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Old Sheffield Plate: An Introduction

January 06, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 262


Silver has always been expensive. Since ancient times it has been used to fashion objects of status and desire. Status is the word. Until quite recently silver had little practical use. It is too soft to make a tool or weapon from. While it can be polished a very sharp edge it dulls quickly, and the sharp edge is so thin as to be extremely fragile. Certainly, it was a metal which was easy to work, and so could be hammered up in to complicated functional objects. But there are other metals just as easy, or easier to work, which would do the same job. Silver has been and still is coveted mainly for one simple fact. It is extremely beautiful. Highly reflective, heavy and soft to the touch, silver has the gentle glow of moonlight, seeming at times to emanate a light of its own. Also, it is scarce. The demand has always been greater than the supply, meaning that this valuable commodity has always been the preserve of the wealthy.

Status though is desired by many not only those who can afford it, so there has always been a market for convincing alternatives. However, applying a thin veneer of silver to an object of another metal is difficult, attaining a convincing finish even more so, and creating a durable surface that could withstand any sort of use an ever-present problem. The best method pre-Old Sheffield was mercurial plating, where a mixture of precious metal powder (silver in our case, but more famously, gold) and mercury was applied to the surface of an object. The object was then heated until the mercury evaporated, leaving a thin but solid layer of the precious metal. This method was dangerous and expensive. The former consideration probably not so important for our ancestors, while the latter was highly important!


Old Sheffield Plate, or 'fused plate' as it is sometimes known, was the first commercially viable method of plating metal. The method itself was invented by a Sheffield Cutler named Thomas Boulsover in 1743. The various accounts of his invention are vague and slightly contradictory*, but suffice it to say that in the course of his work, by a happy accident, Boulsover discovered that applying sufficient heat to contacting silver and copper the two metals fused. This, in effect, meant that the two metals acted as a single one, and when worked or hammered out the proportions of silver to copper remained the same. The technique Boulsover developed was to sandwich an ingot of copper between two plates of silver, tightly bind it with wire, heat it in a furnace and then mill it out in to sheet, from which objects could be made.

Boulsover himself started out small. He made buttons and little else. It is not known how other manufacturers learned his technique, but Boulsover never patented it, and did not benefit from it financially beyond the sale of his own products. The potential of the material was quickly realised, and soon it was being used to fashion boxes, salvers and jugs, and not long after that candlesticks and coffee pots, and other traditional tableware. The creation of complicated objects from Sheffield Plate brought a whole plethora of technical difficulties that had to be overcome. To begin with, it was not possible to use hard solder as the high temperatures required would simply cause the silver to run off. Therefore, a whole range of solders with low melting points had to be devised, and used very carefully. Secondly, all evidence of copper must be hidden, and so the finishing of edges had to be approached with special care and attention.

The very early pieces often have a rather crude charm, but quickly the Old Sheffield Plate producers became very proficient at hiding seams, concealing joins, and generally giving the impression of solidity and quality. Indeed, in many ways the creation of a good piece of Old Sheffield Plate was technically more difficult than the creation of an equivalent piece in solid silver.

It was not cheap either. The saving in silver was considerable, but the process still required substantially more silver than the later electroplate. This is why many 18th century pieces still have a good layer of silver, while electroplated pieces made 100 years later or more can be found having been replated several times at least! As well as the high silver content Old Sheffield Plate manufacture was more labour intensive than solid silver, meaning higher labour costs. So some of what was saved in silver content was spent on labour. Old Sheffield Plate was still very much a luxury product, and only available to the very wealthy.

Indeed, many buyers of Old Sheffield Plate could afford the silver alternative, but simply preferred to save the money. While much Provincial silver lagged behind the times somewhat in terms of fashion, many of the better Old Sheffield Plate producers ensured their designs were at the height of fashion. Perhaps this was because they felt they had something to make up for, but it is also because while provincial silversmiths catered to a local market Sheffield Plate was made to compete with London made silver.

The renowned Old Sheffield Plate manufacturer and industrialist Matthew Boulton famously said that he wished to make "What all the world desires", and much of his and other Old Sheffield Plate producer's output was indeed exported abroad. Indeed, the production and sale of Old Sheffield Plate is firmly rooted in the history of the British Industrial Revolution, as well as that of 18th and 19th century art history and the history of design. For both these reasons Old Sheffield Plate is now keenly collected. Precisely as with furniture and solid silver, Old Sheffield builds up a wonderful patina over the years, and copper wearing through on the high points (known as bleeding) is very attractive (especially against mahogany!). For those of us more interested in the design of an object than the material it is made of Old Sheffield regularly provides us with exceptional examples of Adam, Neoclassical and then Regency styles. While the 18th century ware has the prestige of age and originality the 19th century Old Sheffield Plate producers really perfected their art, and much of their output is of truly wonderful quality. Also, many makers of solid silver had at this time adopted many of the labour saving techniques of the Sheffield Producers (such as die stamping for shape and decoration), so the quality and effect are very often identical.

What started off as a method for providing gentlemen with cheap coat buttons became something much broader and more interesting than it is likely Bouslover ever imagined. However, by accidental discovery at a pivotal moment a whole industry was created in Sheffield and beyond. It came at the perfect moment, fuelled by a trickling down of wealth to those who were desperate to prove their good taste and refinement. It also arrived at a time when mechanised workshop techniques were coming in to the silver industry (and of course industry at large) and so it was not such a stretch for the bright minds of Sheffield Industry to match the discovery's potential to the new demand for affordable luxury.

Additional Reading

For a more involved discussion of Boulsover's invention and Sheffield Plate in general see Crosskey, 2011 "Old Sheffield Plate: A History of the 18th Century Plated Trade"

James Baldwin is an Antique Silver dealer with over a decade of experience in the industry. As owner and Proprietor of James Baldwin Antiques, he provides his services and expertise to a wide-range of clients based all round the world.

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