(click on photos to enlarge image)
THERE'S SOME SPARROWGRASS IN MY SHOE BUCKLE
A Case Study of Conflicting Attributions for Two Identical Pairs of Asparagus Tongs
About a year ago, a respected silver dealer, with whom I have done a fair amount of
business, let me know that a pair of "long tongs" was part of their incoming inventory.
As a collector of silver tea tongs, which the dealer and I had just been discussing, I
expressed an interest in seeing photos and a description, once the tongs were actually
in stock. When the tongs arrived, they were properly described, not as "long
tongs" (which I assumed would be long tea tongs based on the fact we were discussing
tea tongs at the time), but as serving tongs. Not having any in my current collection, I
was intrigued at the possibility of acquiring a new pair. Shortly thereafter, I received a
photo of the tongs, diagonal on a white background, marked as "incoming", with a note
that this preliminary photo would be followed by a full description and the dealer's own
photographs, once the tongs arrived. The photo with the green background is
the first of a series of photos taken by the dealer and later forwarded to me.
The dealer's description was for a: "Rare Pair of George I Silver Serving Tongs, Samuel
Hitchcock, London, 1720. Of heavy gauge silver and scissor form, the elongated
rectangular shafts with interior ribbed grips below a crested central pivot surmounted by
elegantly scrolled handles and graduated rings for the thumb, and the middle and ring
fingers . . .H•I above a fleur de lis (a spot below visible in only one mark) thrice,
(Grimwade # 1016) and lion passant on finger rings. (The mark of SH registered in
1720 (Grimwade #2526), along with the return to .925 sterling and lion passant.
Condition: Excellent; without breaks or repairs. For a similar but later George III
example (listed as John Harmer, London c. 1760) see Christie's Important Silver, King
Street, 2008, Sale 7597, Lot 19 . . . ".
So, curious to see the c. 1760 pair and compare it with the 1720 pair being offered, I
located the Christie's auction results, description, and photos online. The Christie's pair
is the pair in the photo with the clear background.
As you must be, after viewing both photos, I was surprised to see, not a similar pair, but
rather an identical pair, except for the crest. Both pairs are identical in style and
construction. Both pairs are 10 5/8 inches. The weight difference was only .03 ounce
(.85 gram). The only variations were two areas that appeared ever so slightly thicker on
one pair as opposed to the other. Those slight differences will be mentioned later in this
Now that my curiosity was really peaked, I began a google image search for other
identical pairs of tongs. Other than the Christie's pair, and the pair this dealer was
offering, I found only one other example online. This pair was from a recent auction.
The photo was an exact match to the preliminary photo (of the tongs diagonal on white
background) sent by the dealer, marked "incoming." The auction description was for
"silver wishbone sugar tongs", no date, no maker listed, and of course the auction
description was incorrect. Although the dealer wouldn't confirm that this pair was in fact
the pair they had just purchased, I feel certain that it was, due to the matched photos.
So now I was back to the two pairs with which I began. Two pairs, attributed to two
different makers, with a forty year difference to boot. I just didn't think this was possible.
And so I began an email dialogue with the dealer.
I am never satisfied just collecting. I always want and need to understand what
I'm seeing. I want to be an educated collector, as it enhances my appreciation
of the items, and hopefully will help me gain the respect of fellow collectors.
That being said, first, please be assured that I don't want to offend you, but I do
need to ask some questions this time. Please let me note a couple observations
and questions they raise about the tongs.
I looked at the Christie's listing and checked the photo against the photos of your
tongs. The tongs appear to be pretty identical in style, form and construction.
The minor differences include the slightly thicker ridge connecting the scrolls to
the hinge on your pair and a slightly more pronounced "hip bone" on your pair,
just below the hinge. Given the 40 year difference, I question the fact that
there is almost no variation in the style of design of these two tongs. I know
the style/construction of the finger rings, arms and hinge changed dramatically
on tea tongs between 1720 and 1760 and I wondered why the serving tongs
would not have also changed dramatically in that time, mimicking the fashion of
the day. For instance, tea tongs of the 1720s had fairly straight arms, with
scrolls not coming into fashion until the 1740s. Further, the hinge is of a style
that was not in use on early tea tongs of the 1720s era.
