Silent butler. Sounds like the title character in a murder mystery, but, in actuality, it's just one of the many specialized implements - nutmeg grater, sugar nipper, nipple shield (don't ask!), etc. - from a largely bygone era.
Usually made of copper, brass, or aluminum, a silent butler is "a small receptacle with a handle and hinged cover, used for collecting ashes and crumbs." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2009.) It's akin to the more common crumb tray into which debris on a tablecloth would be brushed.
Most silent butlers fetch no more than $5 to $50 at retail or online auction, but rare examples and those made of more precious metals can command prices that are considerably higher. For example, sterling silver butlers can be quite valuable for the bullion content alone, but add historic context, aesthetic appeal, and quality of execution and it is possible to pay several hundred dollars or more for specimens in good condition.
The majority of silver butlers are actually silver plate, not sterling - a 92.5% silver/7.5% copper alloy which is usually marked 925 - and are thus less valuable. Unless it's genuine Sheffield.
Genuine Sheffield plate was made of fused layers of sterling and copper and was rarely marked. Most pieces marked or advertised as Sheffield are actually electroplated with one or more very thin layers of pure silver, which readily wears revealing the base metal underneath. (For a more detailed description of Sheffield plate, check out the WorthPoint site below.)
Silent butlers represent a time when great attention was paid to utilitarian objects used in even the simplest acts of sweeping up crumbs or emptying ashtrays. For more information on this collectible, check out the resources listed below, and
Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver (ASCAS) - Link - Informative site offers articles, marks, links, more!
Collectible Aluminum Hammers Out a Niche - Link - This piece by Pamela Wiggins for About.com is a nice intro to the subject.
The Oldcopper Website - Link - Especially valuable for the comprehensive list of makers marks on copper and brass wares.
Sheffield and Silver Plate: What to Look For - Link - This piece for WorthPoint by David Lindquist provides several tips for differentiating true Sheffield plate from other types of silver plating.
A Small Collection of Antique Silver and Objects of Vertu - Link - Site is a great resource. Check out the hallmarks section, glossary, and silver dictionary!