PLATED TEA & COFFEE SETS
A tea or coffee set in sterling silver was, and still is, prohibitively expensive, but similar-looking ones in electroplated nickel silver are
much more affordable.
The technique of electroplating - covering a base metal with an even coating of silver - was developed in the 1840s by the Birmingham metalworkers Elkington & Company. This development occurred about a century after the discovery of another silver-plating process, Old Sheffield Plate, in which a sheet of silver was fused to a sheet of copper.
The technique of electroplating was discovered in about 1840 by John Wright and was commercially developed by Elkingtons. The base metal object to be silver-plated was hung in a plating tank in which was suspended a bar of 99 per cent pure silver. Passing an electric current through the fluid in the tank caused particles of silver to move from the silver bar and adhere to the base metal. Before long, the object was covered with a thin film of silver.
The base metal was usually an alloy of copper with either tin, zinc or nickel. The commonest base metal was nickel silver, hence the term
'electroplated nickel silver' and its well-known abbreviation 'EPNS', which has become shorthand for all electroplated silver.
The significance of electroplating was that it enabled almost any design to be made cheaply and yet look like silver. Solid silver
objects could be accurately reproduced and readily mass-produced. And, indeed, the same objects were often advertised for sale in silver and, at about a quarter of the price, in EPNS. Stylistically, the history of electroplate became closely linked to that of solid silver.
As in other fields, Victorian revivalism and mass production often had unhappy results. However, one of the most original 19th-century designers, Christopher Dresser, produced a number of clean-cut designs in electroplate.
EPNS was produced in Arts and Crafts and art nouveau styles but this appealed to a small audience only. Even after World War 1, mass market silverware was largely produced in traditional designs. However, electroplated silverware underwent a revival in the 1920s
and 1930s because it appealed to the art deco taste for shiny materials (although it had a strong rival in chrome). Leading avant-garde designers began to work in EPNS.
In a surprisingly short time contemporary and other designs had become common in EPNS. The cocktail shaker and the cigarette case proclaimed the modernity of plate, and even traditional articles, like teapots, acquired a modern, streamlined look.
Between the wars, tea sets held a strong attraction for designers working in Cubist and Art Deco idioms, perhaps because they were easily adapted to spheres, cylinders and other smooth, unbroken shapes. Prestigious figures such as Louis Sue, Cardeilhac and Charles Boynton designed silver tea sets that were either produced also in electroplate or inspired
subsequent plated imitations.
As early as 1922 Napper and Davenport of Birmingham manufactured a 'Cube' teapot. Somewhat later Adie Brothers Limited of Birmingham put out an ingenious set designed by Harold Stabler, in which the components fitted neatly together into a square on the tray. Despite the conservatism of the British public, the sterling silver set sold so well in 1935 that an electroplated version was
marketed with great success the next year.
Art deco tea and coffee sets in electroplated silver are widely available but with the current vogue for deco designs they are no longer cheap. Less stylish but more affordable ones date from the Victorian era and early 1900s.
All electroplated silverware should be handled with care and cleaned very gently with polish or washed in warm water; a good patina can be destroyed all too easily and it cannot be re-created. Electroplate is especially vulnerable to rough treatment; any abrasion stands out harshly because the base metal is revealed beneath the thin film of plating. Don't buy electroplated items where the silver-plating has worn thin and the base metal shows through as a dull yellow.