Sentimental Silver

Terzameron Day 28
April 17, 2020

Ben Miller


This is Ben, here with what will be my last contribution to the Terzameron series. And as this is my last chance, I’m going to ask you to indulge a little self-reflection.


Some of you know that I grew up in Tennessee. Owning antiques in the South is a little different from how it is in New York. There, when grandma pulls out the silver for Thanksgiving, you see the family pitching in to polish it and no one rolling their eyes. There’s a ma & pop antiques shop on every town square and every highway exit. And it matters less how pretty and rare and important a piece is, and more what it means to the person who has it. That’s all a bit of a nostalgic picture, but as these are nostalgic times, let me keep it.


Now I’m as nutty as my colleagues when it comes to masterpieces and rarities and everything else that gives a silver enthusiast goosebumps. But there’s another kind of object that packs an extra punch for me. Let’s call it…sentimental silver. Silver that needs to be seen with charity—as James Flecker wrote of an old Persian mirror case: “…look as a saint might look,/ Or as a lover; not for fleck or flaw,/ Not in appraisal, but as waiting spring.” Take this mug:


If your idea of antiques shopping is to sort the Sotheby’s catalog by highest estimate, you’re not going to see a lot of pieces like this. On the Albert Sack scale, it’s not best, or better, or even good. It’s a crummy old mug with a beat-up handle, churned out by some second-rate 19th century silversmith, that has since been, to use a Southernism, rode hard and put away wet. Yet we bought it here at Shrubsole. Why?


Well, on the bottom of the mug is a stamped mark: “J.A. VALIANT, PALMYRA”. Don’t get confused, that’s not Palmyra, Syria. It’s the slightly less famous Palmyra in Missouri. The one where John Valiant, native of Maryland, turned up one day in 1848 and opened a silver shop (and started agitating for abolition). The Palmyra that’s 12 miles from Hannibal, Missouri, best known as hometown to Samuel Longhorne Clemens, best known as Mark Twain. In fact, before he made his way to New York, Clemens apprenticed to a newspaper printer from Palmyra.


Palmyra’s population in 1850 was 1,265. The notion that a settlement of that size on the margins of civilization could support a silver shop is as wild as the notion that a little Southern town today could support an antique shop. But there it was. And here, at Shrubsole, is the evidence of it.

I don’t love this mug for any aesthetic or connoisseurial reason. I love it because, in a childlike way, it draws my imagination to a time and place that I enjoy visiting. The rough-and-tumble businessman striking out West—why? was he running away? escaping debts? fed up with society?—hawking silver in between his political meetings. His clients, big fish in a very small pond, marginally successful planters and merchants and their wives who in 1850s Missouri were just starting to build “grand” homes with porches and colonnades that would fit comfortably inside the courtyards of East Coast mansions of the time. Did Valiant sell to slave owners with one hand while fighting them with the other? Did a teenage Samuel Clemens once pause in front of Valiant’s window and wonder if he’d ever be able to afford a mug like this one?


Most of the stories that have transpired around this little mug are impossible to know. But we know a little—enough to make it sentimental.

I’ll leave you with a verse from a little poem that Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (the Justice’s father) wrote to his beloved silver punch bowl:


I love the memory of the past,—its pressed yet fragrant flowers —
The moss that clothes its broken walls,—the ivy on its towers;—
Nay, this poor bawble it bequeathed,—my eyes grow moist and dim,
To think of all the vanished joys that danced around its brim.

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