I also note that the length of the Christie's tongs is identical to your pair and the
weight differs by only .03 ounce. Finally, I looked at the marks for Harmar (Christie's
lists the maker as John Harmer, but Grimwade only lists a James Harmar who
entered his mark in 1761 (mark 1374)). Like Samuel Hitchcock's mark (1016),
Harmar's mark also has an H and I in a shield. Although the letters are reversed
(Hitchcock is HI and Harmar is IH), the shields are also reversed (the point of
the shield is on the bottom of Hitchcock's mark and on the top of the Harmar mark).
Because the H and the I both look the same upside down as right side up, and the
shields run the opposite way, except for the existence of a pellet or star, it would be
impossible to tell the two marks apart unless the punch was extremely clean, clearly
showing a pellet.
All my observations having been noted, do you have a photo of the marks, particularly
the one showing the star? Also, any thoughts on these observations? Is it possible
that these tongs were also made by Harmar? I am at a disadvantage not seeing the
marks. You may clearly be seeing the pellet so you may be certain of the maker.
I just question some of the style and construction issues as not being that early.
Hope I am not offending you with my questions. I am very interested in the tongs,
regardless of the maker, but do want to be knowledgeable. Thanks.
The dealer's first reply went like this:
Good questions all. I had the same. The attribution was by someone I respect
a great deal, and a previous head of Bonham's New Bond Silver Department.
As there seems to be no John Harmer, and yes there is a James Harmar - one
reference shows him registering about 1748, but another in 1761 - that mark
not having a lobed punch but one with a distinct center point - I did not follow the
Christie's lead - even if they stated it. There was also a John Hill - that didn't fit
what I was seeing. These I's and H's are always a little up for grabs. I am at
home today with workmen putting in a new floor, but will slip into the shop at lunch
and get Grimwade and see if I have larger images that will show the pellet and a
bit of the shape below - which could be a shape above too. Never apologize for
asking. That is what makes us all learn.
Thanks for your reply. It will be interesting to see a picture of the marks.
Dr. Shlosberg's book says that no two pairs of tea tongs were the same if done
by different makers, and that even matching tongs by the same maker are rare.
The fact that tongs were often individually designed, coupled with stylistic elements
that are more similar to the mid century tongs, rather than the 1720s tongs, makes
me wonder if these serving tongs might have been done by the same maker (i.e.
Harmer). And of course there is the possibility that if your marks are that of
Hitchcock, Christie's tongs could also have been Hitchcock tongs misidentified as
Harmar. Since I can't see the marks on their tongs, I will still wonder if they aren't
both by the same maker.
Keep me posted and please keep them on reserve while we look at this further.
The dealer's reply:
I have retrieved the reference books from the shop - including Shlossy's - and the
new Jackson's which gets outside London marks. The fact that it is marked three
times with no town or date mark originally brought a "why" and "wonder if provincial"
to mind. The Harmar mark was not in my old Jackson's at home. Nor was an IH or HI
under provincial. So maybe the new Jackson's will have something different. I have
spoons at the shop that were sold as London and turned out to be Cork. So maybe they
are all wrong! I will start searching this afternoon. Sometime I have to go through
Jackson's page by page to find the right ID. Here is a link to the Harmar mark online -
see the point rather than the three lobes? But maybe this is mis-struck too. But all
three marks on these tongs have rounded lobes. Only in one can I clearly see a pellet
and piece of something below. But then - what if that is an irregularity in the mark.
And of course the quandary continued once I received photos of the marks (see above) which
prompted another email from me:
I agree that the shields are shaped differently. On a precisely stamped piece,
with crisp marks showing the entire edge/outline of the shield, and showing any
pellet, it would be very easy to tell. But I do agree that there is the possibility that
the one mark that appears to show the pellet could be an irregularity, since the
other 2 marks don't show it. If the stylistic elements were those of 1720, or if
the two pairs weren't so much identical, I wouldn't question it. The style just
doesn't jive with the date in my mind and the fact that both makers use an H
and an I makes it highly likely that one pair is misidentified. I wish I could get
my hands on the other pair for comparison!
My email continued with some chit chat about the family, the continued snow, and how
nice it would be if I could hop on a plane, to enjoy a cup of tea and a more personal chat
with my dealer friend. Wouldn't we have a wonderful time poring over the references
together! Well I was left with hunting the references alone at home, and apparently the
dealer couldn't let the question go either. Just about the time I found that there were
two James Harmars, a buckle maker and a large worker, I received another email:
There seem to be two smiths by the name of James Harmar. The one from 1761
was described in Grimwade as a "bucklemaker" - highly unlikely as the smith for
these rather sophisticated and elaborate tongs. Heal has another record of a Harmar,
silversmith, 1747. But no mark is given. No other London IH or HI marks qualify in
Grimwade for the lobed punch with either arrangement of initials. I have looked
through all sections, including Provincial and other chapters.
