by Kassandra Lamb with guest blogger, Susan Reiss
I’m pleased to introduce today’s guest blogger, Susan Reiss. Susan writes mysteries set in St. Michaels, Maryland, an Eastern Shore harbor town near where my husband and I stay when we summer in Maryland. Her stories also feature antique silver pieces… but I’ll let her tell you about that. Take it away, Susan!
“The vault is down the basement steps on the right.”
First line of a mystery novel? No, it was the beginning of my adventure at the Talbot County Historical Society, where I discovered that the products of our imagination are sometimes more real than we imagined.
I love sterling silver pieces so much that they are the theme of my cozy mystery series set in St. Michaels in Talbot County, Maryland.
While doing research, I discovered that a London silversmith came to the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in 1655 and bought an island that still carries his name. Instead of making silver pieces, Thomas Bruff became a real estate mogul, buying and selling land until he became a gentleman. In the local historical records, there was a whiff of a rumor that he made some silver pieces while here. His male heirs—nine of them—worked as silversmiths but only some of their pieces survive today.
For my new book, I “created” a silver spoon made by the original Bruff and placed it at the center of the mystery.
Imagine my surprise when the invitation arrived from the Talbot County Historical Society to visit their vault and see silver spoons made by the Bruff family, including one from the hand of Thomas Bruff, the patriarch of the family.
The society’s museum is under renovation so it was down the steps to the vault on the right… the vault that was the size of several huge living rooms! On a desk lay five small packages of white tissue and brown felt. After putting on clean cotton gloves supplied by the collections manager, the adventure of unwrapping the treasures began.
There was a large spoon made by a very busy Bruff descendant who ran an inn, operated a ferry and made silver pieces. It dates back to the early 18th Century and was an excellent example of a British desert spoon, about the size of our oval soup spoon. Maybe they didn’t want to miss a morsel!
The manager found another package in a stray box and we unwrapped a gorgeous silver punch ladle, also a product of the Bruff tradition.
Another spoon was made by the rogue of the family. His trail of silver pieces goes from one Eastern Shore town to another, then across the Bay to Baltimore, then New York and finally to Nova Scotia, always one step ahead of the law.
The last package on the desk, smaller than the others, held the treasure I’d come to see–the spoon made of coin silver and attributed to the original Thomas Bruff. I thought the manager was going to faint when I mentioned the value was probably four to five figures because there are so few in existence.
Why so valuable? Because coin silver was a similar grade to that used in British money and the pieces were often melted down for their monetary value at the expense of the craftsmanship. The same thing is happening today with the price of silver so high.
The society’s inventory labeled the piece a teaspoon, but the conservator mused that it must be a tiny serving spoon, for jelly perhaps. Gently, I disagreed.
The English always preferred to drink their tea from a cup. The spoon was meant to rest on the saucer after stirring. If you’ve ever tried to place a teaspoon by a cup, you know it’s hard to get it to stay put. That’s because our American teaspoons are large and clunky in comparison to the original English design that nestles nicely in the space on the saucer.
As I held the spoon, I thought back to the time I sat at my desk and “made up” the story about a spoon made by Thomas Bruff. Not a product of my imagination, it was real. This was a spoon made by a man who braved the Atlantic Ocean and established his family just a couple miles from where I wrote my story. The spoon had escaped the great-melt-down-for-cash and survived more than 340 years of use and storage to come to rest in a dusty basement vault … and in a mystery book.
Have you every made something up, only to discover it was real? Has your family silver survived, or did it get melted down somewhere along the way by ancestors desperate for cash?
Posted by Susan Reiss. Trained as a concert pianist, Susan spent many years as a television writer/producer. She now lives in St. Michaels with her black Lab, Cody who is remarkably like Simon, the puppy in her series. The Bruff silver is at the center of her latest book, Painted Silver. The other books in the series, Tarnished Silver and Sacred Silver are also available on Amazon. Check out her website for more more about silver and Susan.
