When the Family Savings Was the Teapot

The title of this article is not a mistake. I do not mean that the family savings was kept in the teapot. I really do mean that the family savings WAS the teapot itself, but only if that teapot was made of silver. Part of the savings might also be the silver chocolate pot, the silver candlesticks or even the baby’s silver caudle cup or porringer. The common denominator is, of course, silver. However, gold was occasionally used for this same purpose, though much less frequently. Today, banks are nearly ubiquitous, and most of us would not consider keeping our savings on the dining room hutch or sideboard in the form of useful objects, but our ancestors, including quite a number of those who lived in the Regency, did exactly that.

When objects from tables to thimbles were a convenient method of protecting wealth …

Precious metals, in particular gold and silver, were used as currency from ancient times, and not always in the form of coins. The scarcity and durability of these metals made them a natural medium of exchange in any form from the time their ores were discovered and the pure metals smelted out. They were also an ideal material for the making of luxury items. Silver, specifically, was long considered a mystical element which was believed to have purifying powers. This is more than likely due to the fact that silver has antibacterial properties which would prevent water from becoming brackish and covered with scum if it was kept in a silver container. It was for this same reason that many sailors during the Regency, as they had for centuries before, put a silver coin or two into the water barrels aboard ship, in the belief the silver would keep the water fresher for a longer time. Real silver coins did.

Silver had been minted into coins since ancient times, but all these coins were made by hammering a metal coin blank between two dies in order to imprint the design onto the metal surface. Once these coins went into circulation, they were vulnerable to shaving and clipping, by which small amounts of silver were removed from the edge of the coin. Over time, as much as half of a coin might disappear. Clipping and shaving was difficult to detect in hammered coinage, which had irregular edges. It was not until the reign of Charles II that machine-made coins, which had milled edges, were introduced in England. Coins with milled edges were much more difficult to clip or shave due to the ridges along their edges. Any amount of silver removed from these milled coins would be immediately obvious.

For much of the seventeenth century, as you might imagine, most people had little faith in the face value of coins, regardless of their source. The silver itself was the only real value. There were no laws in the countries of Europe, or in the American colonies, which prohibited the defacing of coinage. There were also few banks, none with interest-bearing accounts, and those that did exist were usually patronized only by the very wealthy. Therefore, many people who had accumulated any significant amount of money in the form of silver coins or ingots took them to their local goldsmith. Smiths who worked in precious metals, whether gold or silver, were most often called goldsmiths since in most areas they had to be a member of the local goldsmith’s guild in order to practice their trade. These goldsmiths would melt down their client’s silver and make it into an object, usually something beautiful, but useful, such as a teapot, a punch bowl, or a tankard.

There were a number of advantages to converting a bunch of silver coins or ingots into a silver object. First and foremost was security. Silver coins were just a pile of metal circles, silver ingots were just bars of metal, with no way to identify their owner if either should be stolen. But when a goldsmith made a silver piece for a client, they were required by law to stamp that piece with their maker’s mark and with a symbol of the quality of the silver which was used to make it. Most clients would also have their family coat-of-arms or crest, if they had one, engraved on the piece. If they did not have a coat-of-arms or a crest, they would usually have an ornate cypher of their entwined initials engraved somewhere on the piece. The combination of all these markings made it fairly easy to identify the finished object, should it be stolen. In fact, since each object was unique, the larger pieces were much less likely to be stolen, particularly in small communities, where the majority of those who lived there would instantly recognize the object. Thus, it would be nearly impossible to dispose of such an object within that community, or even beyond it, depending upon the marks it bore.

Another advantage of these silver objects was that they could be used. Instead of trying to hide a hoard of silver coins or ingots somewhere in their homes which served no useful purpose, the owners of these silver objects could make use of them. With silver’s reputation for purification properties, many of these silver vessels were made to contain food or drink. Infants were often given a silver porringer as a Christening or first birthday gift. Such gifts served at least two purposes. First, a silver porringer was vessel from which the baby could be fed which it was believed would keep their food pure. Secondly, the silver in the porringer was rather like a savings bond or a cash gift which is often given to babies today, a nest egg for their future. Silver teapots, coffee or chocolate pots, punch bowls and tankards were all elegant vessels which could be used to serve beverages. Not only would these decorative silver vessels keep their liquid contents pure, they would also impress the guests who enjoyed the beverages served from them.

For those who held Puritan beliefs, there was yet another advantage to having their surplus silver converted into decorative and useful objects which they could display in their homes. Most of the Puritan sects believed that they were successful and were able to accumulate wealth only if God wanted them to do so. And those Puritans who owned expensive and valuable objects made a point of displaying them in their homes to be sure everyone who visited them was aware that they enjoyed the favor of God. In fact, many Puritans believed that they were obliged to display their wealth not only to show their neighbors that they had been so blessed, but also as a form of thanksgiving to the God who had bestowed that very wealth upon them.

