Antique Silver Standards: Sheffield Plate
Sheffield Plate was developed in the middle of the 18th century as a more affordable alternative to sterling silver. It consists of a thin layer of silver applied over a thick sheet of copper, then pressed and hammered until the two metals are fused together. Once fused, the plated sheet acts exactly like sterling silver and it’s ready to be molded and shaped by the silversmith.
Around 1770 the silver layer started to be applied on both sides of the copper so that the item would be entirely plated and look like sterling.
The invention of this technique dates back to 1743 when Thomas Boulsover (1705-1788), a Sheffield cutler, accidentally overheating some silver noticed how it melted and fused together with copper. Conducting further experiments he realised how the two metals, once fused together behaved as one and could be worked and reshaped.
In 1758 Joseph Hancock, also from Sheffield started using the same technique to produce tea sets, candlesticks and larger items, overshadowing Boulsover’s fame and becoming Master Cutler for the Sheffield area.
The Sheffield plating process didn’t last long: by 1840 it started to be more and more often replaced by the new electroplating technology, introduced by George Elkington.
It is important to notice that Old Sheffield plate could be marked or unmarked. In fact in 1773 the government banned the plate manufacturers to mark their wares trying to protect the sterling silver market. Nevertheless the law was abolished in 1784 and plate makers were allowed to mark their items as long as the mark wasn’t deceiving and resembling any of the existent silver marks.