G. J. has a "fish-course" set of silver plate flatware that dates to the last quarter of the 19th century. I have seen many of these elegant services, and they do not hold much value. Nevertheless, they are emblematic of a certain way of life.
The knife blades have incised decoration on flat wide blades. The tines of the fork are long and sharp. Both the blades and forks are perfect for flaky fish. The knives are 8 inches long; the forks, 6 inches long. This is the standard length for utensils used for a fish course, smaller than main-course cutlery but not as small as traditional fruit or dessert-course cutlery.
G.J. does not mention if she found a hallmark, but they are almost definitely English. The tradition of a fish course is today followed in Britain.
Notice the handles. They could be bone, but they also could be ivory, and this is going to make a sale almost impossible because it is illegal to sell ivory or anything that could be construed as ivory. However, we can still talk about the history of such a service, rarely used today.
What is a fish service and when is a fish course served in a formal dinner? A fish course traditionally comes before the meat course. In early formal table settings, a fish dish was called an entrance course (an entrée). The fish was served after the soup, which was served after the hors d'oeuvres. There's quite a bit of food involved in a traditional banquet, which was meant to show status and rank.
If you were attending a banquet in France in 1650, fish was just one of the multiple entrée courses, followed by one or more roasts of meat from the spit. An entrée was always a cooked dish; G.J.'s set might have seen fish in a fine sauce — a fine entrée was a way to show off the chef's skill.
Fish services never contain spoons because the fish entrée never included vegetables or potatoes. In fact, in the 18th century, the fish course was called the "remove" because the fish course was removed after it was consumed, as a joint of meat was then ceremoniously carved in the presence of the guests, perhaps by the host. This meant a new course, featuring roast fowl of many types. We still serve this way, loading the table with every dish of the meal at once, and carving the roast fowl in the presence of guests. Think of formal Thanksgivings, which are throwbacks to the 17th century style of banqueting. When Gramps carves the bird this Thanksgiving, think of him as a nobleman in 1650.
During the last half of the 19th century, dining habits changed and called for servants to bring in each course on separate plates to the various guests. Because the dishes were not evident on the table before each course was carried in, menus were developed. Fish, however, remained as a course after the soup. And fish sets such as G.J.'s were popular throughout the 19th century and may have been a fine wedding present for a middle-class couple who aspired to have multiple courses at their formal table.
Today, dining habits have changed yet again, even for formal dinners, and we really don't have much need for a separate fish course, or separate fish cutlery. The variety of specialization for the table, which characterized the 19th century, has lost favor today. Now, the classic formal meal is an appetizer (starter in Britain), an entrée and a dessert.
G.J., although the fish set is a piece of culinary history, because we no longer use such lovely pieces and consider them to be a pain to wash, polish and store, the value is less than it should be given the workmanship. A set of 12 will bring under $125 at auction on a good day, and that's if you can prove the set is bone and not ivory. Of course, the value would be higher if you found a sterling hallmark, but most fish sets were Sheffield plate — silver plate over copper — in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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