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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Sheffield Plate
(Part 1 Of 2)

Within the past few years Sheffield plate, or copper rolled plate, as it used to be called, has been gaining in popularity among collectors. The term "plate" is usually applied to solid silverware, so that the term may seem a trifle misleading to the novice.

Sheffield plate was the plated ware used by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers for the same purposes that plated ware is used for nowadays-as "second best," or by families who could not afford solid silver. Chiefly for this reason it has not been highly esteemed until recently, and was seldom valued as an heirloom. Many a fine piece has gone to the junk-dealer's because it was "out of fashion," or the silver had begun to wear off. Some fifty years ago great quantities of it were melted up for the silver mounts, especially in England. For this reason Sheffield plate, while once common and comparatively inexpensive, is now rare enough to stimulate the collector's desire for acquisition.

The supply of pieces in good condition is limited, and the market prices have risen accordingly. If you have any Sheffield plate, by all means treasure it. Some of the best examples of Sheffield plate are now in this country, much of it having been handed down from Revolutionary days, when many a patriot's bride started housekeeping with Sheffield plate, for want of solid silver.

There are two good reasons why this ware should not be condemned to a low place in the antiquarian's esteem. In the first place, it was made during a period when the silversmith's art was at its height, and the plated ware was made in designs similar to' the solid metal, and with the same care in workmanship. In grace and beauty of line, proportion, and ornamentation, Sheffield plate suffers little in com parison with the finer ware. Nothing in plated ware has since been made that can surpass it. This is due partly to the greater care taken by the old designers and manufacturers in their work, and partly because the modern process, being far more rapid, does not permit such individuality and finish.

This suggests Sheffield plate's second claim to distinction. Like old pewter, it is a ware which belongs strictly to the past. The process has been almost entirely discontinued. Its manufacture began about the middle of the eighteenth century, rose to a great industry, and died out as suddenly after 1850. It flourished for almost exactly a century.

Sheffield plate differs from all other plated ware in that the plating was done on the sheet-metal before the article was shaped. Before and since then plating of various sorts has been applied only to the finished piece, as in our electroplating process. Moreover, the plating was done on copper, while modern base metal is usually composed of an amalgam of copper, nickel, and zinc.

Perhaps it would be better not to speak of Sheffield as plated ware at all, in order to keep the difference quite distinct. Plated ware, as we know it, is less than seventy-five years old. To speak of Sheffield plate as plated ware is likely to cause an underestimation of its value. The difference will be explained more fully further on.

Furthermore, it is possible for the collector to secure examples of early Georgian and so-called Queen Anne work in Sheffield plate, while the rarity and high money value of silverware of that period make its acquisition extremely difficult. Sheffield plate, historically and artistically, is as worthy of a place beside old china and old mahogany as is old silverware.

To appreciate the value and unique character of Sheffield plate, a brief sketch of its history and process of manufacture may prove helpful.

In 1742 one Thomas Solsover of Sheffield, England, described in the histories as an "ingenious mechanic," accidentally fused some silver and copper while repairing a knife. He began experimenting, seeking for a method of plating copper with silver for the manufacture of small articles. In 1743, together with Joseph Wilson, he set up a factory for the manufacture of buckles, snuff-boxes, and knifehandles.

Joseph Hancock soon got hold of the secret and, perfecting it, demonstrated that it was possible to imitate the finest and most richly embossed silverware. Settling in Sheffield, he started the manufacture of all sorts of domestic pieces. Beginning modestly with horse-power, he later added water power for the rolling process. Other manufacturers followed his example, and Sheffield plate soon began to replace pewter on the tables of the English middle classes. Altogether we know of twenty-three important manufacturers of this ware.

The industry flourished until the middle of the nineteenth century, and so few pieces of copper rolled plate were made after that time that they need not concern the collector. Electroplating is said to have been practised in a small way as early as, 1832, when one Spencer of Liverpool discovered a process of electrically depositing silver on copper. Its discovery, or invention, is also attributed to a medical student of Rotherham, near Sheffield. At all events, the new process was patented on March 25, 1840. By 1850 the new ware was on the market everywhere and the industry had been revolutionized.

A brief description of how Sheffield plate was made will show how widely it differs from modern plated ware, which for the most part is some sort of white metal or alloy, dipped, washed, or electroplated after the piece has been formed.

