Silver Plate or Silverplate?

          By Leon Castner, ISA CAPP

     For reasons not quite understood, the early English word plate was used to describe “solid” silver.  (It was not to describe a dish to eat off of at the table.)  So, when one hears or sees the phrase English plate, it refers to good, old silver that was made in England by their expert goldsmiths and then assayed or hallmarked in the appropriate manner.  These items were 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% a copper or copper alloy.  They were allowed to be called sterling although the technical jargon was silver plate.  This standard has been in existence for over 600 years!   By the way, there were no alternatives to this mixture to make it either more desirable or less expensive.

When one looks to decipher the early hallmarks on this silver, books usually refer to tables where the lists are categorized by the authorized large cities that had assay offices.  Therefore, silver from London would be called “marks on London plate,” whereas others could be marks on Exeter, Chester or Newcastle plate, etc.  Even silver made in the area of Sheffield would      be labeled and discussed as Sheffield Plate.

This became a problem in the 18th century, however, when Thomas Boulsover “discovered” a process to solder together sheets of silver and copper and then roll them out and fabricate them into articles of tableware and flatware.  Since Thomas was in Sheffield, England, the process became known as the “new Sheffield plate”.  (Since Sheffield was an assay town, it already had its own lively trade and strict marking system for sterling silver or plate.)  These new items could not be marked sterling, but indeed looked and acted like the real thing.  For the next 75-100 years, Sheffield silver became the name for “fused silver and copper,” a hand process but without the high cost of the raw material.

Look at the edges and the seam mark-both indicators of old Sheffield plate.

This process still consumed a great deal of time and demanded great craftsmanship, but it was cheaper than sterling silver.  The fact the middle class was emerging as a strong marketplace, coupled with the British passion for serving tea in fancy 5 piece services displaying their apparent wealth and hospitality, saw a massive amount of “production” of this hybrid-one that rivaled the sterling output of the goldsmiths of the day.

The process became outdated and obsolete with the discovery of electroplating in England around 1843 and nearly the same time by William Rogers in the US.  Electroplating was much faster and even less costly.  The articles could be crafted in the original material (copper or nickel), and then dipped in a silver solution bath to coat it with the silver surface.  A weak electrical charge did the trick and provided a finish that didn’t have seams, unsightly edges displaying the metal sandwich, or excess raw material needed to finish the items.  Since the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, the creation of pieces was easy, particularly in making quantities of the same item from the same molds and not requiring craftsman to hand fuse the pieces.

                

Most people called this new product electroplating or Victorian plated ware, something they understood to be completely different than Sheffield silver plate.  Since America was becoming both the manufacturing and consumption center of the world, the term Sheffield silver or Sheffield silver plate, was losing appeal and use.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that the terms became confused with electroplating because the marketing departments of the companies began using the term “Sheffield silver” to insinuate a higher quality product, even though it wasn’t.

    This is a mark for contemporary           silverplate, not Sheffield silver!

The main points to remember are that anything marked Sheffield silver probably isn’t either silver or made in Sheffield.  True silver from the city of Sheffield is sterling and so marked with the appropriate hallmarks, including the lion passant-the silver indicator for hundreds of years.  In ancient days (pre-20th century), this was called Sheffield plate or plate from Sheffield.  Authentic Sheffield silver is the name for the hand fused silver sandwich, crafted around the city or area of Sheffield, England, from 1750-1840.  (It is usually not marked and often bears the visible layers of different colored metal on edges.)

Silverplate is the common term for electroplating and can be done on copper, nickel silver (sometimes called “German silver”), white metal, or other base element.  It is a machine process and contains minimal silver (not enough to scrape off or melt away).  Even if a piece is marked “Quadruple” plate, it has only .0012 inch thickness of silver applied to the base metal, not sufficiently different from “Standard plate”-which has a thickness of only .0003 inches.

So, take your pick but be careful of the terms.

