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Plated And Sterling Silver
In the eighteenth century in England a process was developed at Sheffield for plating silver by fusing copper and pure silver at great heat. Copper-plated silver has always been known as Sheffield plate, although it was later made in quantity in Birmingham. The Sheffield process was not like that developed in England in the nineteenth century and known today as electroplating. By this process a coating of silver was put on a finished article of base metal, sometimes copper but later various kinds of white metal.
The silver applied by electrolysis varied in weight with the factory. Some early plated silver still has the original surface; some pieces have been replated many times.
Genuine Sheffield plate when honestly made was of high quality. The story of the method and the objects it was applied to is told in Frederick Bradbury's History of Sheffield Plate. This is a large book full of detail and photographs, and though long out of print, may be found in many of the larger libraries.
Sheffield plate by the fusion process was not made in America, but factories here did turn out quantities of electroplated silver. In fact, it was so popular that one English firm with several variations of its name, but all including Dixon, sold quantities of electroplated silver, issued catalogues, and even had a New York showroom.
Today there is a great deal of American plated silver which has been treasured for years. Many families had plated silver as well as fine sterling. Some of it was inherited; some prized for sentimental reasons. If you have this plated ware, and it is as dear to you as fine early silver, then you are among the happy people of this world. Personal taste is just another of the freedoms.
A book has been written on American plated silver which includes a list of makers from the earliest days of the craft to well into the twentieth century. Early American Plated Silver by Larry Freeman and Jane Beaumont (published by Century House, Watkins Glen, New York) pictures hundreds of articles from catalogues, including tilting water pitchers, toothpick holders, napkin rings, and other elegancies of the Victorian era. Many small factories that made such wares in the mid-nineteenth century are now part of the International Silver Company, Meriden, Connecticut, which merged them in 1898.
On plated silver the terms "triple" and "quadruple" indicate the number of coatings received by the base metal in the electroplating process. Naturally the more metal used in the plating the longer the piece should last. Polishing and wear have taken their toll of much of this plated ware and whether pieces are worth replating depends on their usefulness and your pleasure in them. If you like them well enough to spend money on them, then by all means have the work done, but remember a piece is worth at market value only the metal that is in it, the base metal under the plating being worth very little.
The word "Sterling" on American silver does not mean that the piece is old. The term was not in general use until the i86os, when the standard of 925 parts fine silver and 75 parts of alloy was adopted. Pure silver would be too soft to work. The alloy is necessary to give strength to the metal. Before the mark "Sterling" was required the amount of pure silver varied from goo to 925 parts fine. The early craftsmen made silver from coins which were not pure, and although they melted them down to assure quality silver, the metal was not always 925 parts silver. Design however compensated for lack of purity in the metal. Today when you buy reproduction silver and pay for sterling quality, be sure the mark is plainly stamped on every piece. Early silver usually has the mark of the silversmith who made it and his name was evidence of high standard.