"Sisterhood of the Traveling Silver."

The first wedding that used the silver was a seaside Maine affair with shabby chic tables.
The first wedding that used the silver was a seaside Maine affair with shabby chic tables.

How mismatched silver sets lovely wedding tables

Posted: October 10, 2013

Oh, dear.

I could tell this mother-daughter conversation was not going well.

I was sitting at the dining room table with my friend Melinda and her 24-year-old daughter, Grace, in their Silver Spring, Md., home. They were locked in a "discussion" about flowers for Grace's wedding in a few months.

Grace was trying to explain her vision. She wanted sunflowers. Maybe blue flowers and white ones, too. Casual, yet chic. Personal, yet traditional.

Melinda just wasn't getting it, and the more Grace pressed on, the more her mother expressed doubt.

"I have an idea," I interrupted, not wanting this conversation to deteriorate any further. "Have I ever told you about the Sisterhood of the Traveling Silver?"

I was talking about our "family silver" - a mismatched collection of dozens of thrift-store and yard-sale pitchers, bowls, ice buckets, plates, goblets, sugar bowls, creamers, vases, candy dishes, and compote bowls that already had done three rounds of wedding-centerpiece duty.

My older sister, Daria, assembled the collection piece by piece, but her eldest daughter, Tara, gets credit for the idea.

Tara always had refined taste. As a toddler, she liked her grandmother's sterling silver service so much that, after a visit to her house, she stashed her sugar bowl and creamer in a brown paper bag to take home to her farmhouse.

When Tara was planning her seaside Maine wedding, she wanted a shabby-chic look for the tables, with arrangements in pieces of silver. My sister pushed for mason jars. Tara insisted on silver. "I like the way it shines," she told her mother.

It was up to her mother to find the silver and, oh by the way, not to spend a lot. She took to the assignment like a squirrel looking for nuts. "I'm into hunting and gathering," she explained.

She combed thrift stores in and around her home in Wellsboro, Pa., for secondhand pieces, making regular stops at six or so shops around town, including the local Goodwill.

She stopped by roadside yard sales to forage for tarnished items. Whenever she drove through a new town, she checked out the local junk shop. "Tioga County was a gold mine," she said. "It was easy to find."

In all, she spent $300 or so for about 20 sizable pieces, plus dozens of candlesticks. The most she spent was $20 for a pitcher. Some items were dinged or dented, but that only increased their shabby charm.

Along the way, she made some oddball discoveries. At one place, she found more than a dozen stainless steel cups, stamped with "Vollrath" on the bottom. Upon investigation, she discovered the company made spit cups for dentists. No need to tell any guests the original use of the small vase in front of them.

With elbow grease and silver polish, she turned ugly ducklings into swans. She enlisted our mother in a polishing marathon. As Daria rubbed away years of tarnish, she began to wonder about the stories behind the pieces. One bowl was inscribed with "Our 25th Wedding Anniversary." That seemed like good karma.

Tara's reception turned out just as she envisioned. With floral and striped runners over white tablecloths, each table had an arrangement of white lisianthus, peach roses, and pale blue hydrangea in a piece of silver.

"Everyone wants their wedding to be unique, and collecting the silver for the wedding was a creative endeavor," Daria said. "It was elegant, but casual. It wasn't a cookie-cutter look."

When her next daughter got married, the silver came out of storage. Daughter No. 2 got married in Wellsboro and had her ceremony in a neighbor's hilltop field with a majestic view of mountains and valleys. The reception was held under a tent in the backyard of their farmhouse.

My gift to the bride, who is also named Daria, was doing her flowers. I arranged big, bold zinnias in hot pink and chartreuse with white hydrangea, Queen Anne's lace, and pink cabbage roses. The bride finished off her shabby-chic look with table runners that she made out of burlap.

My brother-in-law's nieces from Wisconsin attended the wedding. One was getting married the following summer and her sister, Janie, was planning the event. They asked if they could borrow the silver.

And so, over the course of the next year, my sister packed a few pieces of silver every time she flew out to see her Wisconsin relatives. Getting her suitcase with silverware through TSA checkpoints at the airport took some doing, but at least now all the airport agents between Chicago and Wellsboro know about buying secondhand silver for wedding centerpieces.

"I think the beauty about the silver is its versatility," said Janie, a professional wedding planner. "It can complement a multitude of themes from rustic country wedding to Great Gatsby glamour or an elegant black-tie affair."

On the big day, inspiration came from the movie Father of the Bride. The couple had their reception in a big, white tent on the front lawn of the home of the bride's parents. This time around, pink and ivory flowers filled the thrift-store silver.

Last August, it was Grace's turn with the silver.

In the run-up to the wedding, Grace was inspired by my sister's scavenging and started combing shops in the Washington, D.C., area for additional pieces. "I had the best time hunting around town for silver," Grace said. "Every Monday, a couple of thrift stores would have a 50 percent off customer appreciation sale, so I would only go on those days to get the discounts."

With 17 tables for her reception, Grace ended up buying an additional eight items, spending only $2 to $10 apiece for pitchers or coffee pots.

Grace and her mother spent hours polishing the silver. "My favorite part of the process was the 'before' and 'after' reveals," Grace said. "Most of the pieces I collected myself weren't in good shape when I purchased them, hence the shabby, but looked amazing after they were given some TLC."

She posted photos on Instagram, inspiring two of her followers to try the same.

Grace's tables at the reception - with arrangements of sunflowers on pale gray tablecloths, and table numbers fashioned from a log - turned out just as she wanted them. "It was exactly as I pictured them," she said. "I take that back, they were better than I thought it would be."

Now, the silver is back in Wellsboro.

My sister keeps a few pieces on her dining room table. She fills them with flowers and thinks of weddings past and weddings yet to come, and wonders where the next stop will be for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Silver.


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

www.inquirer.com/doubledown

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