How to Differentiate Between Silver, Old Sheffield Plate and Silverplate
In Part I, I gave a brief history of the development of the British silverplating industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now I would like to offer some tips on how to determine whether a given object is silver, Old Sheffield Plate or silverplate.
In England silver has been marked in some manner since the 12th century when it was first regulated by Parliament. The marks made it possible to trace the maker and the place of manufacture. This helped to protect the consumer, for if it was determined that the silver object was not actually pure enough to be marked as silver, the culprit could be found and punishment could be meted out. As silver objects made before 1700 are quite rare, I shall restrict my comments to those made after that date.
In 1719 Parliament established the standard for purity for sterling silver and instituted a mark indicating that an item is of sufficient purity to be deemed sterling. That standard means an item is made of 92.5% pure silver. The mark is a Lion Passant-the image of a lion walking, facing left. You may be sure that an object bearing this mark is English sterling silver made after 1719.
In addition to the Lion Passant there are other marks which give more information about the sterling silver object. There is a mark which will tell you in what city it was assayed (i.e. its purity measured): e.g. London, Birmingham, Chester, Sheffield, Dublin, Edinburgh, etc. There is another mark – generally the sovereign’s head – which will certify that duty was paid on the piece. Another mark will give the year that the item was assayed (generally speaking the year it was made) -these are letters in a shield device. Each year is represented by a different letter of the alphabet. The shape of the shield changed over time; the facetype of the letter changed over time; whether the letter was capitalized or not changed over time. All of these details enable one to determine date of manufacture. Then there are makers marks, usually only letters which will identify the maker. See Figure 1.
If you look at a piece of English silver and wonder if it is sterling or if it is plated, it is easy: if it has the Lion Passant, it is sterling; if it does not have the Lion Passant, it is not. If it is English Sterling silver you should be able to determine the year it was made, in what city it was assayed, you will probably also be able to determine who the maker is, although those lists are far from complete. See Figure 2.
To determine if a piece is Old Sheffield Plate or silverplate there are many clues. If a piece has EPNS (Electroplated Nickel Silver) or EP (Electroplate) marked on it, then it is definitely silverplate. If there is a maker’s mark on it, the maker can be identified by consulting a good “mark book”. To find silverplaters one such good reference book is: Sheffield & Birmingham Victorian Electroplaters Book of Marks, Andrea De Giovanni, 1991. For sterling silver and Old Sheffield Marks:, Guide to Marks of Origin on British and Irish Silver Plate and Old Sheffield Plate Makers’ Marks, by Frederick Bradbury, 1968 is a good source. There were untold numbers of silverplaters in the 19th century and much of the information about the smaller manufacturers has been lost. The lists in these mark books are incomplete at best, but they do provide a starting point which is very helpful. Many factories changed their mark over time, so it is possible to approximately date a piece by the mark itself. Figure 3. In the case of one manufacturer, Elkington, their pieces were so completely marked that you will know what year the item was made, but this is unusual for silverplaters.
Most Old Sheffield Plate is not marked but a great deal of silverplate is also not marked so lack of any marking is not definitive. Most of what is generally available in the marketplace today is silverplate, but Old Sheffield plated wares are still around. Since Old Sheffield Plate is made like a sandwich with silver being the bread and copper being the filling, look to the edges for clues. If when you turn over a piece, there is a thread-like silver protuberance on the underside of the edge, then it is Old Sheffield Plate (see Figure 4). If it is absolutely smooth, then it is silverplate. If there is a telltale seam where two ends were put together, (often copper is showing through at this seam), then you have Old Sheffield Plate (see Figure 5).
Fig. 4 Old Sheffield Plate showing the ridge on the underside of the tray. If it were silverplate, it would be smooth.
If you are looking at a piece that is initialed or has the coat of arms of the owner engraved on the front of the object, you might see a faint, usually round circle that surrounds the engraving. This usually indicates that the piece is Old Sheffield Plate and a sterling silver circle was inlaid into it. This was done so that the engraver would not have to worry about going through the silver layer and hitting the copper core when engraving the coat of arms (see Figures 6 & 7).
One further note about marking: These marks are quite small and can be hard to find. Sometimes they are on the back of an item, but occasionally on the front or on an edge. It can be difficult to read the marks when over time they become worn down with polishing. In other instances upon replating the details of the marks are completely lost. Though it can be quite challenging, it is rewarding to be able to put a maker’s name to a beautiful object and thus locate the object in the overall stream of fine arts design and craftsmanship.