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What Is Sheffield Plate?
There are two satisfactory substitutes for solid silver-Sheffield plate and electroplate. The first was made in Sheffield, England, from about 1750 on, the other a full century later. The eighteenth-century plated ware came into being by accident when Thomas Boulsover of Sheffield in mending a broken knife handle unintentionally fused silver and copper.
He made a few small experimental pieces in this new material. One of his apprentices, Josiah Hancock, carrying on the process, began to make artistic pieces and an important industry was started. Factories for its making were established not only in Sheffield but in Birmingham, London, and on the Continent.
In preparing Sheffield plate, a block of copper was cleaned and smoothed, a thin plate of silver laid over it, the two wired together and placed in a charcoal furnace until the silver began to melt. Upon removal, the piece was treated like silver. Further experiments during the second half of the eighteenth century resulted in a silver coating on both sides, thus forming a metal sandwich with copper for the filling.
Style and workmanship closely followed that of solid silver. The labor involved in preparing Sheffield plate and making it into various pieces was undoubtedly greater than in regular silversmithing, but the cost of materials was so much less that the buyer of moderate means could have a fine pair of candlesticks for half the price of silver ones of the same design and size. He would also save the heavy government tax then levied on solid silver. This last factor appealed also to those who could afford the more costly ware. The examples in Illustration 90 are typical of the handsome articles made in Sheffield plate. In the center is a large platter with domed cover engraved with a coat of arms. The platter is removable and rests on a shallow hot-mater compartment with small button feet and handles matching that of the cover. Made al-.out 1830, all parts bear the mark of J. Watson & Son. The pair of four-light Georgian candlesticks bear the name-mark Dever, a maker of Sheffield plate, circa 1790-1800, whose identity has not yet been established. The candlesticks have removable branching arms, thus making the sticks adaptable for either one or four-light use.
Sheffield was popular from 1750 to 1840 when the still cheaper process of electroplating succeeded it. Old Sheffield can be distinguished from solid silver by the undersides of its edges. To hide the reddish copper line between the two silver layers, the upper one was either drawn over the copper or a covering border of silver was applied. This resulted in a fine line which can be either felt or seen. This also distinguishes it from modern electroplate. Further, the basic material of the latter is a soft alloy, not unlike pewter, known as white metal. It has a disconcerting lack of resistance to beat, as anyone who has accidentally set a electroplated teapot or platter too close to the heat can testify.
Sheffield plate, on the other hand, could take such punishment. In two enemies are time and usage. These eventually wear away the silver coating and show the copper base beneath.