Painted Silver, by Susan Reiss:
Accidental sleuth Abby Strickland goes to the Plein Air Art Festival where gifted artists compete for big prizes and fame, and elite art collectors eagerly search for their next acquisitions. Tension between rivals runs high as all are drawn into a web of creative envy, greed… and murder. And, for Abby, love is in the air. It’s a charming summer event… until somebody screams!
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Susie LindauSeptember 16, 2014 at 10:44 am
That is super cool! That’s happened to me in real life. When we built our house 14 years ago, I couldn’t find many photos of French estates, so I used my imagination. Then a friend came to see it who lives in the South of France every summer. I’ll never forget her reaction. “You nailed it!” I don’t know how, but I won a past life regression and was told I had lived in Paris….
Susan ReissSeptember 16, 2014 at 11:46 am
That is so cool, Susie. It’s a little unsettling when it happens…. almost freaky, but it’s wonderful to make the connection and feel part of something bigger. Does anyone else have a story to share?
Gail PriestSeptember 16, 2014 at 12:52 pm
Hi, I stumbled across this guest post from Susan through the Eastern Shore Writers Association.
I enjoyed reading your post, Susan. It sounds fascinating. I’m going to check out your series.
Kassandra LambSeptember 25, 2014 at 4:26 pm
Hey Gail, I just rescued your comment from spam purgatory. So sorry!
I need to check out that group next time I’m coming to Maryland. I’m only a part-time resident of the Eastern Shore but we writers need to get as much support as possible from each other.
Thanks so much for stopping by, and I apologize again for our over-zealous spam filter.
K.B. OwenSeptember 16, 2014 at 1:34 pm
Hi Susan! Fascinating stuff. How cool that you got to see this rare collection. You certainly deserved it, after your imagination became reality!
It hasn’t yet happened to me…maybe someday… 😉
Susan ReissSeptember 16, 2014 at 1:40 pm
That’s probably why we write… just to have the opportunity or is it the excuse to explore the world!
shannon espositoSeptember 16, 2014 at 1:40 pm
Hi Susan! That is one of the coolest stories I’ve ever heard! Thanks for sharing it. And it must have felt great to not only hold something you imagined but to share some knowledge with the people trusted with it. I haven’t had anything like that happen, but I would welcome it!
Susan ReissSeptember 16, 2014 at 1:43 pm
Shannon, I must say it was one of the most interesting experiences of my writing career. It felt like all the planets aligned. I used to live in Washington D.C. surrounded by historical things of note. Now, I live on the Maryland Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in what is labelled a rural area. It just proves that you never know what is under your nose!
Jennifer JensenSeptember 16, 2014 at 5:34 pm
That’s so cool, Susan! And how could a museum administrator/curator not have a clue as to the value of one of her pieces? I don’t have any similar stories…yet. Maybe I’ll create something for ancient Ireland and find out it’s true on another visit. Or we could time-travel back and get the real thing!
Kassandra LambSeptember 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm
Thanks so much for being our guest today, Susan! I loved your post, and learned so much from it. Who knew that our teaspoons were different from the Brits’ version.
But now you’ve got me thinking about how I could melt down my grandmother’s silverware if I ever get desperate for money to pay my editor. 😉
Susan ReissSeptember 16, 2014 at 9:01 pm
Oh NO! Please think again. Sell your gold. Not the silver. So many patterns are no longer available because they are discontinued (no longer in production) or obsolete (the molds no longer exist). We always think we can replace things. That’s not always the case with sterling silver made for the dining room.
Kassandra LambSeptember 17, 2014 at 11:55 pm
I’m just yanking your chain, Susan. My brother actually has my grandmother’s silver, and it is a discontinued pattern. He’s holding it for my niece, but doesn’t dare give it to her yet. She’s poor enough right now (just out of grad school) that she might melt it down.
Susan ReissSeptember 18, 2014 at 12:00 am
Susan ReissSeptember 18, 2014 at 12:00 am
Oh, I’m so glad!
Vinnie HansenSeptember 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm
I love that shot of the stairs down to the vault! What an interesting experience, Susan, to have your fiction realized, so to speak.
Kassandra LambSeptember 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm
I love that pic too, Vinnie. It’s so creepy looking.