Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Antique Wine Coasters, Why So Wide?

Several months ago we found a pair of antique silver wine coasters in a shop in the town near Darlington House.  They were being sold by a family of pickers whose offerings have been a fertile hunting ground for us in the past, and whose threshold we cross regularly in search of the treasures within.

A handsome early cut-glass wine decanter
fits perfectly within the well of the coaster,
and looks far better than a mere wine bottle,
no matter how lofty the vineyard

The coasters we found are rather large, measuring six inches across, with a silver galley standing two inches high.  The galley is pierced in a manner suggesting the Gothick taste.

When we found the coasters they were a bit the worse for wear.  The galleys were bent and/or dented in several places, and the wood of the bases had lost its finish and was dried out, and bleached from having been submerged in soapy hot water many times over the years.  They had lost their protective felt backings, too.

Our Ball, Black & Co. wine coasters in "as found" condition

We were attracted to the coasters because we found them handsome and admired their substantial scale.  We have collected antique coasters over the years, primarily papier-mâché ones, but we did not have any period silver and wood wine coasters in our collection, only modern reproductions.  We were confident that the coasters we found would once again look their best once they were attended to by a specialist we know of in Manhattan who could refurbish them appropriately.

An 1864 newspaper advertisement for
Ball, Black & Co.

Image courtesy of the Silver Forum

The coasters are marked "Ball, Black & Co." and also "STERLING."  Ball, Black & Company was a high-end retailer of jewelry, silver, and objet de vertu in New York City from 1851 until 1874, when it was reorganized as Black, Starr & Frost.  In its day Ball, Black & Co. was more prestigious than Tiffany & Company, which is the closest comparable today.

The former Ball, Black & Co. building today
Image courtesy of realworldhouses

Until 1860, Ball, Black & Co. marked its silver "950," which is a particularly high content of pure silver, and higher than the 925 amount (meaning that 92.5% of the metal is pure silver and 7.5% of it is an alloy) required to be marked "sterling."  In 1860 Ball, Black & Co. began marking its silver as "sterling," as our coasters are marked.  Consequently, I date our coasters as having been made anywhere between 1860 and 1874.

Even a simple blown-glass decanter is preferable
to place in one's coaster than a wine bottle

Many people today don't know that wine coasters were not originally intended to be used to hold bottles of wine, but rather carafes or decanters of wine.  Until fairly recently, it was common practice to decant one's wine from a bottle into a carafe or decanter.  Doing so promoted the aeration of the wine and also allowed for leaving sediment behind in the bottle, to be discarded.  Now that modern wine making techniques have largely done away with sediment in bottles, relatively few people decant their wine anymore.

Except we do, of course.

Over the years we have collected a handsome array of decanters and carafes that we use to pour wine at table.  They range from very basic, simple blown-glass ones to elaborate cut-crystal ones.  Their bases are larger than a typical wine bottle's, and they fit comfortably in the period wine coasters that we have in our collection.

Our Ball, Black & Co. wine coasters after refurbishment

It is far more pleasing to use a pretty decanter to pour one's wine at table than to pour it from a bottle, and it is most appealing when said decanter stands within a handsome coaster when it is not being used to administer one's wine glass.

And that's how we do it at Darlington House.

All photographs, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick


  1. Hello Reggie:
    Your silver wine coasters are very pretty indeed. The pierced gallery is exceptionally attractive with just the right amount of ornamentation to make the coaster decorative without being over fussy and elaborate.

    Although almost an aside within your account, we have been pleasingly sidetracked to learn of 'Waltham watches', something we had vaguely heard of previously but had never fully appreciated until now.

    Your fully restored coasters are, we are sure being put to regular and good use at Darlington House. How very satisfying that you were able to get such quality restoration work done by a local specialist.

  2. I really appreciate a posting that is so well photographed, so informative and so interesting. I learned a lot from you this morning. And the blown glass decanter is a beauty!

  3. They are beautifully restored. I love when I see people actually use and enjoy these types of beautiful things from the past. Imagine what dinners and conversations they have been present at in their 150 or so years.

