The Charleston Silver Lady

February 7, 2011
By William Thrift
Photography courtesy of Anne McQuary

Imagine for a minute that you’re in the British Colony of South Carolina, specifically a farm in the oppressively humid low country.   You make a living growing and harvesting season after season.  Although plants and land are plentiful, family possessions are few and cherished.  Whatever you cannot grow or make, you buy with the silver coins in your pocket.  When the time comes to pass the torch to your son or daughter, you bring your coins to a silversmith and have him melt them down and form them into a wedding goblet garnished with your family name in script.

This large tea set exemplifies the method of decorating silver that became fashionable in America around 1840.

Two hundred and fifty years pass.  Although some of our low country remains the same, much of it would be unrecognizable to the former colonist.  His farm and house may have disappeared, carved and paved into a new shape much like his old coins.  But his wedding gift remains, handed down from generation to generation, through booming times and depressions, preserved in part by the pride in the family name carved into it.

That’s where Dawn Corley, the Charleston Silver Lady, comes into the picture.  She is the most recent of nine generations of Charlestonians who have handed down, in one form or another, family heirlooms accumulated through the years.  One of the things Dawn inherited was a love of history, fostered by an aunt who collected antiques.  Dawn recalls visiting Charleston’s City Market before it became the city’s most famous tourist Mecca.  Back then, silver heirlooms that had lost their families along the way wound up heaped on a table, selling for as little as twenty-five cents a piece.  Thus, Dawn began her collection as a teenager, concentrating on South Carolina pieces and carefully tracing the history of each piece back to its original owner.  In addition to satisfying an innate need to preserve history, this ensured Dawn that her collection was of historic, as well as aesthetic value.

This piece is actually known as a soup tureen. This particular tureen is of massive weight, and its large size holds two gallons.

Dawn’s collection is ninety percent coin silver – a purely American phenomenon in which highly personal and family-specific pieces were created by melting down silver coins.  Since this method pre-dates the beginning of the industrial revolution (about 1830), she is assured that the pieces are hand-made.  Machines never touched them.  But she is also careful to identify and avoid coin silver pieces that may have been altered or amended during later generations with sterling handles or machine etchings.

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