An American Invention
Ten years ago I discovered the American Victorian figural silverplate napkin ring. I came across one on eBay. Some of the ornate figural rings can sell for upwards of $600 on eBay. Then I made a point to look for them in antique stores, estate sales, flea markets, and auctions. They are very rare and not that easy to find. Then I found this lovely one featured here to the left. This one is made by Reed & Barton approximately 1880. This figure is considered to be a Kate Greenaway child. More about the artist later. You can see that the detail is remarkable. The silver shows a lovely patina from natural ware from handling. The child's hand is resting naturally on the ring.
Pieces like this one are hard to resist when they are authentic and in good condition. After finding two more and purchasing one that was not authentic (not by choice) I decided to do some research. I learned that there is very little out there on this subject.
I am really proud to say that this is an American invention. These wonderfully fun napkin rings were created originally for children so they could easily roll their napkin and place it in the holder. The charm of these figural rings not only delighted the children from the day but adults also found them charming. Dining was an important and gracious experience in American upper middle class life. Silver plate table articles were created in abundance. At each place setting there must be a napkin ring. The charm was that no two designs were necessarily alike. Designs with figural cherubs, people, animals, plants, butterflies, and rings on wheels were just a sample of rings created. These became popular gift items during this era. Many rings were engraved with initials or messages.
Some rings became very ornate and complex. Companies also attached open salts, salt and pepper set, butter pats and bud vases to some of the wheeled varieties. To find one complete, is very rare, since parts were easily lost over the years.
America in the Late 1800's
Look for the Manufactures Mark
The image shown here is a page that I photographed from the 1880 Reed and Barton catalog.
During the height of popularity, between 1886 to 1888, six companies in the Meriden, Connecticut area offered eighty-two designs.
The standard way to produce a ring was to work with a base britannia metal, an alloy of tin, antimony, copper, and zinc. The metal never contained lead, which made this different from pewter. The ring is then placed in an electroplating bath. This bath applied the silver to the form. The terms "quadruple plate" and "triple plate" imply the amount of time the form was in contact with the silver application.
The makers mark identified the manufacturer of the piece. In addition to the makers mark or trademark, a number was stamped into the metal. This number corresponded to the number in the company's catalog. This number remained the entire time the napkin ring was in production. These markings can be found almost anywhere on the pieces. The most common spot for the marking is on the base. On wheeled rings, each wheel is commonly marked. There have been rings made without bases and these were left unmarked.
The silver firms of the day, sold parts of napkin rings among themselves, which each then were stamped with their own trademark. It is not uncommon to find the same figure with different manufacture marks or with different style rings. Some companies did not catalog all or part of their figurals. Some had only numbers, others had only trade marks. When a figural became very popular, many different companies produced them. Some companies would buy up the rings and then stamp their own name on the bottom.
James W. Tufts, a company of Boston, Mass., was well known for the napkin ring designs of the day and sold parts to other silversmith companies. All their rings are marked and numbered. The numbers are within 1400-1699.
The Most Sought After Napkin Rings - The Double Figure Kate Greenaway Rings
During the mid to late 1800's an artist by the name of Kate Greenaway emerged as a beloved artist for children and adults alike. She was copied by other artists and especially by the silversmiths of the day. In fact, I once read where Kate herself went into a bookstore and overheard a lady ask the sales clerk where the Kate Greenaway books were. The clerk took the lady to an area of books and when the lady asked are all these by Kate Greenaway the clerk assured her that they were. Kate was near enough to see that not one of them was hers but did not disclose her identity.
Kate Greenaway's art captured the color and form of childhood. Her work was the pioneer among picture books. The charm of her work was to capture children in natural settings, in gardens, villages, farms and London streets.
"There are not any very good children's books about just now that I have seen. The rage for copying mine seems to be over, so I suppose someone will soon step to the front with something new.
— Kate wrote this in a letter to Ruskin, a good friend, in the early 1900's.
How can A Napkin Ring Be Faked? - Ways to Make Reproductions, "Put-Togethers", Re-castings, New and Never Made Before Designs
There are generally four types of problems found with these rings on the market. All the rings in this photo are not considered authentic. During the past twenty years several companies in the U.S., Japan, have been marketing reproductions. One such case is the Rodan Company, of Marlboro, New York. In the 1980s they collected napkin rings for years and then made reproductions. The owner Daniel Rosa, says he limits the production to 300 of each design. He uses different parts of old and new designs to create new items. These pieces are not marked.
Occasionally, American Victorian silverplate hollowware had an elevated "button" on the base, on which the manufacturer's mark and catalog number were imprinted. These buttons were not used for napkin rings but can be found on fakes today. These buttons can be removed from another piece and then soldered onto the base of what we call a "put-together".