First a brick-shaped ingot of copper, slightly alloyed with brass, an inch to an inch and a half thick and some two inches wide, was filed or planed smooth and its face made chemically clean. On this was placed a sheet of silver of fine quality, also filed smooth and cleaned. This piece of silver was of the same superficial area as the copper, but only one-sixteenth to one-half inch thick. Iron or steel pieces were placed to hold them together, and the whole was hammered tightly together and firmly bound with wire. The edges of copper and silver were touched with borax and water, and the metal was placed in the furnace. As soon as the edges began to fuse it was quickly withdrawn and put into a cold pickle of water and spirits of salt or vitriol.

The silver and copper were then inseparably joined, and, furthermore, could be placed cold between the rollers of a rolling-mill and flattened out to any degree of fineness without changing the relative proportions of silver and copper.

After the plate had been rolled into thin sheetmetal, it was cut into the required shape and then hammered by hand into the form of cup or plate or teapot. Before shaping, a solid silver shield was often skilfully embedded to be engraved later with crest or coat of arms. Or, according to another theory, thin, shield-shaped sheets of silver were superimposed upon one another until a sufficient thickness was obtained for engraving.

Of these copper plates, thinly coated with silver on one side, the first Sheffield plate was made. The bottoms of trays, plates, etc., of that period were finished with a zinc covering. For nearly sixty years this process was changed but little. Then the silver coating was given to both sides of the ware. Two blocks of silver were attached to the two sides of the copper block, and the whole rolled into a sheet which was worked in the same manner as solid silver. Some pieces, especially cream-jugs, sugarbasins, and salt-cellars, were gilded inside, with a wash, to imitate some of the silverware of that day. Coffee-pots, tea-urns, etc., were sometimes tinned on the inside.

At the edges of the piece, where the sheet-metal was cut, the copper showed, and a special finish, which is one of the characteristics of Sheffield plate, was necessary. At first this consisted of a silver wire, plain or twisted, soldered along the edge. Later a silver mount, more or less elaborate, solid or filled with base metal, was made to fit the piece and was soldered on instead of wire. In the most recent pieces these mounts were so carefully joined and burnished on the wrong side as well as the right side that a careful inspection is necessary to discover the joint. All genuine Sheffield plate, however, is finished by one of these methods at the edges.

At first articles in this ware were very plain; then came the demand for ornamentation, and ingenious men met the demand. Very thin pieces of sterling silver were cut and stamped with dies in exquisite forms. These pieces were filled on the concave side with an alloy of lead and tin, and the ornament thus made soldered on to the plain piece. The other mounts, such as handles, feet, etc., were made in a similar manner. Larger parts, such as covers, coffeepot noses, etc., were made from a separate piece of Sheffield plate and soldered carefully in place. On the more expensive pieces the mounts were of solid silver, and these are of course the most valuable now.

Solid silver shields or squares, intended for the owner's monogram or crest, are often found on the best pieces, embedded in a prominent place. The deep outlining necessary for this engraving would otherwise pierce through to the copper. Often these shields were so carefully welded in, and age and wear have so united the surface, that they are almost invisible. Breathing on the piece will occasionally disclose the outlines. On tarnished pieces they sometimes show plainly. Look for the shields at the middle of the least decorated portion of the tea- and coffee-pots, at the middle of the front or back of dish-covers, over the taps of urns, and at the center of trays, cake-baskets, etc. You will not always find them, but it's an interesting search.

In addition to the mounts, ornamentation was gained by chasing and engraving, especially on the nineteenth-century pieces. Deeply engraved pieces are usually considered of greater value, because the silver plate must be comparatively thick. Some of this engraving was very beautiful.

Almost every kind of tableware, and other articles that were made in silver from 1750 to 1850, were also made in Sheffield plate, and in similar designs. Among the pieces that are popular with collectors are the following: centerpieces or epergne stands bearing Sheffield plate or glass fruit- and bonbonboats; large and small tea- and coffee-urns; pierced and wirework baskets; cake- and fruit-baskets, pierced, chased, and embossed; covered and uncovered meat-platters; candlesticks, some straight and some beautifully branched; snuffer trays, often chased; single bottle-stands, often pierced and chased; wine-coolers and ice-pails; vases; bottlestands like casters; tureens for soup and sauce; covered entree- and vegetable-dishes; plates, platters, trays, and salvers; mugs, goblets, and tankards; small bonbon-dishes and salt-cellars, sometimes pierced and bearing a glass lining; tea- and coffeepots; cream-jugs; snuff-boxes.

[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]

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