Domestic silver has existed in Canada since colonial times. The ruling classes of the French regime owned substantial quantities of Silver objects, which they brought with them or imported from France. The earliest known works actually made in New France, dating from the first quarter of the 18th century, were produced by French-trained craftsmen who passed on their skills through an Apprenticeship system. Among the important silversmiths active in Québec City and Montréal during the French regime were Paul Lambert, Roland Paradis, Jacques Pagé and Jean-François Landron.
As little domestic silver has survived, it is difficult to determine how much was made in the colony. Silver, obtained by melting coins or existing silver articles, was always in short supply. Some locally made works no doubt were lost in refashioning, were converted into cash, destroyed in fires or taken back to France. Early surviving flatware indicates that tablespoons were the most numerous items made, along with forks and long-handled ragout spoons. Examples are of considerable weight and follow the plain, handsome 18th-century French style, with handle tips turned up. It was customary to lay spoons and forks facedown on the table and variations occur in such details as the engraved decorative drop on the back of the spoon bowl. Owner's initials are often engraved on the back near the maker's marks.
In hollowware, many small tumbler cups bear the marks of Québec silversmiths. Another popular French form is the 2-handled dish or écuelle, for stews or soups. Plates, wine tasters, candlesticks and salt cellars are less common, although enough exist to indicate they were made locally, as were snuffboxes and buckles. These colonial domestic works, although unoriginal in form, reflect a restrained style, competently executed. Decoration consists of simple raised or engraved bands, small details such as a shell or leaf motif and, sometimes, a coat of arms or the owner's name as an integral part of the piece.
After the establishment of British rule, silversmiths continued to make domestic silver in the traditional French forms. As the colony was cut off from French sources of supply, resident craftsmen occasionally received important commissions such as soup tureens or ewers. Remaining works confirm the excellent workmanship of such smiths as Ignace-François Delezenne, Jacques Varin and François Ranvoyzé (one of Québec's greatest silversmiths).
Gradually, the influence of British and European immigrants and imports changed the colony's style of living and the silver that reflects it. With the introduction of sheet silver, a new method for making hollowware emerged: the silversmith cut and joined separate parts into cylindrical forms, instead of raising a vessel into shape by hand.
From the 1780s to 1840s, Canadian silversmiths, inspired by the new techniques, produced teapots, sugar bowls, creamers, beakers and mugs in fashionable neoclassical styles from Britain and the Continent. They also created small articles such as pepper and spice casters, nutmeg graters, wine strainers, mustard pots, snuffboxes, vinaigrettes, buckles and buttons. In flatware, tablespoons and forks, as well as soup, sauce and toddy ladles, appear in the "Old English" and "Fiddle" styles, with handle tips turning down. A few spoons are decorated with a shell motif or bright-cut engraving; more often they are plain. Some have owner's initials in script on the front of the handle end. Other utensils used include teaspoons, sugar-sifting spoons and tongs; salt, mustard and marrow spoons; meat skewers and fish servers. These forms changed little until the Victorian era, when more decorative styles became fashionable.
In Québec City, Laurent Amiot became the leading silversmith, after Ranvoyzé; they were followed by a line of excellent craftsmen. However, Montréal emerged as the centre for domestic silver, spurred on by a growing population and the economic success of the Fur Trade. Important silversmiths from Britain were Robert Cruickshank, James Hanna and, later, George Savage. Among the Europeans were the Arnoldis, Schindlers and Bohles. Canadian makers also found work, notably Salomon Marion and Paul Morand, both apprentices of the distinguished workshop of Pierre Huguet dit Latour, another locally born silversmith.
Halifax was the third major silversmithing centre in pre-Confederation Canada. By 1800 British and German immigrants and American Loyalists had established a tradition of the craft in Noval Scotia. Their works closely echo those being made in Québec at the time, although their flatware is often more decorative. Rare pieces of early hollowware include an epergne, an inkstand and a silvergilt clock. Among the Nova Scotia silversmiths, of whom Peter Nordbeck was perhaps the most skilled, are James Langford, William Veith and, later, Julius Cornelius and Michael Septimus Brown. Many are also known for their Jewellery, into which they incorporated local gold, stones and shells. Among New Brunswick Loyalists were silver craftsmen who also advertised as jewellers and watchmakers. Their table silver consists primarily of flatware. Imports remained the prime source of domestic silver in all the Atlantic provinces. In Newfoundland and PEI, advertisers only occasionally mentioned making their own silverware.
Ontario produced little handmade silver before the transition to manufactured wares. The first local work may have been by the Loyalist Jordan Post, who settled in York [Toronto] in 1787. Early 19th-century flatware bears the marks of makers in Niagara, Kingston and Toronto. Known hollowware is scarce, although large presentation cups were made by William Stennett (1829) and Henry Jackson (1838).
By the 1850s technical discoveries in England and the US had further affected the silversmith's role. New manufacturing techniques and the introduction of silver electroplating on to base-metal forms resulted in the mass production of inexpensive tableware. Imports increased and local manufacture of silver became concentrated in the hands of a few craftsmen who supplied dealers and were known as "makers to the trade." The firm of Robert Hendery, later Hendery and Leslie, became the leading manufacturer in Montréal. Their marks consist of a lion rampant in an oval and a sovereign head in a square with clipped corners. These marks appear on most Canadian silver from the last half of the 19th century, usually accompanied by the name or initials of the dealer for whom the piece was made. Over 100 dealers, including one in BC, ordered silver from the Hendery firm. In 1899 Henry Birks and Sons took over Hendery and Leslie and expanded across Canada to become the country's largest silversmithing firm.
Individually created sterling presentation pieces are the most unique silver made in Canada during the era of mass production and plated wares. Cups, medals, trowels, ewers and trays were specially ordered to celebrate a victory, an occasion or a particular skill. Engraved inscriptions date and identify an object's purpose, and often name the donor and recipient. Many of these pieces and other small souvenir items were intended for display rather than use, a fact that has helped preserve them. Some examples bear decorative motifs in the form of maple leaves and beavers.
By the mid-20th century, silver craftsmen were once again producing handmade works in Canada, usually for special commissions. These orders were placed in an individual's studio and meant that the public was renewing contact with the individual silversmith. Large manufacturing firms and dealers dominate the industry, but a growing interest continues in the craftsmen who combine traditional techniques and styles to form unique designs.
No guild or official rules governed the marking or quality of silver used in Canada until the 20th century. During the French regime, silversmiths used a typical punchmark showing their initials, with a fleur-de-lis or crown above and a star or crescent-type motif below, all enclosed in an irregular-shaped cartouche. Towards the end of the 18th century, Québec makers tended to place their initials, in block capitals or script, in a rectangular or rounded cartouche. Sometimes they added a punch indicating their city. This practice was repeated in the Maritimes but with additional marks of a sovereign's head, a lion and perhaps an anchor. Similar British-type symbols were also loosely used by silversmiths in Québec from 1820 and in Ontario slightly later.