A very clever way to recreate a napkin ring is to take a figure from another item and combine it with a ring. Look at this photo and you can see how unnatural the female figure looks standing next to the ring. All authentic pieces engage the figures with the ring as a comprehensive piece.
Reed & Barton in the 70's made a beautiful box display of figural napkin rings. These were reproductions of some of the most popular design from the era. They are splendid but obviously new looking. We only have catalogs from the past and resurfacing napkin rings from estate sales to aid us in learning what is real and what is faked.
The "Put-Togethers" - It's all about the monetary value.
"Put-togethers" are the most offensive on the market. The method is simple. Take a cute figural piece, add a silverplate napkin ring, solder together, and voila a figural napkin ring. Well, that really is simplistic but people will do this and go even further. The worst part is that these fakes are being sold as "authentic" pieces in the hundreds of dollars range.
The image here is an example of a Tufts Victorian lady. The line drawing is from the Tuffs catalog with the lady holding a toothpick cup. The photo shows the same woman, and frame except a ring is in place of the cup. You can see that it is not original to the piece because her outstretched hands look out of place. The big difference is that the napkin ring will bring a higher price than the toothpick holder but only because the buyer is not aware of the switch out.
Even Ebay Can Feature a Fake Napkin Ring, But Great Finds Can Happen too. - What to look for?
eBay is a fantastic source for these napkin rings, but you still have to be careful. Sometimes fakes can show up on eBay so you need to know the authentics from the fakes. If you know what to look for you can win a fantastic authentic and rare piece. Hopefully, this lens can help you make a good purchase.
Be sure to examine the photos very carefully. Especially train your eye to see where the silver is worn off and look for the markings on the bottom. One very important point to note; does the figure look naturally posed with the ring?
Fakes Made to Look Authentic - Sometimes hard to tell
The image here is from a 1970 newspaper trade article which I photographed and labeled to show as an example. The authors (Lillian Gottschalk & Sandra Whitson) had been researching these treasures and reported that the two pictured here, have never been made until recently (around 1970s). The ring with the cat, is the one I had unknowingly purchased. I have found that if you are earnestly trying to build an authentic collection it is necessary to have good references. After all, we can only go by what has been recorded and then look for the discrepancies.
Suggested Reference Books - Tools for the Collector
There is nothing more fun and splendid than American silver plate. American's were so innovated and clever during the Victorian Era. There was a great deal of interest in designs from histories past. Look at Egyptian Revival design, Aesthetic Era design, and you can see that a lot of care and attention went into the details and designs of each piece. It is very hard to find anything in this day and age that can rival the craftsmanship of this lost era.
I have enjoyed searching and finding beautiful pieces of American silver plate for a long time. Here are some of the best books I have come across that I would highly recommend.
What do You Think? - This is a page I photographed from an 1800's catalogue.
It is fun to know how well known these treasures are. Please take a moment and vote.
American Manufactures 1860's-1900
This is an accepted listing of manufactures from the Victorian Era gathered by antique historians as a reference to be used when identifying an authentic napkin ring;
Acme Silver Plate Co., Adelphi Silver Plate Co., American Silver Plate Co., Aurora Silver Co., M. Bowman Silver Plate Co.
R.A. Coon Silver Mfg. Co., Barbour Silver Co., Derby Silver Co., Edwards Silver Plate Co., Hall, Elton & Co.
Hartford Silver Plate Co., Holmes & Edwards Silver Plate Co., James W. Tufts Co. , Meriden-Britannia Co.
Meriden Silver Plate Co., Middletown Plate Co., New Haven Silver Plate Co., Pairpoint Mfg. Co., Pelton Bros. Silver Plate Co.
Philadelphia Plate Co., Racine Silver Co., Riverton Silver Co., Reed & Barton Silver Plate Co., Rockford Silver Plate Co.
Rogers & Bros. Plate Co., Rogers-Smith Co., St. Louis Silver Plate Co., Simpson, Hall & Miller, Simms Mfg. Co.
Southington, C. Co., Standard Silver Plate Co., Strickland & Co., Taunton Silver Plate Co., Van Bergh Plate Co., Webster Company,
West Silver Co., Wilcox Silver Plate Co., Wm Rogers Ltd., and Wm. J. Miller.
The best known and most influential silversmiths from this time is: James W. Tufts, Meriden B. and Meriden Silver Plate, Reed & Barton, Rogers & Bros., Wm Rogers, Rogers-Smith, Simpson, Hall & Miller, Webster, and Wilcox Silver. These silversmiths were very innovative with designs and manufacturing. The most distinctive feature of these silversmiths is their attention to silver plating over refined metals for the heaviest layers of silver coverage. Beyond their attention to to sharp details of features and patterns you can see how well the layers of silver have held up through time.
