Silver was a metal of great value to ancient civilizations. Also, since silver usually occurs mixed with other metals, while gold is typically found in pure form, it was considered by many to be far more precious than gold. Note that it was also of great value due to its durability and malleability, both of which contributed to its widespread use in the fabrication of ornaments, tools, containers, jewelry and currency.
Silver was mined as early as the 4th millennium BC. The early Egyptians called it “white gold.” As time went by, silver revealed many interesting properties that led to it being assigned supernatural abilities. For instance, the Romans knew that dropping silver coins in water storage containers would ensure fewer soldiers would become sick after drinking and silver powders and tinctures were applied to wounds because they were known to prevent sepsis, a potentially life-threatening complication of infection. This knowledge was shared by various ancient Peoples before they had any knowledge of what was to become modern medicine and biology. They inferred the properties of silver merely by observation, for example, simply by noticing that wine stored in vessels made of silver remained drinkable longer than wine stored in containers made with other materials.
And then there is silverware. The expression “to be served on a silver platter” takes on new meaning when you realize one of the possible initial reasons for the existence of silverware and specifically silver plates, as opposed to wooden bowls. Not only was silver a convenient, durable, malleable and light material to use in the fabrication of tableware, but it was also noticed that spoiled food, as well as spoiled drink, turned silver black on contact. This had to come in handy for noble folk who did not quite trust the kitchen staff.
What they did not know at the time, however, was that the reaction was merely due to the elevated concentration of sulfur in spoiled food and drink. Instead, the common belief then explained such properties by assigning supernatural powers to silver. Interestingly, it is only since the Industrial Revolution that sufficient amounts of sulfur exist in the atmosphere to cause silver to tarnish on its own, without direct contact with visible substances.
As the most reflective of all metals, silver became the metal of choice to use in the fabrication of mirrors, a fine example of silver’s versatility. Over time, silver has played an increasingly diverse role in art, science and industry. It is commonly used in medicines, electronics, batteries, currency and numerous products we take for granted in modern life.
And then there are silver slippers… We’ll talk about that tomorrow!