I have further completed my sojourn through all of the possibilities in provincial
England for HI or IH in the proper punches - none to be found. The only book I didn't
reference was Kent's West Country - but that is more on 17th century spoons anyway.
In Grimwade, #1016 is still the most similar. The mark on the finger ring with the
lion passant shows a definite serration to the top edge - however, that could also be
a mis-strike. It was further suggested by my trusted associate that these tongs could
date as late as 1730 by Hitchcock. I also just read the annotation that the Britannia
standard of the two first initials were used alongside the 1720 return to the old standard
of first and surname initials until 1739, at which time the old plates were required to be
destroyed, as they were causing confusion - HELLO!! I had not been aware of the 1739
dating for the end of the first two letters - thinking it in 1720. Hitchcock worked until
1743. However, the lion passant from May 27-May 29 has a face more in profile, and
corresponds to later GII marks. So maybe this overlapping of mark forms is the answer,
and for the other tongs marked as Harmar as well. Not having seen the mark on the
other tongs, there is no real way for me to attribute or dis-attribute.
Now - you must remember that we are not talking about tea tongs. These are more
for chops and vegetables. Their weight is remarkable - nothing delicate here. And S and
C-scrolls have been a standard device throughout the late baroque period - which
includes even the latter part of the 17th century through Queen Anne and George I.
They are not a GII rococo introduction -- although it was in the rococo period that they
became more complex, even more linear and more fragile -"Fragonard" depicts that
rococo image very well. Also remember the scrolled handles on early bleeding bowls.
But all that said, there is no way to ascertain an exact date to this pair - albeit between
1720 and 1739, minus 1727-29, given that the Hitchcock attribution is indeed the correct
attribution. Thank God you have F in your name. An F is an F - always - unless
someone thinks it should be an E - or maybe a T with a mis-strike!
This is as much I can ferret out.
Then came our final two emails on the topic. First, my email:
And now I am more than sufficiently intrigued to the point where I must actually
see the tongs. I do understand that, although at auction they were described as
tea tongs, they were as you described, serving tongs. I had a nice pair of
asparagus tongs identical to a pair at Williamsburg and in a moment of insanity, I
sold them to some dear friends of mine. In any case, these serving tongs will be
a better replacement and I look forward to receiving them . . . I will have my
jeweler's loop ready, my books by my side, and of course a cup of tea.
Thanks for all your information and research.
Then the dealer's reply:
I well know how that goes. I amended the online description to 1720-30, as was
suggested to me. They were not sold as tea tongs, but serving tongs.
I just found the same quandary about the HI or IH mark - but they were tea tongs
instead. It is suggested Harmar, and goes into the buckle-maker thing. I simply
cannot see these coming from a buckle maker. However it also mentions the other
"James Harmar" working in London about 1747. Here is a link to the dialogue. No
one seems to know much about this maker but they keep attributing things to him.
I am delighted that you are intrigued. It matters not who, but what here. They are
stupendous, rare, actually useful - you will see. The quality is top flight - better than
any tea tongs I have even encountered, or asparagus for that matter. I am curious
that there were not more made. I looked long and hard before chunking down the
wad I did on these. There is very little profit - just to have them. But it was one of
those things that now you have fallen prey to - beauty, quality, rarity, et al.
I will pack and send on Wednesday . . . Thanks for your wonderful questions. I
thoroughly enjoyed the search and kind-of answers.
The tongs arrived safely, and are spectacular, regardless of when they were made, or
by whom. However, as the very first email of this article stated, I want to be an
educated collector. I distinguish that from what I call the "decorator collector," those
who collect things that look nice and will fill a particular spot in their home. So after
letting some time lapse, I took up my research again. First, I looked for sources about
the origin of serving tongs. Samuel Pepys recorded one hundred pairs of
"Sparrowgrass tongs" in the 17th century, but no known examples survive. The earliest
extant pairs date to c. 1745 and were scissor like, rarely over a 1/2 wide with ribs inside
one or both arms. They were similar in size to tailor's shears (Collector's Dictionary of
the Silver and Gold of Great Britain and North America, Michael Clayton, World
Publishing, NY, 1971, p. 350). Pickford, (Silver Flatware English, Irish and Scottish
1660-1980, Ian Pickford, Antique Collectors Club, Baron Publishing, Suffolk,1983 p.
