Coffee with Mimi: Silver polishing and ironing 

Published 5:31 pm Friday, October 25, 2019


Contributing columnist

Stainless steel and wrinkle-free fabrics are inventions of debatable benefit to the modern home keeper – at least in my opinion. The list goes on, but I will concentrate my remarks on those two for the purposes of this argument.

Email newsletter signup

Stainless steel was discovered in 1913 by Harry Brearley of Sheffield, U.K.; he called it rustless steel. The stuff is darn near indestructible. According to an article by G. P. Thomas, Brearley discovered the material while “trying to solve the problem of erosion of the internal surfaces of gun barrels for the British army during the onset of the First World War.”  Over the years, improvements were made to the blend of metals as the uses and potential markets were expanded. Between 1919 and 1923, stainless steel was formulated for use in surgical scalpels, tools and cutlery right at home in Sheffield.  

While the list of product innovations goes on and on to the present day (China produced 11 million washing machines with stainless steel drums in 2010), I am most interested in the adaptation for cutlery just about 100 years ago. What a boon to the busy homemaker! Utensils which could be soap and water washed and drained to dry — an automatic hit; no more polishing. A sparkling table setting every meal.  

Soon, with the widespread use of the automatic dishwasher in the 1950s, sterling silver and silver plate items nearly disappeared in the average house. More accurately, they were wrapped up and stuck in a dark corner of a cabinet, rarely hauled out. Often when they were gathered in anticipation of a special dinner, they were so tarnished that the thought of delving into the Wright’s Silver Cream jar (if you could find it) was too daunting. Back to the deep, dark corner of the cabinet. Maybe next year.

I fell heir to all of my mother-in-law’s silver years before her estate was settled. I love to polish silver; she did not. Mind you, I don’t do it as often as I should.  I also keep it out in the dining room fully exposed to atmospheric conditions which make it not shiny due to dust and general air. But, when I decide to use it, I gather my rubber gloves, Wright’s (it really is the best), towels and dish cleaning liquid and settle in for the long haul.  If it is really darkly tarnished, I resort to the Tarnex. I’m sure Martha Stewart is rolling over in her perfectly appointed dining room/butler’s pantry. But, we do what we do.

As the sparkling silver accumulates on the table to thoroughly dry, after towel drying of course, a warm feeling of satisfaction settles in —  it is so pretty and old fashioned; it is comforting.

We live in a world where there seems to be barely the time to cook a real dinner, and I’m talking about spending a whole afternoon polishing silver when I could grab the stainless and serve the roast in the same pot I used to cook it.  Of course, I grab the stainless and the one dish which does it all most days. But, there are the days when the occasion calls for a special touch and sparkle. The silver platter and punch bowl are just what is needed and I spend an afternoon getting them ready. 

For the past several years, we have gone to the beach for Thanksgiving.  We can barely get all the regular vacation and beach gear in the car, so silver, china and crystal for Thanksgiving dinner are out of the question.  

This year, for a number of reasons, we are at home for the holiday.  I am armed and ready. The kids roll their eyes anytime I assign them to set the table in the dining room.  I used to give them choices for china, glassware and silverware. I have accumulated several sets over the years — my mother-in-law’s silver, for example.  Now, I set out the materials so I don’t have to listen to their grumbling that we really don’t need to do all that, just go with the everyday stuff.

Not happening.  Every so often, it is good to take the extra time to do something like create a special meal with special things that mean something — at least to me, anyway.  More often than not, we are pressed for time and it is more important to be together and use the everyday dishes. But, when the opportunity presents itself, I polish the silver and enjoy.

 Now, about the wrinkle-free fabric. Did I mention that I also love to iron? I have accumulated a nice supply of table linens and don’t mind using them. 

When the day comes that my possessions are to be dispersed, I don’t know what will happen.  My children are thoroughly modern. My mother-in-law left specific instructions as to the divvying up of her item — silver, crystal, china and the like —  between the girls. There seems to be interest in the china and the crystal which will, after all, go into the dishwasher. But, the silver is another story, just maybe not theirs.