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.
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The process became outdated and obsolete with the discovery of electroplating in England around 1843 and nearly the same time by William Rogers in the US.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.
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!