An unusual and highly valuable, antique silver, fish-shaped, Victorian spoon warmer. These were used in very large, drafty estates, to keep the spoons from “downstairs” warm for the meals served “upstairs.” – “It was here that for the first and last time in his life Mr. Campion made the acquaintance of those silver-plated cornucopias which, in Victorian times, were supplied to the diner filled with hot water, so that he might warm his spoon before partaking of that greasy delicacy called thick soup.” –Marjorie Allingham
Silverware Provides Golden Opportunity for Forked Answers
The secret vice of etiquette is to play guessing games with old pieces of silver. The stranger looking an object say, a combination of writhing bodies with spouts, or tongs and clawed footsies the more fun it is to ask, “And what do you suppose THAT is?” Then, again, perhaps this vice is not entirely secret. Miss Manners has noticed that people who fail to acknowledge the daily toils of etiquette as it strives to make the world bearable in small ways, believe its only function is in connection with peculiar silver. Under etiquette's kindly veneer, they seem to believe, it is really only a system by which people who have the time and money to waste in acquiring funny silverware, endeavor to make those who don't, feel inadequate.
The object such detractors choose to bolster their slander is usually the humble fork. “I never know what fork to use,” they will brag, as evidence that they are above snobbish games. The fact that the fork is a household mainstay at all levels of society, the use of which can be, and routinely is, mastered by a child of 3, makes it a strange example. Therefore, Miss Manners will now offer some better ones. In the spirit of the parent who says, “Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about,” she suggests that the next time they complain about esoteric items of silver, they choose an example among the following items. Miss Manners has helpfully divided these into two categories and supplied some dubious etymology.
A. What in the Heck Is That?
- Bougie box. This is where you keep your bougie, of course. A bougie is a coil of bleached wax, named after the Algerian town that supplied it, and it sticks out in a taper through the lid of your small, circular bougie box to provide a dim light for whatever dim activities you may wish to engage in. If you don't mind your bougie being uncovered, you can hang it on a wax jack, but it is well known that bougie boxes keep the mice from nibbling your tapers.
- Monteith. Monteith was a Scot who made great punch and wore a scallop-bottomed coat. His name adorns a punch bowl with a scalloped edge on which you can hang the punch glasses to chill on ice before you make the punch.
- Argyle. Either the fourth or the fifth Duke of Argyle, depending on whom you believe (Miss Manners doesn't vouch for any of this information), invented his own gravy boat, which has a hot-water compartment for keeping the gravy hot.
- Posset or caudle cup. This is a two-handled cup in which you can drink posset (curdled milk with wine or ale, oat cakes and spices) or caudle (wine with spices and sugar and crumbled bread) or, if those lists of ingredients get to you, grab both handles and be sick.
B. Any Fool Can Understand What It Is, But What Do You Need It For?
- Wine wagon. This is a great toy, consisting of a little wheeled wagon that holds two wine bottles, so that you can send it careening down the length of the table at exactly the point when someone with sense ought to remove it and you from the table.
- Sardine box. Why would you want to keep your sardines in a silver box with pictures of sardines engraved on it, when you can pack them into a can like people on a subway? Because sardines were once very expensive.
- Tea caddy. Ditto for tea, which is why lots of tea caddies have locks on them.
- Cheese toaster. If you think it's messy to make your toasted cheese sandwiches in the stove, try aiming a silver cheese toaster with a hot water compartment toward the open fire.
- Soy frame. This is one form of the cruet, a stand holding bottles of sauces, which is socially on a level with the ketchup-and-mustard stand at your local fast food restaurant.
- Spoon warmer. You don't mean you've been using cold spoons to serve food with, do you? The spoon warmer contains hot water in which to keep serving-spoons on a buffet table.
- Salver. This is just a small-footed tray for serving drinks, but Miss Manners likes the idea that it was named for the hope that it would save one's clothes from the dribble.
- Epergne. Miss Manners throws this in because its name also refers (in French) to saving. The epergne is a many-armed centerpiece to be filled with fruits, nuts and candy, and its name refers to a direction to the staff to save whatever is left after the guests have finished gobbling. – Miss Manners, 1989
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia