Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – September 2002
Growing up in South Africa, I remember once a week Esther Mahlangu, our maid, sitting in the sun on the stoep (back yard step), legs outstretched, apron protecting her workers uniform, silver objects piled on her lap, polishing the family silver for hours on end. I suspect it never did the silver much good in the long-term, but my parents’ silver always looked shiny and new. We never realized that the cardinal rule of caring for silver is ‘don’t over-polish’; excessive polishing tends to erase decoration and eventually wear through the plating to the base metal.
Although I may dream of owning a good piece of silver one day, I am not in favour of the labour intensive way in which one has to care for the item. My husband inherited silver Shabbat candlesticks from his grandparents, dated to their 25th wedding anniversary in 1942. To be candid, they were not silver so much as copper that had been silver-plated. This was a method of silvering look-alike that was introduced in the1840s so that all but the poorest levels of society could enjoy something that looked like silver.
No matter how much I rubbed and polished in an attempt to improve the appearance of the candlesticks, from years of use, most of the silver had worn off and the brown copper was showing through. In desperation, I recently took them to be restored. They would be restored by means of a process of electroplating which involves covering the base metal (brass, nickel or copper) with nickel and silver of varying thickness by means of electro-deposition.
The restorer pointed out that someone in the past had done a do-it-yourself job on glueing back a broken piece of the candlestick. My father-in-law, known for his D.I.Y. propensities, denies responsibility. Herein lies the second cardinal rule: don’t restore your own silver unless you are an expert.
From the weekly candle lighting ceremony, a body of wax built up on the surface. The restorer pointed out the damage caused by someone hacking off the wax with a knife. A gentler way to remove wax would have been to pour hot water over it to soften it first (but do not immerse in water) – then lay the candlestick down, supporting uneven areas with soft cloths, and carefully removing wax with a blunt object such as a cotton wool swab. Avoid using a toothbrush as it could scratch the surface, unless you make sure that it is continuously soaked in hot water to soften the bristles. Best in fact, to use a car cleaning sponge. Afterwards, if necessary, buffing up with a silver polishing cloth.
When cleansing with a silver cleaning product, do not let any cream substances dry on the item as this can cause problems: cream dries and sticks in crevices and pits and is hard to remove, and when dry cream is wiped off, it can become crusty and scratch the silver.
If you have to wash your silver do it quickly in luke warm soapy water. Rinse and dry thoroughly. Wrapping silver in an anti-tarnish cloth will help protect it from pollutants and scratches. Something I’d never heard of before, but it sounds like a useful tip – a few seashells placed near to the items when stored in a cupboard or display cabinet will help absorb moisture that causes tarnish.
If your silver needs restoring, contact me and I will put you in touch with the restorer who magically transformed our candlesticks making them look as good as when they were purchased 60 years ago.