When I was asking for blog post/theme suggestions back in March, one of my readers suggested sharing some of my collections. I have done that in the past, posting about ironstone and other things that catch my eye, but it’s been a while since I wrote a post specifically sharing about one of my collections and the reason behind it. In today’s post, I’m going to share about my affinity for vintage and antique flatware specifically sets and pieces from the mid-1800’s/Civil War era.
I am pretty sure my love of flatware started with Bakelite about 10-12 years ago. I remember seeing this pretty flatware with creamy handles in some of my favorite magazines and I started to keep an eye out for it when I visited antique shops and markets. When I was first looking for it, it didn’t seem to be very plentiful and, when it did surface, it was out of my budget to buy. Most sets I came across were around $100.
I finally splurged on a beautiful old set of Bakelite flatware for $60 and it was one of my favorite things. I have used pieces from that set in many photo shoots over the years. I’m not sure what changed, if it was my luck or the market, but when I started selling antiques, I found loads of Bakelite flatware at great prices, so I snapped it up.
I kept some of my favorite pieces (photographed below), but I sold a lot, too. The ones in the jar above were all headed to the Lucketts Spring Market.
As I was hunting for flatware, I began to notice and buy pieces that were Civil War era. These pieces are usually made of wood or bone mixed with pewter inlay. The forks typically have 3-4 tynes and the knives are flat and broad. A typical set, in my experience, just includes forks and knives. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a spoon in this style, even though I know spoons were a typical utensil used in the Civil War era.
Most of the antiques I purchase have at least one practical purpose other than looking pretty. These really don’t. I just love them. I admire their craftsmanship, their humble beauty, and it makes me feel like I’m keeping a part of history. These items aren’t fancy, valuable, or particularly sought after. These are an everyday piece of someone’s household from the Civil War era (the mid-1800s!) and I find something interesting in that. Imagine how many dinners these pieces have seen. How many fingers have been wrapped around these handles?
The other thing I love is the inlay designs in the handles. These aren’t fancy Sterling silver knives and forks with ornate reliefs. They are humble and even a little clunky. But, someone still took the time to create a simple inlay design and cut the bone handles to fit perfectly around that design. That is a detail that seems unimportant when getting food on the table or washing clothes very hard work. Life was precarious with diseases, lost crops, hard labor, and war. Why take the time to carve little 8s and circles and crosses in the handles?
I don’t know that answer from a historical perspective, but I do know it from a human one. We crave beauty. We are creative beings. Sometimes things just spill out of us and they need a place to land and someone’s creativity and craftsmanship landed on the handles of these Civil War-ear utensil handles.
I see that and it speaks to me in a way that I can’t fully articulate.
Things are just things. I would hope that if ever my home was destroyed by fire or flood that I would be able to still say that and mean it to my core. But things are special because of the people who designed them, made them, used them, fixed them, cared for them, and passed them down. We appreciate the creation because of the creator.
I bet you never thought I could get so philosophical and deep about flatware! But, that’s why I love antiques. That’s why I love good books and movies. That’s why I love good people. Because I love a good story, even if it’s one I don’t fully know or can only guess at.
So, they are one of my more impractical collections in my home. When I bought home a couple of sets from my shopping trip in PA, Jeff just said, “Oh, good. I was worried we didn’t have enough of those.” I don’t make any defense for them. They are, indeed, impractical and simply leaning up in a crock, jar, sugar bowl, or ironstone mold for my own delight. We could use some of the sets that are in good condition, but we rarely do.
But, as I shared recently, our homes shouldn’t be full of bargains or things that are simply practical. Our homes should be filled with favorites. They should be filled with things that delight us, make us smile, bring back fond memories, or make us want to read more, learn more, grow more, travel more. These Civil War-era utensils, for whatever reasons, are one of my favorites. And it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.
If Civil War-era utensils speak to you as well, I would suggest looking at local antique stores where the prices might be better. I bought two beautiful sets when I was in PA, both with 12 pieces each, and both were around $35. When looking for things like flatware, always look in glass displays and open random boxes. I have found some amazing antique flatware in ratty cases and boxes for a great price and they were likely overlooked because other people didn’t open the box.
You can find some good deals on Etsy now and then, but some of the pieces are quite pricey. There are some lovely bone, French ivory, and Bakelite flatware sets and pieces for great prices, though. I picked a few of my favorites below…