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What it is and how it begun

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It was about 1743 when Thomas Boulsover discovered that an ingot of copper could be given a coating of silver by means of fusion by heat, and that the two metals united could be worked into shape as one. Most importantly, the copper always retained its silver covering, however thinly it was rolled. At first, Boulsover used plated copper for making buttons, boxes and other small wares. However, in the 1750s and 1760s the new process was taken up by other manufacturers and quickly became one of Sheffield's most important industries. The manufacture of plated goods was also carried on in Birmingham and at the beginning of Victoria's reign, Sheffield plate was being produced at both locations.

The industry was well known for its ingenuity on improving mechanical means of speeding up manufacture and producing cheaper goods. Wherever possible, parts of vessels were stamped out in steel dies with the aid of a drop hammer. For example, "the base of candlesticks is usually made in a die by the stamp, as well as the neck, the dish part of the nozzle or socket, and the tubular stem or pillar. The different parts are united, some with soft and others with hard solder. The branches of candlesticks are formed in two semi-cylindrical halves" [from Dr. Ure's Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines, Vol. III, 1867, p. 441].

Moldings around the edges of vessels were also stamped out in a machine known as a swage, which consisted of two steel dies of complementary shape between which the flat metal was pressed into the form of molding required. In the early part of the Victorian era a roller was devised as a substitute for the swage. Very often during the 19thC, the more elaborate decorative features of candelabra and candlesticks were stamped out of silver and soldered on to plain round basic shapes. When very ornate styles became fashionable in the 1830s and 1840s the entire candlestick was often stamped out in thin silver, and frequently the only parts made of plated metal were the nozzles. These decorative details were filled up with solder and were used on dishes, waiters and salvers as well as on candlesticks. A rod of iron passed through the center strengthened the candlesticks and the remainder of the space was filled with a resinous compound.

Around 1820, spinning came into common use as a method of forming the bodies of silver hollow-ware. The sheet of plated metal was forced on to a wooden chuck of the required shape, which was kept continually revolving. This was a quicker method than die-stamping.

Various devices were adopted to assist the illusion of the goods being made entirely of silver. Patches of silver were fused on to objects so that coats-of-arms or silver crest marks could be engraved on them without the copper showing through. For objects such as serving plates or dishes, cups and beakers, ingots of copper plated with silver on both sides were used. The bottoms of salvers and trays and the insides of dish-warmers were given a coating of tin to hide the red of the copper. From about 1785, the edges of objects where the silver coating was likely to be worn away and the copper to show through, were given special coverings of silver. This method was particularly perfected by Matthew Boulton whose silverplated wares sometimes bore the additional stamp “SILVER BORDERS”.

Sheffield manufacturers sometimes stamped the words “SILVER EDGES” on their goods. An improved method of making silver edges was patented in 1824 by Samuel Roberts, one of the most important and inventive Sheffield manufacturers of the early nineteenth century. In 1830 Roberts took out another important patent. This provided for the introduction of a layer of German silver (now known as Nickel Silver) or other white metal alloy between the silver layer and the copper ingot, once again so that the wearing away of the silver should not be as noticeable. Roberts had been very quick to take advantage of the new invention, an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc, the first sample of which was brought to Sheffield from Berlin in 1830. This alloy was originally a Chinese invention and as early as the 1820s, Edward Thomason of Birmingham had been experimenting in order to find out its component parts. At first, the new alloy proved too brittle for use as a replacement for the copper ingot, but, by 1836, an improved version known as "Argentine" had been perfected and this quickly came into use among all the leading manufacturers as a replacement for copper. The white color of the alloy meant that a thinner layer of silver could be used, which then made the end product cheaper.

This was an important factor for English manufacturers, especially as from 1820 onwards, a considerable number of very inexpensive plated articles from France came on to the English market and also competed with English goods in the export market. French goods were made of copper of a deeper red than that used by English manufacturers. They were covered with a much thinner layer of silver and they lacked such refinements as silver edges.

The Sheffield plate industry was characterized by a large number of firms, which were constantly changing their names as new partners were brought in or as smaller firms were acquired by more prosperous larger companies. Most of them made silver as well as plated goods. Amongst prominent firms in the beginning of Victorian era, were Thomas Bradbury & Sons and James Dixon & Co., both of which survived for a long time. Other important Sheffield silver firms in the first half of the nineteenth century were T. & J. Creswick, I. & I. Waterhouse & Co., Padley, Parkin & Co., Henry Wilkinson & Co., Roberts, Smith & Co. (which became Smith, Sissons & Co., in 1848), Gainsford & Nicholson, and Hawkesworth, Eyre & Co. In the history of the industry which was written by a member of the Bradbury family in 1911 [F. Bradbury: A History of Old Sheffield Plate], some of the silver marks used by firms in the 1830s and 1840s are illustrated. In previous years marks on Sheffield silver plate had sometimes been registered at the Sheffield Assay Office, but after 1836 this practice was for the most part discontinued. For example, an open hand was used from 1837 by Padley, Parkin & Co., of Watson Walk. Later this mark was often used on electroplated wares and by the end of the century had been adopted by T. Bradbury & Sons. From 1836, a silver mark of crossed keys was used by Henry Wilkinson & Co. The crown was a fairly common silver mark, used by I. & I. Waterhouse & Co., by T. & J. Creswick and by two Birmingham firms, Thomasons (later G. R. Gollis) and J. Willmore. The mark of a globe and cross was used by Hawkesworth, Eyre & Co., and T. & J. Creswick also used a silver mark of a series of crossed arrows.

