You may still have sterling handle knives even if you can't find any hallmarks. It's common for the hallmarks on old knife handles to get buffed or polished away over many years of use. We have a pretty strong magnifying glass and we look for faint imprints or even pieces of letters that indicate the original hallmarks.
In recent history, manufacturers began putting all the hallmarks on the knife blades. You might see, for example, "Stainless Blade Sterling Handle" imprinted on a knife blade. But, it the old days, the sterling hallmark was placed on the handle.
So, if you have a knife that your are worried about, hold it under a good light and a strong magnifying glass. Gradually tilt the knife handle various ways to look for hints of the original hallmarks. Tilt slowly and look carefully. Some hallmarks may run down the side of the handle; others might be at the handle shoulder where it meets the blade.
The picture below illustrates the problem. We took a picture of an old Gorham Buttercup knife handle. By adjusting the brightness and contrast (resulting in the golden color), we are just able to make out the words "Sterling Handle".
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