The Farm Antiques, Wells Maine

Silver, Old Sheffield Plate & Silverplate

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.

Fig. 1.  Sterling silver marks (left to right).  F&S = Maker's  Mark (Fattorini & Sons); Crown:  Assay Mark for city of Sheffield; Lion Passant:  Sterling silver  92.5% silver;  "o" :  year mark for 1906
Figure 1. Sterling Silver Marks (left to right)
F&S: Maker’s Mark (Fattorini & Sons)
Crown: Mark for the city of Sheffield
Lion Passant: Certifies of sterling silver purity
Letter “o”: Year mark (1906)

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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

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