From colonial times until 1868 when the United States adopted the sterling silver standard requiring all silversmiths to use sterling containing at least 925 parts per thousand of pure silver, most American silver was produced in the slightly lower 900 purity silver, known as coin silver. Coin silver takes its name from the practice of melting down silver coins and making the metal into more desirable objects including flatware in a variety of patterns.
The early American colonial silversmiths tended to craft simple patterns with plain rounded handles. These simple designs could be embellished with engraved initials or decorative elements. Pieces featuring bright cut engraving remain desirable with collectors today. As time went on, however, more elaborate designs emerged.
The Fiddle Pattern was by far the most popular and was produced by hundreds of silversmiths. Adding a grooved border around the fiddle shaped handle produced the Fiddle Thread (also known as French Thread or Plain Thread) pattern.
Another common group of patterns is based on a tipped design with a gentle curve to the shape of the handle and two scrolls that come together at the top resembling a musical brace. A popular variation on the Tipped Pattern was the Reverse Tip or French Tip, in which the front of the handle is plain while the tipped design appears on the back of the handle.
John Polhemus is credited with bringing the desirable Kings Pattern to the American market. Originally produced in France and popularized in England, this timeless pattern is easily recognizable by the large raised shell at the tip bordered in elegant scrolls. A number of prominent American companies went on to produce this pattern including Dominick & Haff, Reed & Barton, and Gorham.
The later years of American coin silver production coincided with the Victorian era when changes in architectural styles came to bear on home furnishings such as silverware. The Classic Revival or Greek Revival in architecture inspired such designs as the Tuscan, Beaded, Shell, and Roman Patterns. Meanwhile, the Romantic school had a similar influence on the French Oval, Gothic, and St. Charles Patterns. These more elaborate designs were a precursor of the increasingly opulent patterns that would gain popularity as America made the transition from coin silver to sterling silver production.