Something old


January 3, 2016 by auntkatefirmin

One of the motifs of Kate’s correspondence with the Firmin cousins is the question – is there anything I can send you? By 1948 the US no longer rationed goods, but the English cousins were still limited in their choice of food and textiles, allowing Kate to send parcels with items that were difficult to obtain in England. In order to reciprocate, the cousins sent what they could: stamps, magazines, picture postcards, family photos and a few other items including a spoon and a fork that had belonged to their grandparents.

Firmin family fork and spoon in modified thread, shell, fiddle pattern.

The Firmin family fork and spoon sent to Aunt Kate by Amy Baynham Summers.

The fork and the spoon probably were purchased at different times. While they appear at first glance to be the same pattern, there are differences in the details. Happily, the hallmarks on the back provide more clues.

sovereign profile, "S", leopard face for London, lion, "JW"

Hallmarks from the Firmin fork.

On the fork there is a profile of a female sovereign facing left, no doubt Queen Victoria, to indicate that the appropriate duties were paid, next is the letter S indicating this piece was made in 1853, followed by something that rather looks (to me) like a skull and crossbones but is in reality the face of a leopard indicating the fork was made in London, followed by a lion passant guardant to show the silver content as sterling.

As best as I can tell, the silversmith, John James Whiting, was in business from about 1833 to 1863. An 1856 directory listing under “silver spoon and fork makers” gives his address as 107 Bunhill Row – just around the corner from Bunhill Fields. In 1853, the Firmin family was living in Bath but might easily have purchased the silver in London. There is not enough information to know if they were adding to a set of flatware they started at their marriage in 1844 or if they were now affluent enough to start a set of sterling dinnerware.

Marks on Firmin spoon.

The spoon is not as weighty as the fork, does not have the Britannia standard marking – it is silver plated. Technically it is  “marked,” not “hallmarked,” as no guild hall approved the marks. The marks are tricky to interpret but start with a capital A, with perhaps a version of the London leopard that appears to be followed an ampersand, letters that might be C o in a rectangle, the letter K in a diamond and what could be K&O under a crown in a shield. Marks for silver plate were not controlled in the same way as for sterling silver so the identity of the manufacturer cannot be found as easily and the date of manufacture is not marked.

The fork and spoon appear to be a variation of a style that was popular for an extended period and incorporated the shell motif, a linear “thread” edging  (as opposed to a beaded or other edging) and a narrowed “fiddle” waist – the Firmin pieces do not include a pronounced fiddle waist. The long popularity of the style allowed the Firmins to add pieces as they could afford to do so – it would be interesting to know if they started with the plate, then added sterling later. While makers didn’t use pattern names in quite the same way that manufacturers do now, a search of “shell, thread, fiddle” will show that flatware in a similar style is still being produced for sale.

Ornate "GF" engraved on back of fork.

Engraving “GF” on back of fork.

Engraved "B" on spoon.

Front of spoon with “B” for Baynham.

The fork is engraved “GF” for George Firmin on the back. The fork and the spoon are engraved with a “B” for Baynham on the front. Amy’s mother Kate did not marry until 1880, by which time both of her parents had passed away. I do not know how many pieces of flatware were originally part of the Firmin set or how the pieces were distributed amongst the children after the death of their mother in 1875. It is possible that the spoon was purchased later to fill out the pieces that were given to Kate and later passed on to Amy.

From other evidence, including photos, it is clear that despite any ups and downs the Firmins experienced periods of prosperity in which they indulged in purchases to display their affluence, such as the sterling flatware. No doubt they enjoyed owning nice jewelry, attractive clothing, and no doubt other pieces that added comfort and style to their lives.

Thank you Amy for sharing!

PS: Photo of a ladle, from 1852, also by John James Whiting in the same style.


2 thoughts on “Something old

  1. Peter Firmin says:

    I would be very interested in any further photographs and information on this branch of the Firmin family.

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