But it was not just those of the burgeoning middle classes who chose to convert their silver coins and ingots into useful and decorative objects. So too did the gentry and the aristocracy, and even some kings. Vast amounts of silver began flowing into France in the seventeenth century when the French began to fully exploit their mines in South America. King Louis XIV helped himself to a significant portion of that silver, from which he had made an extensive array of silver objects to enrich the most important rooms in his new Palace of Versailles. But Louis XIV, the Sun King, was not satisfied with mere teapots and tankards. He had at least two thousand solid silver objects made, among which were large mirrors framed in silver, tables, benches, huge silver chandeliers, silver vases and statues. In both the king’s and the queen’s bedrooms, the area around the beds were separated from the rest of the room by an ornate silver balustrade, surmounted by more than a dozen large silver candelabra. Louis XIV’s personal writing desk was encrusted with silver and embellished with a large diamond at each corner and another large diamond was set as the central drawer pull. His throne was, of course, also made of solid silver and was large, ornate and by all reports, very impressive. Perhaps even more extravagantly, the king had at least a hundred large silver tubs made in which stood some of the exotic orange trees which were cultivated in his famous Orangery.

For King Louis XIV, this lavish use of silver was not only an elite and elegant form of embellishment for his grand palace, it was also a very conspicuous display of his wealth and power. Though it seems wasteful to those of us living in the twenty-first century to tie up what was essentially capital in a manner which bore no interest, or any other return on investment, it made perfect sense to the King of France. At that time, the French, in particular, were distrustful of banks, in part because their old rival and sometime enemy, the English, were developing an extensive and sophisticated banking system. Nevertheless, Louis did take advantage of his "investment" in silver furnishings at Versailles. In 1689, when he was short of cash to pay his army and navy during one of his many wars, he had his solid silver furnishings sent to the mint, melted down and made into coins. Louis might have realized a substantially higher return if he had sold off his solid silver furniture, because the craftsmanship which went into making those pieces and the fact that they were the property of the King of France significantly increased their value. However, there were two reasons he was unwilling to do that. Sending the pieces to the mint for coinage was much faster. Finding a buyer for those very luxurious items would have taken some time. More importantly, because the furnishings were unique and known to belong to the king, selling them would have been symbolic of selling his own kingly power. Rather than do that, Louis XIV chose to have his silver furnishings melted down and made into coins.

By the end of the seventeenth century, all coins minted in England, and in most other European countries, had milled edges. This essentially eliminated the clipping and shaving of coins, yet there were still people who remained dubious of the value of coins in circulation. Though the banking system in England continued to develop and expand through the eighteenth century and right through the decade of the Regency, there were some people who were mistrustful of those institutions. For these people, it still made sense to send their surplus silver off to their goldsmith to have it melted down and made into useful and decorative objects which they could keep safely at home. And, by the Regency, there were many families who were in possession of silver objects which had been commissioned by previous generations of their families to protect the family fortunes. As they had been from the seventeenth century, these silver pieces were both useful and decorative status symbols and a reasonably secure means to store accumulated wealth.

Unlike King Louis XIV, owners of these silver objects seldom had to melt them down to realize their value. In most cases, a silver piece made by a reputable goldsmith was more valuable than the value of the silver it contained. Instead, owners could sell their silver item outright, pawn it, or put it up as collateral for a loan. There were, however, instances when family silver was melted down. This usually occurred when silver pieces in a more modern style were wanted. It was much less expensive to send old-fashioned silver objects to the goldsmith to be melted down and remade into the more fashionable new pieces. It is for this reason that old silver objects are now more scarce than silver pieces from later centuries. It is interesting to note that scholars estimate that by 1828, barely ten percent of the silver in use in Europe was in the form of coins. The bulk of that silver was to be found in the form of luxury objects.

By the Regency, most wealthy and well-educated people were depositing their money in a bank and/or investing it in "the funds." So were many of those in the middle classes, but not all. There were still a few people who felt more secure converting their surplus wealth into tangible, usually silver, objects over which they felt they could exert the most control. Even those with only a small amount of surplus money might convert it into silver objects. If a tea or chocolate pot required too much silver, a goldsmith’s client might have a small bowl or drinking cup made. If they did not have enough silver for such a vessel, they might choose to have a silver tableware set made, or, in some cases, just a silver spoon. Some professional and trades-people had items emblematic of their work made in silver. For example, it is known that some seamstresses, dressmakers and milliners had silver, or occasionally gold, thimbles made to secure their savings.

