Sam Elardo has a self-proclaimed obsession with flea market finds. As the owner of a men’s clothing store in Helena for 25 years, he used antique furnishings in his displays, which he says he “became obsessed with upgrading.” While at market for clothing in New York, he would rise at dawn each Sunday and congregate with locals at neighborhood flea markets, rummaging through a sea of estate furnishings and accessories.
Eventually, he shipped home so many that he decided to open an antique store. No longer in the clothing business, he now owns Helena’s Gracious Living Antiques, housing his finds both past and present, including an impressive collection of silver-plated napkin rings.
Being in the clothing business for so many years gave Elardo an appreciation for quality and detail, which influenced his love of antique napkin rings. Common in the late 1800s, they’re an anomaly today. “Few sit down to a formally set table each day, much less with cloth napkins that require washing and ironing,” he says. “It’s a change in lifestyle.” In Elardo’s collection, several even have monograms, including one with the name “Gertrude,” which was used to denote use by members of the family since linens weren’t washed between every meal. “It’s not something you see much any more,” says Elardo. “Now we have paper napkins.”
In their heyday, napkin rings graced tables in both middle and upper class households. Their hundreds of variations range from vase and statuary-like designs to birds, animals and cherubs. They were especially detailed during the Edwardian era, with not just monograms but also intricate embossing and scrollwork. A very rare style, one of which Elardo owns, depicts Rip Van Winkle, and is valued at around $3,000. Another valuable style, popular with the upper class, is called a combination set, containing a napkin ring, butter pat holder, salt cellar and pepper shaker. Napkin rings grew less detailed in the Art Deco and Mid-Century eras, before ultimately fizzling out in everyday usage.
Elardo doesn’t discriminate against badly damaged napkins rings, which were prone to falling from tables. Instead, he has gone to great lengths to have them expertly silvered and polished over the years. Because of the time and expense involved to resilver, sometimes $100 each, and since fewer silversmiths are now in business to make repairs, he’s learned to become more lax. If a napkin ring has grown dull in appearance but is otherwise in good condition, he doesn’t mind.
He keeps an eye out for telltale hallmarks that indicate their place of production, noteworthy companies being Tufts Silverplate, The Meriden Silver Plate Co. and Simpson, Hall, Miller & Co., among others. He also notes that each and every one of his napkin rings is American-made. “It’s amazing when you consider the quality of what American workers made all those years ago,” he says. “You can find reproductions from the 1970s or ‘80s, but they won’t be as fabulous.”
His well-trained eye continues to fuel his passion for quality antiques, allowing him to spot napkin rings worthy of his collection with remarkable precision. Even at large markets, “I can zero in on them,” he laughs. He keeps a rotating collection of about 100 in his antique store, and a select few of about 15 at home for safekeeping. While most people haven’t seen or heard of them, much less owned one, “I’m very dedicated when I begin to collect something,” Elardo says. “I bought three more just last week.”
Gracious Living Antiques, Helena, (870) 753-9420