This is a comprehensive look at the manufactures of silver plate. If your pieces bare anyone of these names you are on the way to authenticating your silver plate.
Tips on Buying
How to Avoid the Fakes
Below is a list that I have compiled to help you in finding authentic napkin rings.
Buy only from dealers who will give you a written guarantee of authenticity, stating you purchased an American figural silverplated napkin ring, circa 1875-1895.
Ebay is a relatively safe place to purchase. Both eBay and Paypal protect the buyer and are against selling fakes.
Observe how silver wears and avoid all napkin rings with a uniform pewter-like grey finish.
Watch for fresh solder at the point of attachment of the napkin ring to the figural.
Look carefully for details of fine features on the figural, particularly the fingers. A faked ring will look sloppy.
Avoid purchasing if the manufacture's trademark is on an elevated button.
Most of the legitimate wheeled rings are marked; often marked on the wheel themselves.
Double-figured Kate Greenaway (an English author illustrator of the era) rings are among the rarest made. If a dealer
has a collection of them, question the validity!
Tuffs napkin rings must have catalog numbers between 1400-1699.
Make sure the rings and figures have the same patina. Beware of newly silvered rings!
This image shows how the trademark for my figural napkin ring looks. This is made by Reed and Barton and shows a catalog number.
I really like hearing from the reader. Please leave me a comment or two.
HEY DON'T WALK AWAY
CherishedTreasure on April 18, 2018:
I place napkins in them and put them on top of the placemat of choice. I am using a wooden round one right now and it works perfectly!
Gretchen on January 27, 2018:
I have several and I use them. But I have not found any info on where to place them. Above the plate or to the left of the plate. Do you know?
patricia on March 31, 2016:
i do have a collection of plate napkin rings i would like to sell, how do i go about doing this?
Linda on March 11, 2015:
My mother began collecting figural napkin rings at least 30 years ago. I love them, and I started watching for unusual pieces that she did not have in her collection, knowing that she particularly loves the children and Kate Greenaway napkin rings. Her collection, before she began giving pieces away to close friends and family, exceeded 150. She still has many, many rings. I alone have over 30. We use them at dinner parties, when hosting bridal or birthday celebrations and more. We plan to do a presentation to a group of ladies next week, and I found your concise overview a wonderful starting point. Thanks!
Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin on March 10, 2014:
I have not seen napkin rings like this before. Very interesting.
anonymous on July 15, 2013:
Hi all! I have a wheeled napkin ring that appears to be Wilcox with a parrot or parakeet. I don't see any markings on the wheels. I've searched the internet for another similar napkin ring but haven't seen anything like mine. How do I know if it's a genuine antique? Thanks in advance for your help!
katiecolette on March 15, 2013:
Hello, Rocket Squid Greeter here. Please delete the comment after you read it :) Great job on this lens. A couple suggestions for you. It's a good idea to credit all images on your lens, even if they are your own. Please see this forum thread: http://rocketsquids.squidoo.com/forums/topic/using...
Also, it's a good idea to answer questions that you see on your lens (like the question from Flo Warnock). It adds value to your lens. Keep up the great work!
anonymous on February 14, 2013:
Wow. I did not know this even existed. Nice
anonymous on January 30, 2013:
I just purchased a Victorian Silverplate Figural napkin ring Rogers & Bro child dog Kate Greenaway. After reading your article, I think I purchased a fake since it has a raised round button on the bottom. Your thoughts?
anonymous on January 29, 2013:
I started collecting in the 1960s and have a few very nice rings. Your article was extremely informative. Thanks for sharing.
audymay on November 12, 2012:
Great informative article, good pictures and information.
anonymous on October 15, 2012:
I have a napkin ring with a squirrel/rabbit attatched on the side. I want to sell it but I really don't know how old it is, if it is real and what it is worth. I do have pictures that I can send to you.
I would appreciate any information that you can give to me.
GenWatcher LM on September 19, 2012:
I recently sold a Meriden figural napkin holder on eBay and was very happy with the results. For those looking at these, good pictures are critical, so don't be afraid to ask the seller to show more!
anonymous on July 11, 2012:
Thank you so much for a truly informative article. It was quite helpful us me, and helps explain what the little "posts" and "fan" were hanging on our napkin ring (from your article, I'm assuming they the fan was for a butter pat, and the posts had tiny salt and pepper containers). It's certainly the best guess thus far. Thank you again!
JStarrB on June 04, 2012:
Great lens! Your information is fascinating.
Diane Cass from New York on April 04, 2012:
Fabulous, informative lens, with great pictures.
Tonie Cook from USA on March 30, 2012:
This is one of the most informative things I've seen about this topic. Excellent source of information, and most appreciated. Thank you for sharing.