The Allure of Sheffield Silver
Two hundred and fifty years ago, Sheffield Plate offered consumers a more affordable alternative to sterling silver. Today, these early works of silver plate often command as high or sometimes higher prices than their sterling counterparts. The reason is simple, collectors recognize the significance and beauty of early Sheffield Plate, especially pieces by the great Sheffield makers like Matthew Boulton.
Remarkably, the process of creating this high quality silver plate happened quite by accident, but it was an accident that would eventually allow people outside of the ruling classes and aristocracy to enjoy the grandeur of fine silver. From the 18th through 19th centuries, Sheffield Plate pieces were in great demand and were being manufactured not only in Sheffield, but also in Birmingham as well as in France and Russia. Almost all silver plate produced during this time is known as Old Sheffield Plate. In subsequent years it became known simply as Sheffield Plate.
Of course, Sheffield Plate was as much a part of its time as many other art forms. It was a product of the Industrial Revolution, though manufacturers like Boulton were able to maintain an extraordinary level of quality without sacrificing the principles of production. Unfortunately, Sheffield Plate, born of this revolution of manufacturing, also fell victim to it a short time later, when cheaper and quicker electroplating was introduced early in the 19th century.
It was the end of an era, though collectors find solace in the rarity and superior beauty of these earlier pieces of silver plate. Indeed, Collectors of early Sheffield Plate have a wonderful array of wares from which to choose, from tiny buttons to monumental candelabra to glorious centerpieces. Many pieces of fine Sheffield Plate even rival the finest pieces of sterling in terms of ornamentation and design and no other manufactory did it better than that of Matthew Boulton, truly one of the most notable figures of the Industrial Revolution.
Collecting Sheffield Plate does require a bit of diligence and skepticism. Makers recognized early on the superior quality and beauty of early Sheffield Plate over their own electroplate wares, and were often guilty of trying to falsely mark their products. Fortunately, there are many characteristics of Sheffield Plate that make it easier to identify. Knowing its history and what to look for, then, are imperative to any collection.
The Discovery of Sheffield Silver Plate
The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century forever changed the framework of the world's economy, culture and technology. More and more people moved from the agricultural-based rural communities to industrial-based cities where both men and women found work in factories. These jobs allowed the average person to earn a wage that provided for them beyond the essentials of living. The lines between the wealthy and the poor became blurred, giving rise to what quickly became known as the middle class.
Many industries soon became interested in catering to the pocket books of these average, working citizens, including the silver industry. For centuries, silversmiths had experimented, and often succeeded, in passing off pieces made of base metals plated in silver to deceive buyers. During the mid 1700s, it was discovered that there was a real market for these imitations, which had the appearance of sterling silver but at a fraction of the price. Oddly enough, then, it can be speculated that many of Sheffield Plate's first customers were royals and aristocrats since many of the earliest pieces bear crests and coats-of-arms of the ruling classes.
In 1743, Sheffield cutler Thomas Boulsover (1705-1788) invented a method of plating ingots of copper with thin pieces of silver known today as Sheffield Plate. He began manufacturing small items such as buttons and snuff, patch and coin boxes in large quantities, yet never made full use of his find. In 1758, another Sheffield man, Joseph Hancock, began to manufacture larger pieces of plate such as candlesticks and coffeepots. Hancock became revered for his creations, becoming Master Cutler of Sheffield from 1763-64 and one of the 30 original Guardians of the Sheffield Assay Office created by an Act of Parliament in 1773. Upon his death in 1791, a local newspaper described him as "the founder of the plated business in Sheffield, as he was the first person who commenced a manufactory of the goods," completely overshadowing Boulsover's achievement.
The Challenges of Sheffield Plate
The exact circumstances of the creation of Sheffield Plate are unknown. Boulsover had discovered that silver and copper could be heated, fused and formed into a sheet that could be fashioned into objects that had the appearance of sterling. In this state, the two metals acted as one, expanding in total unison.
In the manufacturing process, a sheet of silver about 1/8 inch thick was pressed on top of an ingot of copper to ensure debris, oil and air were not trapped inside this metal sandwich. A lump of iron was then placed on top to make certain the silver was not marred and was used to hammer the silver and copper until it fused. The ingot was then placed inside a coke-fired furnace where it was heated until the silver would "weep" small droplets down the sides of the copper ingot. Once this was complete, the ingot was allowed to cool. After cooling, it was cleaned with acid and scoured with sand and water. The copper and silver
were then ready to be flattened into a sheet of workable metal.
Sheffield smiths found themselves constantly improving upon their craft in order to keep up with the popular trends in metalworking design. Because of Sheffield Plates' copper core, specific techniques were developed in order to give Sheffield wares the same appearance of grace and quality that sterling wares possessed.
From its creation, Sheffield pieces were often decorated using the die stamping process, which allowed decorative details to be stamped into the metal using a steel die, or tool used to impart a desired shape into a material. The invention of cast steel by Benjamin Huntsman (1704-76) revolutionized this process. The dies were soon created using this new material, which was much stronger than English and imported steel. The durability of cast steel dies allowed Sheffield smiths to stamp dies into metal so skillfully that patterns could be impressed in long runs, resembling the designs of embossed work.