The perception of silver and gold objects as essentially liquid assets might make for some interesting situations in a Regency novel. Perhaps the heroine is in desperate need of funds, and she has a porringer or caudle cup which had been given to her as a Christening gift by a beloved relative who has since passed away. Will she sell her silver piece, pawn it, or keep it despite her situation, because of her deep attachment to the giver? Or, might the hero be desperately in need of funds after he inherits the very run-down family estate, only to learn from an elderly relative or ancient retainer that his father, or grandfather, had secretly had the family silver blackened and stored in the attic or cellar in order to keep it out of the hands of a grasping second wife? What a surprise, and a relief, for him to discover that all that old "pewter-ware" is a magnificent set of silver. On the other hand, perhaps a social-climbing second wife secretly schemes to have all of the family silver sent to the goldsmith to be melted down for a new silver service, despite her knowledge of the ramshackle family’s fondness for the old pieces. Mayhap an elderly dressmaker bequeaths all her worldly goods to her faithful young assistant. Imagine that young lady’s surprise to find a number of gold and/or silver thimbles included in what she expected to be a few bolts of cloth and some well-used sewing implements. Dear Regency Authors, how might you employ the silver-as-savings tradition in one of your stories?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to When the Family Savings Was the Teapot

  1. Thank you, Kathryn, for another treat. I remember seeing some of the few surviving pieces of silver furniture. There are kept at Knole House in Sevenoaks, England. There used to be more silver furniture, but it was indeed melted down in hard times. Here is a link to the collection: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/search/highlights/Knole,-Kent-%28Accredited-Museum%29/1
    For the use of silver objects in a novel, let’s put in some crime. As the silver objects of the aristocracy and royals were unique, why not having a fence – the troubled, slightly scatterbrained father of the heroine – getting into trouble for having such a recognizable piece in his store. It seems that he had bought it from a thief, but in fact, it was smuggled in his house as a decoy. This duplicity was committed by a handsome bow street runner working undercover to root out crime in London. The heroine finds out about his double-cross, but can’t proof it. She wants to free her father and so tries everything to make that bow street runner withdraw his charges. But he is cold-hearted and scorns her publicly. Just then, a young lawyer passes by. He comes to her defense. Learning about her worries, he – seemingly stiff, arrogant and a bit faint-hearted when it comes to real action – decides to help her. Together, they discover a crime much worse, involving the royal silver, the royal household managers, some corrupt magistrates and a French spy…. . Can they prevent the crime and free the heroine’s father?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for the link to the Knole House collections. I had forgotten about their silver furniture, which is quite magnificent.

      Your scenario is quite interesting, and has promise for a Regency story. Though, truth be told, I prefer more romance than crime in my Regency romances. But I do understand there are many who do enjoy crime/thriller Regencies.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. I’m afraid my plot bunny is more mundane and I’m thinking of using silver coins to preserve water when I get around to the sequel of my Napoleonic Naval adventure….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what little I was able to find on this topic, real silver coins, or in fact, any piece of silver, would only be able to keep the water from turning brackish for a couple of weeks to a month longer than water without the addition of silver. But that could still make the difference if any source of fresh water was a week or more out.

      =^..^=

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 10-17-13 - Random Bits of Fascination

  4. Summer says:

    It sounds as though a family’s wealth was somewhat transparent, such that a newcomer could make an assessment:

    “The trouble is, I don’t want to [amputate a patient’s leg], not with all the labor we’ve invested in Garrett and the considerable suffering he’s endured himself. I don’t want to lame the eldest son of an aging father whose next brother is as young as Daniel, in a family with such a slim complement of servants and pewter candlesticks.”

    Obviously the exact objects and materials by which to establish the class of the family in question would need further reading…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Theoretically, it might be possible to estimate a family’s wealth, but it would be quite difficult in practice, for a number of reasons. The people who could afford items of silver or gold typically had income from land and/or commerce, which besides not being public, would tend to fluctuate with the market. Some people might choose to put as much of their wealth as possible into expensive precious metal items they could display in their homes. Even so, the cash value of those items would also fluctuate with the prices of silver and gold. And there were also some who might not choose to display their more valuable possessions in their public rooms, where people outside the family might see them. Everyone had their own views on such practices.

      Those who had fluid wealth might choose to have fine silver items made for their homes, both as a means to store that wealth more securely and as a way to embellish their homes. There were also those who might decorate their homes with such objects to give people the impression they were affluent, when in fact they were not. These concepts can be used in any number of ways in a Regency story.

      Regards,

      Kat

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