Tea was originally boiled as leaves in water. It was strained as it was placed in the cup, therefore it is believed that the tea strainer actually came before the tea ball or infuser. Many today still prefer the straining method of making tea – allowing the leaves to boil freely in the water and then straining them out before drinking. This allows the oils and flavors of the tea to interact better with the water, releasing more of the flavor. A tea strainer is NOT meant to sit loose tea in and then pour hot water through. This wouldn’t allow the tea enough time to steep and fully release its flavors. Miss Manners would never approve. The result is a weak, poor example of tea and a waste of the full flavors of some of the more intense teas.
Tea Ball vs Tea Infuser
One common misconception is that there is a difference between a tea ball and a tea infuser. In fact, a tea ball is simply a ball or figural shaped infuser. The definition of to infuse is to to steep or soak without boiling in order to extract soluble elements or active principles. Therefore, any item used to actually soak tea in a cup of hot water is an infuser – be it a tea ball or a contemporary tea bag or a pierced tea spoon or screen.
Most tea infusers and strainers at the time they were made came with some type of a base on which to let the sodden tea drain. Purchasing a tea infuser or strainer without the base certainly decreases the value, but many beautiful strainers and infusers without the base still have significant value.
The Open Sugar Bowl
Another common misconception one often sees on sites like E bay is the so called open sugar bowl”. Once again, Miss Manners would cringe at the description. A proper tea service includes at least five elements. 1) The Tray 2) The Teapot 3) The Sugar Bowl (ALWAYS COVERED) 4) The Creamer and 5) The Waste Bowl. What is often referred to as an open sugar bowl is in fact a waste bowl – a bowl that was used to dump the used tea leaves in the strainer into so that one could pour another cup of tea. A proper tea service would always have a waste bowl. Back in days when homes were poorly heated and damp, one would never keep a valuable commodity like sugar in an open container.
Evaluting Silver Content
More misconceptions come in the descriptions provided by many sellers. You will see people saying things like … I think it’s sterling and English but it isn’t marked. The fact is if it isn’t marked, it can be neither. Countries like England and France had Hallmark Systems in place. Items had to be tested and assayed before they could be stamped and sold. A proper English Hallmark consists of a series of letters and symbols indicating that the item was brought to an assay house, tested and duty was paid. France and other countries also used a similar system. It is fairly simple to look up a hallmark and date a piece of silver. After 1890. Laws were passed in the US that required Country of Origin to be stamped on an item, so if an item says England, it is most likely post 1890. If it says Made in England it after 1914 when the words Made In were added by law.
The only way to truly know if an item is sterling silver is to have it tested. This requires scratching the item in an unobtrusive place to get to the metal beneath the surface. Then a drop of acid is placed on the scratch and the results can be determined immediately. Testing kits for gold and silver are fairly inexpensive and available at jewelers supply houses. If you are selling items and wish to avoid litigation when you claim something to be silver that later turns out not to be, a kit is the best way to go. You must always remember to test by scratching first, because the material on the surface may very well be silver, but the material beneath may not be. IF YOU ARE BUYING A SILVER ITEM, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO ASK IF IT WAS TESTED AND WHAT TEST WAS PERFORMED.
Another good idea when buying silver is to carry a magnet with you. If it sticks, it isn’t silver, it’s stainless steel. However, silverplate may also not stick to a magnet, so further testing is needed.
My late husband, a watch expert and antique dealer claimed he could smell silverplate by rubbing the metal and smelling for copper or brass—both of which have distinctive smells. I, however, rely on more conventional methods.
1) Examine the markings. However please be aware that stamps that say sterling, 14k etc can be purchased from jewelers supply houses and many an unscrupulous dealer has stamped sterling on items that are not.
2) Look for signs of wear at places where wear would be most likely expected – on handles, where lids repeatedly opened and closed, etc. If you see any gold color showing through, it’s likely brass underneath, a more orangey color indicates copper. However, remember, too that many items involving food were goldwashed inside because people felt gold was purer than silver. The truth is, unless it’s goldwashed with 24k, sterling or .925 silver is purer than 14 or 18k gold.
Many items are marked EPNS and people are unsure of that that means. It actually stands for Electro Plated Nickel Silver. Nickel silver actually has NO silver in it whatsoever. It is a blend of nickel, copper and zinc with sometimes a bit of tin lead or cadmium. This was commonly used in silverplate, because when the silverplate wears down, the material underneath still has a silvery color. It is stronger than white metal or spelter, which was often bronze plated to give the appearance of pure bronze in statuary, etc. (Spelter can be tested on a bronze piece by scratching the bottom. If it’s white underneath, it’s not bronze but spelter)
There are actually two types of plating. One is electroplating. The first patents for electroplating were issued in 1840. Electroplating actually uses electrical current to transfer a very thin layer of precious metal from a sheet of pure metal to the item being plated.
The second type of plating is Sheffield plating – where a double sandwich of sterling is fused to an interior of copper. If the item didn’t have a visible interior, only one sheet of silver was used. Sheffield plate has FAR more silver in it than electroplating does which is why it was more expensive. Sheffield plate hollowware like candlesticks and teapots always have a visible seam. If there is no seam, either the piece has been replated and the seam covered up or the piece was not Sheffield Plate to begin with. Because Sheffield Plate uses more silver, older pieces often show less wear than electroplated pieces.
Sterling silver is 92.5 pure silver and 7.5% copper or other base metals.
Fine silver is 99.9% silver or better. However it is very soft, dents and scratches easily.
Coin silver is 90% silver and 10% copper.
Britannia Silver is is purer than sterling, at least 95.84% silver and up to 4.16% copper. Its marks were Britannia and a lion's head in profile.
German silver is usually marked .800 meaning it is 80% silver and 20% base metals.
Mexican silver is 95% silver and 5% base metals.
One last thing should be mentioned here. Concerning polishing silver items. Since silver is a soft metal, harsh and rough polishing will often result in destroying the item. If the item is plated, it will result in removing more plating. If it is Sterling or higher, it will result in scratches. It is the base metal – usually the copper – that actually tarnishes, not the silver. A gentle polishing with a gentle silver polish and a soft cloth is generally all that is needed. Some patina is desired in old pieces. Aim to only polish the high points – leave the depths of the piece darker to create contrast and beauty and maintain the look of age. If the piece is severely scratched or badly tarnished, a restorer can polish it with a wheel. Don’t try it yourself at home. Old items can also be replated and a patina can be added to restore its beauty. It can be costly, so determine how valuable the piece is to you. The idea of restoring is NOT to make something look new again. Avoid those silver dips that remove all tarnish and give that like new appearance. And by all means, never never never touch silver with toothpaste. It is abrasive and meant for your teeth, not your grandmother’s silver.