About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Tuesday, August 23, 2016




There is something nice about having a silver spoon with which to stir your cup of coffee or tea.  At least I think so!

This year, not wanting to use sterling every day in the kitchen, I had a brainstorm.  Since antique mid 19th century coin silver (900 parts silver per thousand versus sterling at 925 parts per thousand) are delicate and elegant but not too expensive I decided to put together a collection of twelve nearly matching fiddle back coin silver spoons.  I would retire  the stainless steel. It wouldn't be too extravagant, a little elegant but no need to worry if one was lost or bent.

I did a little research to single out a silversmith whose spoons were relatively easy to find in order to have a set that somewhat matched.  A search on eBay led me to Hall and Elton, silversmiths from Geneva, New York. There seemed to be many offerings for their spoons. So I bid on several groups or singles that would make  up a set of twelve.  All were of the mid 19th century fiddle back style and I was having a good time pulling this new collection together and excited about my solution for getting rid of stainless steel without the worry of losing or abusing my good sterling..

Soon the packages began to arrive.  Some had been cleaned and some were slightly tarnished but not badly.  I got out the Wright’s Silver Cream, the old standby silver polish made in New England, and went to work.  I thought I would be thrilled with my new spoons but something kept telling me that I wasn’t really impressed or entirely happy with them.  What was wrong?  They were not plated, they were genuinely old, they weren’t scratched or damaged so what was my problem?  I was feeling so deflated but couldn't put my finger on the source of my disappointment in the spoons..

Eventually, I hit the books and the Internet and discovered something that I had never known or suspected.  These antique spoons were not coin silver!  So what were they?

The following is typical of what different Internet sites had to say about Hall and Elton.

“There were makers that marked the wares just like coin silver, but the metal was something other than predominantly silver. Although it is not one hundred percent true, Hall & Elton is one example of a maker that marked their wares like coin, but it was not coin.”

If it was not silver what the heck was it?

Many pieces are being sold as coin silver which should be 900 parts silver.  But sometimes the look and texture is not right. Possibly Hall & Elton created their own alloy that included only a small amount of silver...or none at all.  This is sometimes referred to as “German silver or nickel silver”.  As it tarnishes it looks more and more dingy with a decidedly yellow cast.  When compared with genuine coin silver the difference is readily apparent.

Over the years it is possible that Hall and Elton made coin spoons and later on made plated spoons but the market seems to have plenty of examples of these inferior spoons.  I have no proof that Hall and Elton made any real coin silver spoons.  All the spoons I purchased were this alloy,  nary a coin silver spoon in the lot.

I used them for a time.  The yellow cast grew worse quickly, some even developed green corrosion.  I soon realized I couldn’t continue using them so sat down with my polish to at least clean them up and then decide what to do with them.  After a lot of elbow grease was expended on two spoons the result was not even close to satisfactory.

I decided that they were not worth the cost of the silver cream or my time so I threw them into a bag with no idea what to do with them next.  Do I throw away genuine antique spoons from 1840 or 1850?  They are not damaged, just inferior and very discolored and tarnished. I don't want them and I don't know who would.

Checking on eBay today I found twelve offerings for Hall and Elton spoons advertised as coin silver and only three described as German silver or an alloy.
Yellow tarnish that is stubborn.  Polishing
does not achieve a good result.on Hall and
Elton antique spoons.
(German silver is also sometimes referred to as nickel silver).  Mostly there is no silver content or very little silver content. They are an alloy comprised of copper, zinc and nickel.

Looking at recent eBay completed sales twelve listings were represented as coin, two were accurately listed as an alloy, one honest seller admitted not knowing whether they were coin or an alloy and one seller even stated that his spoons had a greenish tint!  Oh my!  Not a good sign!

