Napkin Rings the Final Touch on a Finely Set Table
Sterling silver napkin rings in Rococo design (left), engraved flowers and scrolls with an entwined C and P (center) and with pie crimp edges and engraved foliage and the name “Aroha” (right).
During the height of the Victorian era, many dining tables across America were elegantly set, with find china and magnificent silver services. They were not complete, however, without the nice touch of napkin rings.
Such rings held linen napkins neatly in place and frequently provided some source of marker for who set where. Some were engraved for mother, father or other members of the family. Some were monogrammed, and still others were distinguished by individual figural designs. Today, napkin rings, whether individual or in sets, is a thriving collectible subset in silver, silver plate, other metals, ceramics and porcelain, woods, Bakelite and just about any other material you can think of. Some limit their collections to figurals, and even more granularly, to specific figures, such as dogs or Christmas trees.
When it came to figural designs, Victorian tastes could range from wild animals to women in formal dress. Any assortment seemed to blend into the fashionable furnishings that occupied the formal dining table.
Sterling silver and silver plate napkin rings were generally available to those who could afford them throughout the 1860s, although they were not formally patented until the close of that decade. The progressive Meriden Britannia company listed only a few styles of napkin rings in its 1860 catalog, but by 1867 there were more than a dozen different selections.
A Victorian Aurora silver plate triangular bee napkin ring features four little feet. One side is intricately engraved with flowers and leaves and engraved with the name “Dora,” while a bee is attached to the other side.
A striking silver napkin ring from around 1865 is part of the holdings of the Dallas Museum of Art, It is adorned with a winged insect. Such designs were not entirely to meet Victorian taste, according to Charles Venable, author of the book “Silver in America, A Century of Splendor.”
“Highly ordered objects, napkin rings were typically identified by number, engraved name or distinctive ornamentation,” Venable notes, adding that the ability to distinguish one’s own ring was important, among other things, because the napkins themselves were usually washed only once a day, oftentimes even less frequently.
Napkin rings were produced in material other than silver, including bamboo, brass, bronze, pewter, porcelain, wood and various types of glass. Still other rings were designed to match the glass and metal of the vast assortment of other tableware, however silver and silver plate were dominate. In the 1870s, the famed Tiffany and Company responded to the request of one wealthy customer with a silver dining service of 1,250 pieces including, of course, silver napkin rings.
Frequently, the rings were engraved with initials or the full family name. Motifs often included floral or scroll designs, wildlife scenes or simply fancy borders. And while some were oval, square or even of many sided hexagon, most were simply round to fully hold the rolled napkin.
An antique English silver plated napkin ring, circa 1920, by the silversmith Elkington & Co. The split Greyhound has the number six coat on and is in full racing action and beautifully detailed.
Figural napkin rings were, of course, much more elaborate and typically much more expensive. Victorian shoppers enjoyed a vast selection of figurals, from clowns and cupidity to children at play and chickens hatching. Even the sports fan could identify with tennis athletes, bicycle riders or baseball players. Among the most distinguished were the figurals based on the work of artist Kate Greenaway, who was famous at the time for her illustrations in children’s books and other printed material. Her style was often imitated.
Dozens of companies made finely designed rings during their glory days of the Victorian era, sometimes even with very similar designs. Among the better known were Barbour Silver Co., Meriden Britannia Company, Pairpoint Manufacturing Co., William Rogers Mfg. Co., Reed & Barton, and Simpson, Hall, Miller & Co. Still others included Anchor Silver Plate, Hamilton Silver, Co., James Tuffs, Racine Silver Plate, Osborn & Co., and Wilcox Silver Plate.
Many of these companies marked their products with a name or various codes. However, certainly not all napkin rings were marked, and among those that were many marks were lost to usage and aging.
Towards the end of the 19th century, practically any household of any substance contained napkin rings of some sort. They could be surrounded among the flatware, cruet sets, place card holders and silver dishes. They could be as plain or as elaborate as the rest of the table setting, but always displayed with pride.
Sets of napkin rings were often numbered, as are these circa 1890 rings, decorated with engine turning and a cartouche in the centre. Other sets were sometimes non-traditional, such as this set of six sterling silver napkin clips style, each with a hand-painted enamel image depicting a cloverleaf, a thistle, a violet flower, a stag’s head, a Mallard duck and a pheasant.
During the 1890s every popular retail catalog—from Montgomery Ward to Marshall Field and Company—featured them in great detail. Meanwhile, the swanky Tiffany and Company was at the same time offering its wealthy customers up to 48 different styles of napkin rings in sterling silver, gold or precious metal combinations.
As the nation advanced into the 20th century less, expensive hardwood and celluloid napkin rings were often replaced by the more elaborate and less expensive issues. In the years that followed, napkin rings were even produced in colorful Bakelite, but they were seen less and less often in formal dining settings.
Today, individual napkin rings of the Victorian era generally are prized, and have been since the 1970s. Also highly desirable are those originally issued with what are known to collectors as combinations, which included everything for the table from butter plates to condiment holders.
As tastes and manufacturing processes advanced, napkins rings such as this set of six Bakelite Scottie Dog rings, circa 1940, were found on more and more tables.
These are “one of the most difficult of all napkin ring collectibles because of the confusion in the identification of the separate parts,” according to Lillian Gottschalk and Sandra Whitson, co-authors of the highly comprehensive book “Figural Napkin Rings.” Many were unmarked, “and more often than not, the butter plate and other parts were lost or ended up with the wrong set.” Often a household had more than one set.
“If the proper combinations are intact, they can be quite spectacular on a dining table,” the authors conclude.
Figural napkin rings are generally considered the more collectible of those produced. However, content of the metal, condition and detail of design are also value factors.
— by Robert Reed
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