Only the British have a comprehensive, dateable system for marking and guaranteeing the quality of silver. Set up in the days of the medieval guilds, and continued through war, plague and revolution, it provides the collector with a womderful opportunity to learn about a specialist field of antiques using the information encoded on the items themselves.
This, the "Big Jackson" (as opposed to the "Pocket Jackson", Jackson's Hallmarks: English, Scottish, Irish Silver and Gold Marks from 1300 to the Present Day
), yields up a huge amount of information painlessly and with great efficiency. Sit there with the battered teaspoon you've just pulled out of cardboard box at a bootfair - or the socking great teapot you've inherited from Auntie Flo - and in a few minutes you'll know where it was made, and when, and by who.
There is a great romance in this tale, and some of the details are crammed, along with the technical data, into this book. And when you're bored with checking up the family silver, look at the names on one of the many lists of silversmiths! Eat your heart out, Dickens, you never invented the like of Dike Impey, Ebenezer Cocker (I've got one of his spoons), Marmaduke Daintry, Magdalen Feline, Dinah Gamon (yes, there are a surprising number of ladies, about 5-10% in the 18th century)), Mordecai Fox and Jackson Bumries. Whole dynasties can be traced, widows inheriting a husband's workshop and passing it on to their children, partnerships setting up and dissolving, in a world of Quakers, Huguenots and Flemish incomers. The magic of British silver is that we can trace all of this.
The black and white illustrations of marks are clear, and where desirable often augmented by little photos in the margins. You may occasionally find marks which aren't in the book (records at some assay offices have suffered the odd loss over the centuries; not always due to the Luftwaffe) but the book even illustrates marks where it has to say the maker is "unidentified", which lets you know you've found the end of the tale at least. An index of initials helps you get quickly to the right page. All in all, it's a model of what a reference book should be. The modern edition is edited by Ian Pickford of the Antiques Roadshow.