There was a time when most engaged couples would choose tableware that included sterling silver place settings. Some still do; however, many have opted out of this extravagance due to ongoing upkeep and expense.
Many do not even want family silver for the same reasons, which often leads to grandma's silver being sold. So if you are a seller or a buyer how do you know whether the silver is sterling or silver plate?
Silver plate is less expensive than sterling silver because there is not as much silver content in a plated piece. Silver plate is just that - a thin layer of silver plated over another metal such as copper, brass or nickel. Often silver plated items will be marked with an EP, EPNS or Silver on Copper or have no mark at all. American sterling silver is always marked Sterling or 925, and is 92.5% pure silver.
Going back in time before the United States existed we need to pay attention to European markings, which will tell their own story. Most of our goods back in the day came from Great Britain, so it would do well to check out the British markings. Their hallmarks are stamped into the piece with three indicators. The first is the city from whence it was made, the second shows the purity mark, and the third is a letter denoting the year of manufacture. Cities used marks like an anchor or leopard head, and the 92.5 purity indicator was a lion with a raised paw.
Early continental European silver did not always have a standard of .925. For example Germany's was .800, and France's was .950. French silver is usually marked with a .950 and a head of Minerva. Other countries have indicators and would require some research on your part, but be reminded lots of countries produced silver that isn't really sterling silver. For example during the 1800s Brazilian silver, African silver, Oregonian silver and Siberian silver were produced in England as silver plate, but much of it looked as good as sterling.
If you are really in a quandary as to whether your goods are sterling or silver plate there is an acid test a reputable jeweler can do that will verify its content. Still when looking over sterling silver it usually exhibits much better workmanship and quality than the pretenders. Even if it is a worn piece it will show silver rather than a base metal.
Jean McClelland writes about antiques and collectibles for The Herald-Dispatch.