  4. Michele from BostonJune 7, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    A lovely addition to the table or sideboard at Darlington!

  5. Something of an aside, but I have a question that seems like the sort of thing you would know: how does one clean a decanter? I have several beautiful antique decanters that have developed an unattractive residue over the years, and I have been completely unsuccessful in removing said grime. I don't think they have been permanently etched, as can occur with decanters that hold liquors too long, because I am able to remove it in areas that a brush will reach. Thanks in advance for any insight.

    And your coasters really are lovely.

  6. Very pretty coasters!!! And they do look pretty on a dining table!!! Especially with pretty decanters in them!!!!

    We have a small collection at Linderhof (and are brining home from England one that would be ideal for a bottle of ice wine) and we use them whenever we serve red wine at dinner. Alas, we don't decant, however, so we use them for the bottles.

  7. Hello Nick, I too have beautiful antique decanters. I clean them with a hand full of rice and warm water. Put the rice in the decanter add warm water let set for a few minutes than swish around until clean. To dry your decanter, roll up a paper towel and insert into the decanter all the way to the bottom. This will pull out all of the moisture from your decanter. When dry put stopper in and enjoy! Jane

  8. Dear Reggie, as always you write a wonderful column. Thank you again for making my day a little more special...Jane

  9. Ah, I have the answer to Nick Heywood. You need something called, (bizarrely) "Magic Balls"...for "cleaning vases, decanters, etc....swirl magic balls and a little water around until clean. Rinse and dry magic balls for re-use. (Magic Balls are tiny copper spherical, well balls.)"

    BTW, Nick Heywood, your name is very familar; you don't have sister called Charlotte by any chance? (Sorry Reggie on this occasion to hijack your blog as a facebook facility.)

  10. Here's a comment that came in via email:

    I too decant wine into carafes which I set in silver coasters on the table.

    Here's a question though: A very swish friend of mine told me that my decanters (typical, bottle shaped ones with glass stoppers) were actually meant for white wine, and that red wine is properly decanted into "claret jugs", as they are known "in the trade"- typically crystal, with a handle and a silver collar and lid. As I like white wine cold (colder than true aficionados would perhaps approve), I continue to decant red wine and leave the white in the 'fridge to cool until called for (more frequently than is perhaps good for me). My fancy friend, however, also continues to arch his eyebrows every time he comes for dinner.


  11. This may be one of my all time favorite blog posts! Excellent! I appreciate your interesting and educational style! I also appreciate your inclusion of the historical information on Black, Ball & Co. I am the CIO for the currently named company Black, Starr & Frost and always enjoy and appreciate mentions of the historic company.

  12. Dear Jane and Columnist,

    Thanks so much for the decanter cleaning tips. I'm going to try the rice tonight, and have placed an order for Magic Balls (or really an off brand purported to be the same -- true Magic Balls appear to be available in the UK, but not stateside).

    Columnist, I don't have a sister named Charlotte, but we Heywoods with an E are rare and if I run into a Charlotte Heywood, I will let her know she's being searched for.

    And thanks, Reggie, for the dialogue.


  13. An old antique dealer in New Orleans told me to use Polident denture cleaner to clean decanters, vases and delicate glassware- I would imagine that in New Orleans he would know a thing or two about sticky old decanters

  14. Your coasters are awfully attractive, especially in the "after" picture, but I must confess that I became more impressed by them after I realized that the building in which Ball, Black & Company's store was located is the very same building where the first season of MTV's "The Real World" was filmed. I'm not proud of this, but an object's having some tenuous connection to an icon of pop culture can sometimes trump the beauty or historical interest of said object in my mushy, television-addled brain.

  15. J&L Hattat: Thank you for your comment. I am most pleased that we were able to find someone to refurbish the coasters, as you write. In my experience, I have learned that people who say "Noone does that any more" are mistaken. You can find someone to do most anything, however esoteric, it jut takes perseverance, effort, and time. Case in point: I have a number of silver picture frames that I inherited where the velvet backing was shot. After looking about off and on for over a decade, I finally found someone who would replace it, and mine have now been refurbished. Almost everyone I ever asked, told me that I should forget it, since "noone does that any more."

