Old Sheffield Plate, Silverplate and Society Part 1

My mother always contended that if one serves food using beautiful utensils and serving pieces, one can be a much poorer chef and no one will notice.English Silverplate Breakfast Server  She was right, moreover it is immensely gratifying to put together a meal and have everything look elegant.  Many of our younger clients are enjoying purchasing fine silverplate and Old Sheffield plate and using it on a regular basis, as they too have discovered it makes entertaining easier and more fun.  The history of Sheffield plate and silverplate reflects the changes in society from the mid-18th through the 19th centuries.

Originally a luxury that only the super rich could afford, silver expanded by the mid 19th century into a huge cutting edge industry that produced elegant items which discriminating individuals from the middle class could also afford.  In this blog, I will summarize the differences between Sheffield plate and silverplate.  I will build on this knowledge in Part Two of this series, where I will explain how to tell what type of silver one is looking at  – sterling, Sheffield plate or silverplate.

In the 18th century, silver was only used by the very wealthy, as it was an expensive commodity. In 1742 Thomas Boulsover of Sheffield invented a new process that became known as Sheffield plating. The name was derived from the town in which it was developed (this process soon spread to other towns such as Birmingham and London, but it is still called Sheffield plating regardless of where it is done). Sheffield plated objects were significantly less expensive than solid silver ones. Always seeking value for money, the aristocracy (later including the Prince of Wales), gentry and professional classes quickly embraced this new technology.

Items made in Sheffield plate could be about one third the price of pure silver ones, but looked the same. In fact there is no simple formula for determining what a plated object versus a silver object should cost; much depends on the intricacy, size, weight and the type of silver (cast or stamped) one is considering. For example, in the 18th century a pair of Sheffield plated candlesticks could cost three pounds versus nine pounds for a stamped silver pair and thirty five pounds for a cast silver pair; a silver soup tureen could cost between fifty and one hundred pounds, while the Sheffield plated one could sell between ten and fifteen pounds

So Sheffield plated items were a relative bargain and everyone liked a bargain, none more so than the wealthy. As Gordon Crosskey in his recent book Old Sheffield Plate stated, “the ultimate success of the industry was the universal patronage of the aristocracy. That in an age of social emulation and conspicuous consumption was of inestimable value.”

SHEFFIELD PLATING – THE PROCESS
Sheffield Plating is a process whereby an ingot of copper is fused by heat with a thinner layer or sometimes a sandwich of silver. It then acts as a single entity that can be hammered or rolled into sheets and then formed into objects. The silver layer is much thicker than silver layers that are applied through the later electroplating process, and as such have lasted longer before showing wear.  Items made from this process are referred to as Old Sheffield Plate.

At first only one side of a piece of copper could be fused to the silver; this created problems that were solved by tinning the underside of the copper, as the tin looked quite similar to silver. However by 1760, the techniques for making a sandwich of silver had been perfected so tinning the underside of objects, such as chambersticks or trays, was utilized only to save money.

The other problem that had to be resolved with the Sheffield plating process was the edges: How to disguise the edge of copper that would be apparent and unsightly unless it could be hidden. Before 1770, the edges were sometimes tinned or left untreated, resulting in a weak edge and a lack of sophisticaiton. More often the edges would be turned under much like a hem.

From 1770-85 the edges were strengthened and nicely finished by using plated wire or plated “u” shaped strips. Sometimes the wire was formed into gadrooned or beaded patterns before being applied.

In this era styles were changing from the rococo to neoclassical. This is the era of simplicity of line, symmetry, elegance through less rather than through more decoration. So the addition of a simple beaded or gadrooned edge was a stylish solution to a problem. In 1784 George Cadman was among the first to apply solid silver to the edges of Sheffield plated objects; others had used it for the tips of spouts for teapots. This was a more expensive way to hide the edges, so generally speaking it was only used for the highest quality items.

SILVERPLATING – THE PROCESS
In the 1830’s George Richard Elkington and his brother Henry Elkington patented the process for electroplating
silver and by the 1840’s had perfected the techniques which were to make them famous. French Christolfe Crystal and SilverplateElectroplating or silverplating was a completely different process from Sheffield plating. Instead of fusing two or three pieces of metal together, the process used electricity to deposit pure silver onto a base metal.

Various base metals were used but “nickel silver,” an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, proved to be the best for electroplating. Items using this base are often stamped with the letters EPNS (electroplated nickel silver). Copper is also used as a base metal, but it is softer than nickel silver and was more commonly used in the 1840-75 period, though some continued to use it through the 19th century.

The advantage of electroplating was its versatility and the fact that it saved a huge amount of manufacturing costs. An item could be totally assembled and then plated; components could be cast in solid base metal and then plated over, rather than the much more time-consuming method of stamping out mounts in Sheffield plate and then filling them with lead before they could be applied to each piece. The silver covered all seams and signs of construction. Different base metals could be utilized for different parts of an object, capitalizing on their inherent strengths. Edges were no longer a problem.

THE EXPANSION OF THE SILVERPLATING INDUSTRY AND THE SOCIETAL EFFECTS
The Elkingtons built a huge factory in Birmingham, England in 1838. By the early 1840’s they were producing large quantities of electroplated silver. Many of the old Sheffield plating firms tried to hold on, but by the 1860’s they had either converted to electroplating or they were out of business. Other electroplating businesses crowded into the marketplace which mainly centered around the cities of Sheffield and Birmingham. With the reduction in production costs and the versatility of the electroplating process the industry expanded to produce a huge variety of wares that were now accessible to the ever increasing upper middle class. There were thousands of new companies involved in electroplating, some large, some small, but all adding to the employment of the burgeoning middle and upper middle class.

Society was changing. Middle class ladies could now afford day help to clean their homes and polish their silver. The lady of the house had time to explore social etiquette and discover what was the proper implement to use to serve berries, nuts, pickles, olives, sardines, butter, asparagus. The platers produced new products to serve new found needs. One would not use a berry spoon to serve anything but berries, nor would anything but soup go into a soup tureen.

In today’s world we are all about flexibility; if a soup tureen will work to serve a stew, then it can be used as such. If one needs a centerpiece for a small table and a pretty egg boiler is at hand, then it can be requisitioned for flowers; that would have been unthinkable in the 19th century, but totally appropriate for the 21st century. In fact in our 21st century society we applaud imaginative uses for 19th century objects.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.