With the creation of double-sided plating on Sheffield in the late 1760s, pierced decoration became a plausible form of decoration. Before this, cuts into Sheffield Plate were not possible, since the process would expose the copper core. The remedy was the use of the hand-operated fly press, which had already been used by jewelers for nearly a quarter of a century. The fly press was fitted with steel tools in the form and size of the desired perforations that were pressed into the Sheffield Plate. The steel tools were designed in such a way that they dragged a layer of silver from the face of the plate over any exposed copper, giving the appearance of solid silver.
From the 1780s, chasing was used to hammer designs into Sheffield Plate, giving the piece the effect of a relief pattern. This technique was often used to create decorative borders on hollowware and on some flatware pieces.
Fluting and reeding were also common decorations used on Sheffield wares. Fluting utilizes concave vertical channels, while reeding consists of parallel, convex molding that resembles a bundle of reeds. Fluting and reeding can be done in a straight or slanting, spiral arrangement.
The final process in the creation of Sheffield pieces is known as burnishing. This process gave the piece a highly polished look and aided in the concealment of impurities. The burnishers were cemented into caps attached to wooden hafts. Burnishing was often work done exclusively by women who used tools made of steel, agate and bloodstone in various shapes and sizes to polish every crevice. A piece was first cleaned and smeared with soft soap before the process began. A mixture of white Calais sand and water were rubbed into the piece to remove any grease and dirt. An agate burnisher was used to rapidly move back and forth over the metal to remove scratches. The pores of the silver were closed by using a steel burnisher, which gave the piece a bright surface. Final burnishing was done with bloodstone, which produced a surface that was difficult to tarnish. A mirror-like finish was then rubbed into the piece using wet rouge and dried with soft, old linen.
Marks Found on Sheffield Plate
A few pieces of Sheffield silver were stamped with marks identifying a piece. In the early days of plate production, these marks were very similar to silver hallmarks. Fearing the loss of their trade, goldsmiths tried to impose high taxation and strict regulations on the silver plate manufacturers hoping to drive them out of business. In 1773 they managed to pass a law banning the use of hallmarks on plated wares. Despite their efforts, the silver plate industry thrived and in 1784, the law was repealed and plate makers were allowed to mark their wares with any mark they choose, as long as it did not resemble registered silver hallmarks.
The Act also specified that the platers name and emblem were to be struck onto an object only once. This left a very rough and clumsy mark that instantly revealed that the piece was not made of sterling.
Before 1810, the maker's full name was used in the mark and only the registered mark there after. In some cases, this was often accompanied by the retailer's name and address. Some platers struck their wares with quality marks denoting the amount of silver used in a piece. After the Napoleonic wars in 1815, a crown mark resembling that of the English sterling hallmark used by the Sheffield Assay Office was placed on higher quality plate to distinguish it from cheaper imitations. It was apparently used illegally by platers, who already held registered marks in Sheffield, to deceive buyers. Many platers used quality marks such as "BEST SHEFFIELD PLATING 80 DWTS TO 8 LBS." "BEST" and "MEDIUM" were common terms struck in the 1820s and 30s. However, it should be remembered that the absence of such marks does not necessarily diminish the value or relevance of a piece, and not all of the above markings appear on a single given piece. Also remember, pieces stamped "Sheffield Plate" are often 19th century electroplate pieces made in Sheffield and not genuine Sheffield Plate.
Identifying & Caring for Sheffield Plate
By definition, Sheffield Plate consists of a copper core. Due to over-use, over-cleaning or cheap manufacturing, the silver plating rubs away and caused "bleeding" of copper though the silver. Often, wear apperas on areas of a piece that were rubbed frequently such as handles and feet. One should also be cautious of repairs made to Sheffield pieces such as solder mounts, electoplate spots and other repairs. Electroplating has been used frequently to conceal exposed copper and solder that has become exposed. Re-plating can greatly reduce, and sometimes even ruin, Sheffield Plate items, concealing the characteristic appeal of the piece to andy knowledgeable collector. Electroplating can usually be recognized since the process deposits pure silver rather than sterling silver (which is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper) giving the treated area a stark, white contrast. Collectors may also find pieces with a sterling round incorporated into parts of the plate. These were used when engraved
crests or coats-of-arms were required so as not to leave any copper exposed.
When caring for Sheffield Plate, it is necessary to clean pieces occasionally, being cautious not to over-clean. Overall, a good cleaning with hot, soapy water will maintain a piece without damage. For older stains and build-up, a gentle scrub with an ammonia and whiting paste will work. Using a soft silver cleaning brush and scrubbing in a circular motion will remove most debris. For tougher spots, a piece can be treated with silver dip, a clear, powerful chemical that should release stubborn grime. Polishing Sheffield items can be done with any polish that does not contain harsh abrasives.
The discovery of Sheffield Plate made it possible for the general populous to enjoy one of the most magnificent and elegant materials known to man--silver. Today, these pieces tell a historical tale that has shaped our entire world, bringing an ageless sense of beauty and importance to all who view them.