If you look online at photos of Hall and Elton spoons the yellow tinge, the dullness and the dingy look comes through loud and clear.  Polishing may improve them but the final result doesn’t pass especially compared in my case to my family’s Newell Harding spoons in the same style and similar age made in Boston.
True coin silver Newell Harding spoon polishes nicely..
Several years ago I bought a beautiful pierced serving piece at an antiques show.  It was marked sterling by the dealer on the tag but the price was low.  It looked good to me so I bought it and showed it to a friend who deals in antique silver.  He assured me that it was sterling and quite lovely.  The mark on the back said Alpaca. As it turns out Alpaca or Alpacca is just another name for German or nickel silver.  My serving piece could have fooled anyone! It was not as old as my spoons and probably never used.

Recently I have noticed Alpacca (Alpaca) spoons advertised as plated.  That is no more accurate than calling them coin silver.  They are not plated!

Here is what eBay says about Alpaca.

Alpaca Silver (Alpacca) refers to an alloy that imitates sterling silver. This non-precious bright silvery-grey metal alloy is made up of copper, zinc and nickel and sometimes iron. Alpaca Silver does NOT contain any real silver; it is just another name for Nickel Silver”.

I can’t say that there are not some Hall and Elton spoons out there that are really coin.  None of my purchases were coin but all were represented as coin.  I am not faulting the sellers.  I’ve been interested in silver for a long time but I was clueless and I expect the sellers were as well.
I am also not suggesting that Hall and Elton were the only company using this alloy to make inferior spoons.  There are probably others but my “matched set” are a real flop.  By the time I retired them they were disgusting!   If nothing else it was a lesson learned.

BEWARE!  It brings to mind my own version of the old familiar  adage.  All that glitters is not silver.”

What about that bagful of ugly spoons?  I certainly won't try to palm them off on another unsuspecting buyer.  I won't use them.  They are antique but as far as I'm concerned they are worthless!

How about those  stainless steel teaspoons that I rejected?   Hmmm!  I guess  I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth after all!  Stainless is looking better all the time.

Saturday, August 13, 2016



This unidentified house is not the house in the story 
but representative of the house described.

Tucked away in a New England town and down a long lane, is an ancient saltbox house.  Nobody that I knew had ever seen it other than in some long out of print books on old houses.  Don’t we all know houses that we have seen and fervently wished we could get inside?  Well, this is the house that was on my wish list.

This particular property belonged to a very protective lady who had inherited the treasure from her parents complete with all the furniture and accessories that one would hope to find in a first period house.

The house was tantamount to a fabulous museum the only problem being that it was not open to the public; not ever.  At least one hundred years ago it became the guest house on the property on which a large house had been built with all the modern conveniences of that day allowing the old house to remain untouched. By the time I was aware of this hidden treasure, it was no longer used at all, even for guests.

Everyone knew that I had studied the photos in books and would do anything to cross the threshold of this ancient, and unspoiled house.  And as luck would have it, my chance to see it materialized right out of the blue through a mutual friend.  Several others decided to tag along until there were perhaps five of us who would be experiencing this superb treat.

On the appointed day we arrived at the newer big house where our hostess lived.  There was only a path leading down to the old house some distance away.  After exiting our vehicles we went to the door of the main house.  We knocked and called the owner’s name repeatedly.  There was no response.  We stood around considering what to do next.  The owner’s car was there but where was she?

After a period of time we concluded that she was probably waiting for us at the old house so we tentatively began to proceed slowly down the path.

Suddenly the owner came racing out of the main house screeching like a banshi ordering us to get back to the house.  “No one goes down that path without me.” she admonished.  So somewhat chagrined we back-tracked while she gave us a scolding and then a history lesson about the house.

Finally the moment arrived.  She unlocked the door and we crossed that treasured threshold into what clearly would be a wonderful experience.  Before proceeding she tested us a bit with questions such as which is older, the banister back chair or the ladder back?  I passed the test with flying colors and seemed to have gained her approval a little.

As we followed her on the tour we were thrilled to be there and in great admiration of the house and its contents.  She also seemed to be warming to the occasion and eventually we ended our tour in the old kitchen with its enormous cooking fireplace.