178), however, said they didn't come into existence until the mid 18th century. Despite
all of the emailed explanations from the dealer, I just couldn't get past the great
dissimilarity between these serving tongs and tea tongs of the 1720 period. So,
operating under the assumption that they are mid 18th century serving tongs made by
James Harmar, there was still the question of which James Harmar. I decided to pick
up where the last email left off: Who was more likely to have made serving tongs in
general, a large worker or a buckle maker? Could or would a buckle maker make things
beside buckles? If so, what else did 18th century buckle makers commonly make?
How skilled were buckle makers? Were they artists or just tradespeople? That
research is where I finally came to my own conclusions about the tongs.
First, I found a very helpful article entitled, "Sir Edward Thomason; Silversmith, Inventor
& Captain of Industry," Trevor Downes, Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks
& Makers' Marks, the entire contents of which can be found at www.925-1000.com/
a_Thomason.html. According to the article, during the 18th century, Birmingham "was
like a huge factory and the world was its customer. Manufacturing was the chief
business, with buckle making alone estimated to employ an incredible five thousand
workers. Men, women and children made them, and men, women and children wore
them, everybody from the king to the farm laborer, and Birmingham satisfied that
demand, turning them out by the million." That was my first clue. I had thought about
the simple rectangular buckles worn on the everyday shoe of the 18th century, but the
buckles of kings? What did they look like? Wouldn't it take more skill than a child could
muster to make buckles fit for a king? If you were the buckle maker to the King,
wouldn't that require some real skill and a great sense of design? Wouldn't there also
be levels of quality in between the buckles of kings and those of the farm laborer?
Wouldn't it take some skill to make those buckles?
The article went on to discuss the transformation of Matthew Boulton's manufacturing at
Soho, in Birmingham, when it passed to the young entrepreneur, Edward Thomason,
after Boulton's death in 1809. Like Boulton, Thomason's father was a buckle maker.
"[H]is output was prolific making 1,000 pairs a day, six days a week during busy times."
The younger Thomason was "articled" to Boulton at the age of sixteen. By the time he
took over his father's factory in 1793, "inspired by his time with Matthew Boulton, he
was full of ideas and was a human dynamo. He started at first making gilt and plated
buttons of the finest quality and then gold jewelry, this was followed by the striking of
gold, silver and bronze tokens and medals, and silver toys, watch chains,
buckles . . .etc. and in a very short time [he] increased the sales space to an amazing
twelve showrooms. "Noting that the young Thomason was only sixteen when he went
to work for Boulton, it stands to reason that he learned the technique, for making more
than just buckles, in Boulton's shop. The fact that he was making "buttons of the finest
quality and then gold jewelry, " would certainly support a conclusion that buckle makers
could make a variety of highly stylized small objects, but would they make tongs?
By 1796, Thomason was heavily involved with inventions, beginning with an unmanned
fireship, followed by a wind powered water pump in 1797, and retractable carriage steps
in 1799, but his greatest accomplishment was an improvement to the corkscrew, which
he patented in 1802. "The next fourteen years saw his factory turn out 130,000 units
before allowing others to manufacture under license and the design is still to this day
considered by many to be the finest corkscrew ever made. Perhaps Thomason knew
this as each one carried the motto "Ne Plus Ultra" (None Better). Production at the
manufactory continued at an amazing rate, turning out silver spoons, sugar tongs, wine
labels, jewelry, etc." What was that? Back up a few words please. Did someone say
tongs? Yes, tongs. If this article doesn't give you a new impression of buckle makers, I
don't know what would. Apparently, at least this buckle maker, and most likely Boulton,
who trained Thomason, were skilled at the manufacturing of a variety of small silver
objects. So what about other buckle makers of the 18th century?
My search led me to a 96 page thesis entitled, "The Gold Rock: 17th and 18th Century
Metal Buckles from Orange Bay, Eustatius" Bachelor Thesis by Ruud Stelten, Leiden
University, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden, April 2009, which can be found in its entirety
_century_metal_buckles_from_Orange_Bay_Eustatius. Stelten states that " [t]he
earliest shoe buckles date to the beginning of the latter half of the seventeenth century.
The first ones were purely functional and not much to look at. They sometimes formed
the center of a lace bow and were set high up on the shoe. They were shaped like a
bean and sometimes made of silver or bronze. Twenty-five years after their first
appearance this type faded out of fashion. From the late seventeenth until the end of
the eighteenth century shoe buckles came to be regarded as articles of high
fashion" (The Gold Rock, Stelten, 2009, Leiden, p. 17). In 1720, it became the fashion
to have, not only elegant shoe buckles, but matching knee and breech buckles as well.
