Long before the electroplating process was discovered less expensive Sheffield plate was the only alternative to manufacturing with sterling silver. Although a dated method, Sheffield plate is still made today and is regarded as somewhat superior to electroplating.
Two things contributed the primary ingredients that led to the development of plated silver. The first was the expanding middle class of 18th century England. The second was the accidental discovery of a tinkerer and metal smith by the name of Thomas Boulsover.
During the 1700s the merchant class of Europe generally and England specifically enjoyed a terrific economic boom. Globe covering empires and technological advancements created a middle and professional class with all the demands for consumer goods that would imply.
As is always the case, the middle classes learned their tastes from their so-called betters. They strove to accumulate all the symbols of status and refinement that the nobility and very rich lived with every day. In the 18th century sterling silver cutlery and utensils was among the most desired of those symbols but beyond the means of all but the richest.
Silversmiths search for years for a way to make silver affordable but until Thomas Boulsover that search was in vain. He was making an attempt at repairing a broken handle on a silver knife when he mistakenly allowed the silver to begin to melt. It became apparent that the silver had bonded very strongly with the copper of the decorative handle.
Boulsover carried out a number of experiments in an attempt to put his discovery to practical use. By combining a thick sheet of copper and a thin sheet of silver he was able to hammer the two layers, reducing their thickness at an even rate. By this method Boulsover was able create a number of inexpensive silver items that would have been far too costly for the market before. Items like silver buttons, buckles, and the like were made available to a whole community denied them previously.
Unfortunately, Boulsover was unable to benefit from his discovery in any meaningful way. An employee of his who was supposed to travel about England introducing the new items cheated him out of a great deal of money, generated no sales, and took off. The financial blow was too much for Boulsover and he was driven out of business.
It was left to another, less dishonest employee of Boulsover to carry on the work. Josiah Hancock had been Boulsover’s apprentice during the early plating experiments and took his lessons to heart. More than just a skilled craftsman Hancock had a good deal of business savvy.
He was lucky as well. About the same time that Hancock began reproducing popular styles of silverware in Sheffield plate the English government levied a very heavy tax on sterling silver, which drove the price even higher. As silver became more and more expensive its plated equivalent become more and more desirable. Even the very rich began to cut corners on their silver collections and embraced the plated wares.
Possibly due to the abundance of high quality English sterling silver Sheffield plate has always been more popular outside of the country than with in it. The biggest market in the early days was in Ireland but it soon spread to the European continent and to the new world.
When collecting antique Sheffield plate the buyer should certainly beware. It became a common practice at the end of the 19th century to create fake reproductions of classic pieces and sell them as original. This practice was so wide spread that many pieces are still sold as 18th century pieces when they are in fact much more modern.
The best way to tell the real from the fake is by the patina of the silver. Authentic Sheffield plate will have a bluish tinge and newer ones a whiter color. That being said it is often difficult for even the well-trained eye to detect the difference.
When considering a Sheffield piece look for signs that the piece has been re-plated. Uneven coloring or other visual irregularities in the metal can be the result of an attempt to fix a worn spot on the piece. Often times this repairs have been done by electroplating and seriously reduce the value of the piece. A reputable dealer should know if this has been done and be willing to tell you about it.
Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.