case it rusts. The rust won’t spread beyond the zinc. However, these same panels have about 4 spot-welds per foot (give or take) which has burned off the zinc, so, take good care of your paint!

Up until 1979 many families in the US had silver flatware, and silver tea services. These were primarily heirloom sets, added to for generations, and given as wedding presents, anniversary presents, and hope chest items, over many years. The sentimental value of the items was high, and the monetary value was mostly a matter of artisanship, and beauty.

Six months of commodities trading by brothers Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt changed all that. They tried to corner the market on silver. Two things happened. The Hunt brothers became billionaires, and the silver market fluctuated wildly. Unfortunately for the Hunt brothers, they had started the decade as multi-billionaires. Unfortunately for Grandma’s Tea Set, the melter’s market for sterling silver briefly reached prices ten times higher than it was in the previous decade.

In the year during which the market was rising huge amounts of silver was dumped into the market from private hands, much of it in old silver sets. The market did not last long, and now days, as noted above, silver prices are not all that much higher than they were prior to the Hunt’s intervention. However, it might be easy to unmake a fortune, but it is hard to unmelt a teapot, or soupspoon. It will probably never be as common to see silver service in the middle class homes of the US as it was in the sixties.

So, that’s why you don’t see much silver now days. Silversmithing is not a common skill, in our modern world, and new examples of silver service are expensive for more reasons than metal market values. In addition, alternate uses for the metal make it less attractive to maintain the large stocks of silver needed for that trade. Oddly enough it is also little known just how toxic the art of silversmithing is. All those facts make silverware more expensive, and less attractive to the current marketplace.


Silver tarnishing does indeed protect the surface beneath. Iron and steel are different in that their corrosion will expose more metal to be corroded. Tin, brass, and silver form a nice protective shell.

We were one of those families, and fortunately still are, although the set hasn’t been added to in a long while.

How was silversmithing poisonous? Also, I’m just old enough to remember actually handling silver coins, and how a silver residue would rub off on your finger tips. If you handled
silver quarters and dimes for any length of time, you’d notice a silvery odor coming off your fingertips, which reminded you of the same sort of odor that accompanied silver polishing. Did anyone ever get silver poisoning from handling silver? How about cashiers and bank tellers? I know silver is, or was, sometimes taken internally for medicinal purposes and would sometime result in poisoning in that way.