  16. Stephanie: Yes, one of the great pleasures of living amongst old things is wondering what they have witnessed, so to speak. History resonates.

    Nick Heywood: Thank you for prompting an entertaining and educational dialog. I, too, have been bedeviled by cloudy decanters and vases, and now I understand we needn't be any longer!

    Martha: I am heartened that you also use said coasters. But, please do consider decanting your wine as Reggie does,it is so much more pleasing!

    Anon 8:32: What an excellent suggestion to swish rice about a cloudy decanter, and one that I was not aware of. I must try it! Thank you.

    Columnist: Thank you for the suggestion, I can just imagine what would happen if I did a search for "Magic Balls" on my computer at work. I am sure that I would get a call from my firm's computer police in about five seconds flat! Seriously, I must find said spheres!

  17. Anon 8:32: My apologies, I did not realize it was you, Jane!

    Magnus: I am full of woe to find you are having difficulty posting comments here, as I always look forward to what you have to say, as I know my readers do, too. Thank you for emailing me your comment. Methinks your Swish friend is perhaps a bit too particular in these matters, and perhaps a bit too free, too, with voicing his opinions at your dining table, a place where it seems he is not so particular as to refrain from finding his way to from time to time...

  18. Anon 1:29: Thank you for honoring me with your comment, and appreciation. I blush.

    Nick Heywood: It is I who should thank you for exciting such a spirited dialog here on RD. Thank you.

    Thomas: This is an excellent suggestion and one that I heard elsewhere, many years ago but never acted upon it. Not only do the citizens of NOLA know a thing or two about antiques, but I am not surprised they know something about denture cleaners, too, given some of the teeth I saw (or, more pointedly, didn't see) there on a visit not that long ago... All funning aside, one adores New Orleans, for all that it has to offer!

    Anon 1:00: Thank you for your comment and enlightening my readers as to the more recent activities within what once had been BB&Co's building.

  19. I'm not sure where Nick Heywood is based? but you buy Magic Balls-actually copper and tiny- at branches of John Lewis in the UK. Not sure how effective they are, my Uncle Monty, who keeps his Fairy washing-up liquid in chipped Waterford claret jug, uses smashed up eggshells to clean his cloudy glassware!

    Best from Greeneyedboy

  20. Now that's an interesting suggestion...rice! I had heard about "Magic Balls" as I used to subscribe to a ton of wine catalogues but have never used them. I don't decant wines unless they are very young (to aerate) very old (because of sediment) or a great wine.

    Magnus, as an old wine geek, I can tell you your wine friend is full of bs. No one uses those claret jugs anymore, particularly with a lid. Part of the reason to decant a red wine is to aerate and you can't do that with a lid. As to white wines, I share your plight and have solved it by sticking my bottles of white and rose in a silver wine bucket full of iced water which lies on top of a stand (silver also) and which is placed on the floor to my right. Case closed. Occasionally I will use one of my decanters after chilling the wine in the fridge. White wine should be no colder than 50 degrees F if you really want to enjoy it.

    Reggie, I will have to talk to you about restoring the back of some of my old frames. Great post, as always.


  21. Greeneyedboy: Thank you for your comment. In the US I believe an equivalent product to "Magic Balls" is "Decanter Beads." I used to buy Fairy washing-up liquid when visiting England to bring home to friends as an amusing souvenir. Your Uncle Monty sounds like quite the chap. I have never heard of the smashed up egg shells method of ridding one's bottles and vases of cloudiness. Must try it.

    Lindaraxa: I agree with you, Magnus's fancy friend doesn't sound like he knows what he's talking about. Funny you should mention silver wine coolers, for they are the subject of a future post of mine. I am happy to talk with you about your picture frames, at any time.


Please do comment! I welcome and encourage them, and enjoy the dialogue.

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