Silver plating in the 18th century and electroplating in the 19th century offered affordable alternatives to silver that were barely distinguishable from the real thing.
The best tureens, sauce boats and other items of tableware were always made of solid sterling silver and therefore only the rich could afford them. Until, that is, two important developments took place in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The first occurred in the 1740s when a Sheffield cutler, Thomas Boulsover, discovered a process for fusing a thin sheet of silver to a thicker sheet of copper. This new material, known now as Old Sheffield plate, was much cheaper than solid silver and could be formed into exactly the same items of tableware. The drawback was that on pieces subject to wear the copper would, in time, show through.
POPULAR AND VERSATILE
Initially, for reasons of economy, the copper was coated with silver only on one side, but by the 1760s it was coated on both sides, making it almost indistinguishable from sterling silver. Sheffield plate remained supreme for most forms of tableware for decades, and was sold in huge quantities: much of it was of excellent quality. From the 1770s it was made in the elegant neo-classical style; later it followed the various fanciful, elaborate and revivalist styles used for silver during the Regency and early Victorian periods.
Sheffield was the initial centre of manufacture but Birmingham, thanks to improved production methods pioneered at Matthew Boulton's factory in the 1760s, soon out-stripped it. Before long other cities, including London, Paris and Warsaw, began to manufacture Sheffield plate. All types of silver were copied in Sheffield plate, but especially large objects on which the savings were greater.
The second major development, which was to supersede Sheffield plate, occurred in the
1840s. Elkington & Company of Birmingham developed the new technique of electroplating. This process involved passing an electric current through a plating tank in which were suspended a bar of silver and the object to be plated,
made in a base metal. The current caused particles of silver to adhere to the base metal - normally copper alloys of tin, zinc or nickel - forming a thin covering film.
The great advantage of electroplating was that virtually any shape or design could be made cheaply. With the development of controlled techniques of manufacture, solid silver objects could be accurately reproduced and mass produced. Advertisements from this time often offered identical versions of an article in silver and, at perhaps a quarter of the price, in electroplate, or
EPNS (electroplated nickel silver) as it came to be known.
A solid silver dinner service has always been out of the question for all but the seriously wealthy. The development of Sheffield plate and then of EPNS brought this cherished effect within reach of many more people.
Sheffield plate has some useful features which distinguish it from electroplate. The plating on 'Old Sheffield' is sterling silver, which is actually 92.5 per cent silver plus 7.5 per cent copper (necessary to strengthen the pure metal). As a result, Sheffield plate possesses a bluish-grey patina closely resembling that of solid silver, whereas electroplate is whiter because the electrochemical process requires a 99 per cent pure silver. On the other hand, if Sheffield plate has been heavily used it wears so thin that a coppery hue becomes visible, a feature that is in fact admired by many collectors.
Another visible difference is that electroplating covers an article completely and evenly, whereas the working of Sheffield plate created seams and joints that had to concealed with strips of silver and decorative work. Very early Sheffield plate was plated on one side only, so that the insides of boxes and
hollow ware were simply tinned; and, even after double plating was introduced, less visible areas such as bases and the inside of teapots were sometimes tinned instead
of silver plated to cut the cost.
PLATED SILVER MARKS
The marks on plate are not hallmarks, which guarantee solid silver. The markings often but not always found on Sheffield plate can be useful in dating an article, but the subject is a complicated one. Registration of a mark was sometimes encouraged, but at other times any use of one was prohibited.
Makers were tempted to use marks that resembled hallmarks, because buyers hoped their guests would think a piece was solid silver. Similar marks can occur on electroplate, which more commonly bears the letters EPNS or EPGS (electroplated German silver).