After the introduction of German silver many firms reverted to the practice which had prevailed when Sheffield plate was first made, of stamping their goods with small marks made to look as nearly as possible like those on Sterling Silver goods. Silver plated goods also often bear the marks of big London firms such as Garrard or Savory, who bought plated metal from the rolling mills of Sheffield and Birmingham and produced it in their own workshops. London retailers who sold Sheffield silver plate, sometimes stamped the articles with their own name, but many silver plated goods bore no marks at all and it is not possible to determine their place of origin.

At the beginning of the Victorian era, the most important firm producing Sheffield silver plate in Birmingham was still the Soho Manufactory, which had been founded in 1762 by Matthew Boulton in partnership with John Fothergill. In 1837, this Silver Manufactory was in the hands of Matthew Robinson Boulton, the son of the original Boulton. He died in 1842 and the Manufactory was taken over by his son, M. P. W. Boulton, but in 1848 it ceased to operate and the dies were sold off. Some of the dies were bought by Bradburys and were still in their possession in 1911.

In general, Sheffield silver-plated goods in the 1830s and 1840s tended to lag behind Sterling Silverware in design. This was probably a consequence of the fact that dies were expensive to make and manufacturers went on using them as long as possible. For example, the Melon Pattern was still being widely made in the 1830s. Decoration normally consisted of stamped moldings and edgings and flat chasing and engraving. Pierced work, which was often stamped out by mechanical punches, remained popular. Bradbury illustrates some designs of this period, including pierced Gothic silver salt-cellars, snuffer trays and silver candlesticks with careful Rococo ornaments, silver epergnes decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls, and silver tea and coffee sets in elaborate lobed shapes, also in the Rococo style. Silver salvers were frequently decorated with elaborate engraved Rococo scrolls and flowers.

The patenting of the electro-plating method in 1840 by Elkingtons of Birmingham was a blow from which the Sheffield plate industry never recovered. Although Elkingtons imposed rather severe terms on manufacturers who wished to take out a license under the patent to use the new method, many manufacturers went over to it. Not all firms, however, found it profitable to do this at first. For example, in December 1848, Thomas Bradbury wrote to Elkingtons: "We beg to inform you that we have determined to make trial of your patent electroplating process for a term of six months from this date and agree hereby to pay you the sum of 1/6 per oz. for all silver deposited during that time, and should the trial answer our expectation we will, at the expiration of the said term, take out the usual license." In June 1849 this agreement was extended for a further six months, but in May 1850 Bradbury wrote to Elkingtons: "We have now ceased Electroplating, our work of this sort not being sufficient to induce us to continue it." (Elkington Records, Vol. 6.). Bradbury's continued to make Sheffield plate until the end of the century.

Another firm which continued to make Sheffield plate was James Dixon & Co., who showed examples at the Great Exhibition of 1851, amongst a considerable number of other firms including Hawkesworth, Eyre & Co., Padley, Parkin & Staniforth, Henry Wilkinson & Co., and T. J. & N. Creswick who were awarded a medal for their display. In addition to actual wares Padley, Parkin & Staniforth, showed several items to illustrate the process of manufacture, including an “Ingot of German silver, with a piece of standard silver upon it, ready for plating. Ingot of metal, plated, as taken out of the furnace. Sundry pieces of plated metal rolled down from the ingot, ready for working." The Official Catalogue included an account of the manufacture of Sheffield plate to supplement this display.

Dixons showed Sheffield silver plated goods again at the International Exhibition of 1862 and were awarded a medal "for the general excellence of their works in Sheffield and electro-plate." The designs included a silver coffee and tea service of classical urn shapes decorated with acanthus ornament, a classical wine-cooler and a silver claret jug in the Rococo style. By this time, however, most firms had given up the manufacture of Sheffield plate in favor of the new process of electroplating which was both cheaper and much more adapted to the ornate decorative treatment preferred by Victorian designers.

As late as 1878 Sheffield plate was shown at the International Exhibition held in Paris in that year by the firm of Ridge, Woodcock & Hardy. Some of the items were illustrated in the Art Journal with the nostalgic comment that they were "examples of the good old Sheffield Plated Goods, made to wear and to last". Such goods were, however, a rarity by this time and by the end of the century, Sheffield plate had come to be used only for such items as sliver plated carriage lamp parts and buttons, where its durability was still appreciated.

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