  • Sterling silver is 92.5% pure and was often called plate in 18th and 19th century England, hence the ambiguous two word phrase “silver plate.”
  • Sheffield silver is a term that describes the hand fusion of silver and copper and usually dates from 1750 to 1840 and is considered antique.
  • Silverplate is the term used for items that undergo an electrical process that coats a thin layer of silver to a base metal. Introduced around 1850, it has remained the same process to today.  Items made in 1870 are made the same way today, often making it difficult for one to determine exact age.

YOU MAKE THE CALL!

Note:  the word silverplate is not usually found in the dictionary.  It usually pops up during a computer spell check; so even the professional word people don’t get it, but now you do!

 

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17 Response Comments

  • Avatar
    joel  November 21, 2019 at 4:21 pm

    I have a silver set handle plastically but not plastic brownish look it also has in printed on it 850 also on

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  November 21, 2019 at 8:43 pm

      Romania uses a silver system with an 850 fineness mark for sterling (among others).

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Tina Tackett  December 4, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    I have 2 silver plate and serving bowl with lid need to no the value

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  December 4, 2019 at 4:36 pm

      Send photos, measurements, and whatever information you have. What kind of value do you need? (An important question, and I don’t mean do you want a high or low value.) Each appraisal anyone does have a specific intended use (what they are going to do or why they need the value). Selling something is different than insuring something, donating something is different than a bankruptcy, etc. When talking to an appraiser, that is the first question that must be asked. Then we can talk about value.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sandy  December 25, 2019 at 12:15 am

    I have a tantalus with a silver stamp and the number 1403. I cant find the symbol on line.

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  December 25, 2019 at 2:23 pm

      What does the silver “stamp” look like? The number 1403 is probably a stock number.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Emily  January 10, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    I have a sheffield platter #871. It is not hallmarked with the lion. Just with “Sheffield Plate 871” Is it normal to not have the lion hallmark? I know the plate is from the 1800’s. Looking to resell plate so trying to get as much information as possible. Thanks

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  January 11, 2020 at 12:34 am

      By the way, anything marked Sheffield Plate is NOT the original and has little value.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Emily  January 10, 2020 at 9:34 pm

    Is “Authentic Sheffield silver” the same as “Sheffield Plate”?

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  January 11, 2020 at 12:33 am

      No. You have to remember that in England, the word “plate” originally meant solid silver. Then a process was discovered to hand plate an article of copper with silver. It was invented around Sheffield, and it became known as Sheffield plate. It was a very thin layer of silver soldered to the copper base. This was around 1780 and it lasted to around 1820. In America, a mechanical/chemical process was discovered by William Rogers to “plate” the metal article with a thin coating of silver using an electrical charge in a bath. That’s modern day silverplating (1860). It does not usually involve any hand process. The older Sheffield plate is still in demand because it was time consuming to apply the thin silver sheet to the base metal. One can usually see the copper base, especially at the edges.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Janice Nicholls  January 18, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    wow….now I am really confused.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Terry  February 9, 2020 at 9:24 pm

    Hi There
    l believe l have a 17th Century Gold and Sterling Silver Tea Set with all the marks.
    l assume it is if immense value and are willing to sell.
    Please advise.
    kind regards
    Terry

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  February 9, 2020 at 9:52 pm

      I doubt very much you have a tea set from the 17th century. They didn’t “do tea” back then with a complete set and usually wouldn’t have mixed the two metals. Send a photograph, including close-ups of the hallmarks. (Are the hallmarks the same on each piece or different?)

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Keith Heckelman  February 17, 2020 at 5:39 am

    I have what appears to be a Sheffield E.P. on Copper dish plate. The markings are Lion Passant on the left, Crown in the center, and a script capital B on the right. #1837. The silver on top along the edge/rim is in a grape vine motif. Measures about 7″ in diameter. Any info. would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Brian Kathenes
      Brian Kathenes  February 17, 2020 at 3:16 pm

      The piece is indeed silverplate and was made by the Benedict Mfg. Company. The mark you see is the trademark and not hallmarks. They were like “pseudo-hallmarks” and do not include the lion passant-even though it looks very similar. They also made Sheffield reproductions and quadruple plate (Empire Silver Co.).
      Leon

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Keith Heckelman  February 17, 2020 at 7:34 pm

        Thank you so much!

        Reply

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