The word ‘salver’ likely stems from the Spanish word ‘salva’ which means ‘to preserve’. This makes sense when considering that salvers appear to originate from the Middle Ages as a way of presenting food to be tested in a time where the threat of poison was very real and widespread. Any flat dish can be referred to as a salver, regardless of whether it has feet or not.
Early examples of salvers, primarily from the 16th century, were often originally paired with a porringer cup but these pieces were often separated over time. This is especially true of salvers that are chased with depictions of beasts and foliage.
Salvers that are plain and flat are rarely found before the Restoration period (1660-1688) and this is likely due to the common melting of ‘modern’ silver during the English Civil War (1642-1651) rather than their non-existence.
As the 17th century progressed, salvers were most commonly circular with a central trumpet-shaped foot. It’s around this same time that salvers were given a moulded border around the edge of the circle. If a salver has chased, knurled edges then it is likely made of thin metal.
During the 17th century, salvers that were 9” wide or less were known as ‘waiters’, however, as we move into the 18th century, waiter became a much more generalised term and became more closely associated with toilet services.
At the turn of the century also, c.1700, oblong salvers began to appear but they are much less common than their oval, circular, or square counterparts. By 1715, salvers began to have three or more feet rather than the previous one central foot and at the same time, octafoil salvers began to appear. Octafoil salvers have eight petal shapes round the edge.
Salvers are very common items for decoration as the wide, flat surface was much easier for engravers to work with. It is likely that silversmiths who specialised in making salvers would have had an in house engraver for putting crests and other designs on them. Often, the cartouche – the frame that surrounds a family crest – would be engraved prior to sale, ready to be filled in with a crest afterwards. There are some surviving examples where the cartouche has never been filled.
The 1730s saw chased decoration on salvers as well a variety of cast borders and ornamental feet. As salvers were becoming more decorative, 1738 saw the first salvers being presented as race prizes.
From 1790 onward, the decoration of salvers followed the course of fashion and the 1820s Romantic revival found that chased decoration could be applied to the whole surface. This was coincidentally fortunate for preservation’s sake as chasing was coarser and withstood general wear and tear, whereas the fine engraving method of the 18th century was easily worn away with use.
To follow the fashion and bring them up to date, many previously plain salvers were given added decoration in the 19th century and this can cause a slight ‘bellying’ of the surface.
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