Thursday, March 10, 2016

Old Sheffield Plate: An Introduction


Silver has always been expensive. Since ancient times it has been used to fashion objects of status and desire. Status is the word. Until quite recently silver had little practical use. It is too soft to create a tool or weapon from. While it can be finished a very sharp edge it dulls quickly, and the sharp edge is so thin as to be extremely fragile. Certainly, it was a metal which was easy to work, and so could be killed up in to complicated functional objects. But there are other metals just as easy, or safer to work, which will do the same job. Silver has been and still is desired mainly for one reality. It is rather beautiful. Highly reflective, heavy and soft to the touch, silver has the gentle light of moonlight, seeming at times to emanate a light of its. Also, it is tight. The demand has always been greater than the supply, which means that this specific item has always been the preserve of the wealthy.

Status though is desired by many not only those who can afford it, so there has always been a market for convincing alternatives. However, applying a thin veneer of silver to an object of another metal is difficult, attaining a convincing finish even more so, and creating a durable surface that could withstand any type of use an ever-present problem. The best method pre-Old Sheffield was mercurial plating, where a mixture of silver powdered (silver in our case, but more notoriously, gold) and mercury was applied to the surface of an object. The thing was then heated prior to the mercury evaporated, leaving a thin but solid layer of the silver. This method was dangerous and expensive. The former consideration most likely not so important for our family history, while the latter was very important!


Old Sheffield Plate, or 'fused plate' as it is sometimes known, was the first commercial viable method of plating metal. The technique itself was invented by a Sheffield Cutler named Thomas Boulsover in 1743. The various accounts of his creation are vague and slightly contradictory*, but suffice it to say that in the course of his work, by a happy accident, Boulsover learned that applying sufficient heat to contacting silver and water piping the two metals fused. This, in effect, meant that the two metals served as just a single one, and when worked or killed out the proportions of silver to water piping always been the same. The technique Boulsover developed was to sandwich an ingot of water piping between two plates of silver, securely bind it with cord, heat it in a furnace and then generator it out in to linen, where objects could be made.

Boulsover himself started out small. He made buttons and little else. It is not known how other manufacturers learned his technique, but Boulsover never patented it, and did not benefit from it financially beyond the sale of their own products. The potential of the material was quickly awakened to the fact, and soon it was being used to fashion boxes, salvers and jugs, and not long after that candlesticks and coffee pots, and other traditional tableware. The creation of complicated objects from Sheffield Plate brought a whole plethora of technical difficulties that must be overcome. To begin with, it was not possible to use hard solder as the high temperatures required would simply cause the silver to run off. Therefore, a whole choice of solders with low reduction points must be developed, and used very carefully. Secondly, all proof of water piping must be hidden, and the finishing of edges must be greeted with special care and attention.

The very early pieces often have an extremely primitive charm, but quickly the Old Sheffield Plate producers became very good at hiding seams, hiding joins, and generally giving the impression of solidity and quality. Indeed, often the creation of a good part of Old Sheffield Plate was technically more difficult than the creation of an equivalent piece in solid silver.

It was not cheap either. The saving in silver was considerable, but the process still required significantly more silver than the later electroplate. This is why many 18th century pieces still have a good layer of silver, while electroplated pieces made 100 years later or more can be found having been replated many times at least! As well as the high silver content Old Sheffield Plate manufacture was more time intensive than solid silver, meaning higher time costs. So some of what was saved in silver content was spent on time. Old Sheffield Plate was still very much a luxury product, and only available to the very wealthy.

Indeed, many buyers of Old Sheffield Plate could pay the silver alternative, but simply preferred to save the money. While much Provincial silver lagged behind the occasions somewhat in terms of fashion, many of the better Old Sheffield Plate producers ascertained their designs were at the height of fashion. Perhaps this became because they felt they had something to replace with, but it is also because while provincial silversmiths were made to a local market Sheffield Plate was built to take on London made silver.

The renowned Old Sheffield Plate manufacturer and industrialist Matthew Boulton notoriously said that she wanted to make "What all the world desires", and much of his and other Old Sheffield Plate producer's output was indeed exported abroad. Indeed, the production and sale of Old Sheffield Plate is firmly grounded in the history of the British Industrial Wave, as well as that of 18th and 19th century art history and the history of design. For both these reasons Old Sheffield Plate is now keenly collected. Precisely as with furniture and solid silver, Old Sheffield builds up a wonderful patina over the years, and water piping wearing through on the high points (known as hemorrhage) is very attractive (especially against mahogany! )#). For those of us interested in the design of an object than the material it consists of Old Sheffield regularly provides us with exceptional examples of Adam, Neoclassical and then Regency styles. While the 18th century ware has the respect of age and inspiration the 19th century Old Sheffield Plate producers really enhanced their art, and much of their output is of truly wonderful quality. Also, many makers of solid silver had at this time used many of the time saving techniques of the Sheffield Producers (such as die stamping for shape and decoration), so the quality and effect are very often identical.

What began as a method for providing males with cheap coat buttons became something much bigger and more interesting than it's probably Bouslover ever imagined. However, by random discovery at a crucial moment a whole industry was made in Sheffield and beyond. It came at the perfect moment, fuelled by a trickling down of wealth to those who were desperate to prove their good taste and refinement. It also arrived at a time when mechanised class techniques were coming in the silver industry (and of course industry in particular) and so it was not such a stretch for the bright minds of Sheffield Industry to match the discovery's potential to the new demand for affordable luxury.

Additional Reading

For a more involved discussion of Boulsover's creation and Sheffield Plate in general see Crosskey, 2011 "Old Sheffield Plate: A history of the 18th Century Plated Trade"

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