Now our hostess was really getting into this strange party of sorts.  She decided we could sit around the huge fireplace and she would build a fire.  How long had it been since the fireplace was used I wondered with some concern.  I soon got over my doubts when I realized that sitting before this ancient fireplace in this rarest of houses was a very special event not to be taken lightly.   This would be a very memorable day memorable it was for several reasons.

Now she proclaimed that she was going to send one of us into town to buy sandwiches and we would have lunch in front of the fire.  She was clearly now having the time of her life and so were we. 

While one of our group went for sandwiches she went to her house and came back with wine.  What could be better than a beautiful fall day in New England having lunch in front of this venerable fireplace with a glass of wine?

Along the way different guests were instructed to put more wood on the fire and to take the tongs and arrange a log this way or that way.  By now our hostess was in really high gear.  The smell of the wood smoke was strong.  I was feeling some anxiety about the chimney and slipped away upstairs where it was slightly smokey to which she was oblivious.  We had been there a long time and needed to get back to our office.

That was easier said than done.  I began to have misgivings about this party.  We should leave.  My head started to pound from smoke and the tension that came from realizing that we were prisoners.  She was not ready to let us go!

I looked at my watch repeatedly.  I looked at my friends imploring someone to help.  Our hostess was in control and we had to do her bidding.  More logs on the fire; more wine in the glasses.

Finally we made our escape.  The end is a blur, a least for me.  By this time I had a raging headache.  It was all I could do to drive myself home and crawl into my bed with a full blown migraine and there I remained until the next morning.  I never went back to the office.  Completely wiped out, I was.  I don’t even remember how we dealt with the fire in the fireplace when we left.  The house is still there so nothing bad befell the house as a result of our caper.

That was a number of years ago.  Our hostess has since passed on.  The house has had dendrochronology testing proving that it was built in the late 17th century.   But there was just a little more fallout  resulting from our adventure.

A friend of mine who was a very knowledgeable old house expert was determined to see that house based on my report.  With his charm and knowledge of old houses he thought he could handle this hostess just fine.  So he found an old map that indicated the now private driveway was once an old road.  (If it was, which I doubt, it only went to that house).  So armed with the map for proof that he wasn’t deliberately trespassing and with an expensive bottle of wine, one evening he ventured down the lane.  He had mentally rehearsed how he was going to sweet talk this lady winning her over and getting to see the old house.

As soon as he reached the big house the owner came screaming out of the door ordering him off her property.  He tried to show her the map to no avail.  She finally ended the confrontation by jumping into her car and chasing him out to the main road!  So home he went with his deflated ego and with his bottle of wine which I’m sure he promptly drank.

You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”?  My wish came true but I paid a price and so did my friend with his expensive wine and shattered ego.

I’m glad I got to see the house and had the rare experience of sitting before that fire in the most wonderful setting on a perfect day.  But I can tell you that I got that house out of my system and have never in my wildest dreams thought of ever going back.  One visit and one migraine was enough.










It has taken a long time for me to post this last chapter on the house at Ipswich Village.  It was mostly the result of burnout after reconstructing and reporting all the details of the restoration of the Moses Jewett House.  This was compounded by endless printer and computer issues.  

After this long hiatus I am ready to resume stories of old houses or related subjects.  So here is the wrap-up on the Jewett house.  I'm hoping I have not lost all of the loyal readers who followed this long series and will continue to read a varied selection of stories to come. 

It was important to me to organize and record the details of the restoration of Moses Jewett's house and now I can take a deep breath and move on!


Looking back over these years and visiting the house as often as I have, there has been plenty of opportunity to review some of the mistakes and think about what we should or should not have done.  Most of my thoughts are positive without too many regrets.

One dilemma that we faced is a common one.  The windows were very bad.  They were not 18th century originals but they were old.  The glass was good with lots of waviness. In a perfect world it would seem that we should have restored them.  We didn’t actually think they were restorable.  We restored a few to use in the barn and they are once again in collapse.  The house started out to be a spec house, not a pure restoration but early on we knew we must do our best.  The windows we chose were wood, true divided light windows and they have held up perfectly.  My regret is losing all of that old glass.