(Ibid). Stelten is aware of only one single piece buckle in the extensive St. Eustatius
collection, the rest being made in two parts.
The two piece shoe buckles can be divided into two categories: those
dating to the period 1660-1720 and those dating to the period between 1720-1800.
In both periods they were regarded as highly fashionable jewelry. A person's
status could be judged by a swift glance at his or her feet. There were even buckles
for special occasions, such as the mourning buckle which was worn when attending
Buckles dating to the first period (1660-1720), known in England as
Jacobean shoe buckles, are usually relatively small (less than 45 mm long) and
have asymmetrical, subannular, trapezoidal or rectangular frames. Concave sides
are typical for the latter half of this period . . . The decoration predominantly consists
of moulded extensions, knobs and surface ornaments like shell and flower motifs . . .
the frames were accompanied by stud, anchor and cooking pot shaped chapes with
a single tongue (Ibid p. 18). . .
. . . After 1700 these types of frames were slowly replaced by rectangular
and subrectangular ones, known in England as Georgian shoe buckles. [As we heard in the article about Boulton and Thomason], by the 1720XXXs shoe buckles were, except
for the very poor, in use amongst all social classes. They were worn by men,
women and children (Ibid).
The shoe buckles dating to the second period (1720-1800) are usually
larger than the ones from the period before, averaging a length of 65 mm by the
1760's and reaching lengths up to 100 mm or more towards the end of the century.
This was a result of a new fashion trend which was started by the French
ambassador to England, the Comte d'Artois (later King Charles X), who in 1777
introduced large and highly curved shoe buckles . . .Moulded ornaments and
engravings were the most common forms of decoration in this period, with a vast
array of decorative elements such as rosettes, openwork, grooves, rope patterns
and twisted ribbons . . . (Ibid p. 19).
The buckles were cast in moulds after which they were finished by hand
tooling. This resulted in standardization of forms, but as the Statian collection will
show, the variation in decorative features reflecting the skill and style of the
individual craftsmen is virtually endless. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards
however, buckle makers developed increasingly elaborate casting techniques in
which the decoration was made as part of the buckle. The center of the buckle
industry was Birmingham. Due to the inventions of a stamping machine that enabled
buckles to be pressed from prepared dies, Birmingham produced 2.5 million pairs of
buckles per year in the late eighteenth century. There were around 30,000 people
working in the English buckle trade at this time (Ibid p. 20).
I should add here, that according to Dr. David Shlosberg, author of 18th Century Silver
Tea Tongs, Deanprint Ltd, Cheshire, 2004, there are no known pairs of tea tongs
produced in Birmingham, prior to the 19th century (Shlosberg p.73) I cannot say
whether serving tongs were produced there before 1800. But I shall leave you in
Birmingham nonetheless, picking sparrowgrass out of your shoe buckles, and
pondering this topic for your own conclusions. While you're thinking it over, I should tell
you that I found another somewhat similar pair of serving tongs online today, in the
Victoria and Albert Museum Collection. You can find them following the link at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O104094/asparagus-tongs-harmer-james/ .
Although the style is not the same as our subject pair,
you can note the similarity of style and workmanship, and the fact that the length and
weight are nearly the same as well. The V & A description lists the date as c. 1765 and
the maker as "James Harmar (possibly, maker). " Whether it was Harmar or someone
else, I feel certain that the circa 1760-65 date is correct and that all three tongs were
made by the same person. I am also completely convinced that a buckle maker was, in
many instances, a highly trained artisan who could be quite capable of making highly
stylized and fashionable objects, which might include tongs, if the shop was so
equipped. Whether or not James Harmar of London is my man, I cannot say for sure.
Perhaps there's a buckle maker in Birmingham with an IH or HI mark we have yet to
I welcome your questions and comments, and am grateful for any photos and
references you might provide on Harmer tongs (tea or serving) or serving tongs
predating the mid 18th century. I have provided my email for your convenience:
With Thanks to:
Tom and Myrna Stone for Introducing Me to 18th Century Silver
Dr. David Shlosberg for His Wonderful Book: 18th Century Silver Tea Tongs,
from which I have learned so much
Millicent Creech for a constant willingness to share her knowledge about all
aspects of 17th and 18th century silver
and with heartfelt thanks for the friendship of these four people