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. 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