It was our dream to put on a cedar roof.  The roof on the house was good but not wood.  The budget, however, dictated that we had to cross that off the list.  The new owners did follow through and put on a wood roof.   Unfortunately, it could not breath properly and did not last so it is back to architectural shingles.  What a pity.

There is a little mistake that haunts me.  We did not know at that time that the thumb latches and HL hinges should have been painted the same as the woodwork and made to disappear.  We left them black.  That will embarrass me forever.  I have begged the owners to cover the hinges but they like them and they still glare back at me….jet black.

Initially we  made the mistake of tearing out the dining room ceiling.  First of all we misjudged what we would find.  Secondly, we did not think we were doing any great damage.  The plaster was too bad to save, wasn’t it?  Wrong!  As we found out, the WORST plaster can be saved and all the rest was saved after that first mistake.  I am proud of the way the plaster looks in the light.  Not rough but just slightly undulating.  It is just right.  I’m so glad we were stopped before we took down more than we did.

Finishing the floors in a natural finish was probably a good idea, not knowing who our buyer would be.  They can always be painted but the only one that has been painted is the kitchen.

The skylights, questionable to a purist, have been good for light and air.  I don’t regret installing them nor do I regret the eyeball recessed lights in the dining room that shocked people back then.  Hugh and Jerry replaced the stolen chandelier with a wonderful antique brass chandelier for candles.  The eyeball lights on a dimmer supplement the candles perfectly. I don’t consider these modern touches a mistake by any means.

On the lighter side, I believe Tony learned while cleaning for an open house that you can’t vacuum the hearth when the bricks are set in sand.

After vehemently resisting use of the term “borning room” a misnomer from the colonial revival period, I fell into the same sort of trap.  It was common back then for restorers to call the old or antique kitchen the “keeping room”.  I’m not sure where this came from but we went along with it.  Later I realized this was less than accurate.  I have only seen that term on one old house plan. It was from the Federal period and it pertained to a sitting room.  I have since ceased to ever use the term but the damage was done.  Everyone associated with the restoration and especially the new owners have never failed to refer to the colonial kitchen with the big fireplace as the keeping room, a term of which I am sorry I ever heard or uttered.  It is corny.  I know better now but it’s too late.  The term refuses to go away and I have heard it used by the best in the business.

When all is said and done, I think it is miraculous that we did as good a job as we did.  Looking back I think we were na├»ve about the project but we did our homework, tried hard to get it right and absolutely did the best we could.

Did we make mistakes?  Sure, but most could be reversed and none were too serious or resulted in permanent damage


The lesson learned from this experience is that restoring an early house is exciting and fun as long as:

  •      You can afford to hire contractors
  •       It is not a spec
  •      You must have deep pockets
  •      Someone checks every day to catch mistakes before it is to late.                                                                
  •       Originality is respected
  •      You don’t try to make it into something it isn’t
  •      You are pro-active and do your homework
  •      You seek advice from professionals
  •      A Family isn’t trying to live in the house during construction

My rules for restoration, evolved though this experience are these:

      1.     Accommodate the old house and its floor plan.  Do not try to make the house  accommodate    you.

2.     Do not remove original fabric.  Plaster can be saved.  Horse hair plaster is not bad!

3.      Do not do anything that can’t be reversed.


It is now 2016.  There has been a lot of water under the bridge but the Moses Jewett house is still going strong.  Hugh and Jerry are retired but still there.  I have enjoyed many a Thanksgiving feast in the old kitchen by the big fireplace.  It has been over thirty years since the day I agreed to become part of the Moses Jewett house team.  Everyone involved with the house is much older, the cast of characters has changed, and some have passed on, including Bob Molinski, Nellie, Vern Martin and the thieving handy man.  Everyone has fond memories of the house and the hospitality of Hugh and Jerry.

May the good times in the old house at Ipswich Village never end!

My appreciation to all  who followed this series.  Thanks for reading!