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 produce a tool or weapon from. While it can be rubbed 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 hammered up in to complicated functional objects. But there are other metals just as easy, or much easier to work, which might do the same job. Silver has been and still is coveted mainly for one simple fact. It's very beautiful. Highly reflective, heavy and soft to the touch, silver has the gentle sparkle of moonlight, seeming at times to emanate a light of a unique. Also, it is scarce. The demand has always been greater than the supply, e . g this valuable product 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 sort of use an ever-present problem. The best method pre-Old Sheffield was mercurial plating, where a mixture of platinum dust (silver in our case, but more once, gold) and mercury was applied to the surface of an object. The object was then heated so that the mercury evaporated, leaving a thin but solid layer of the platinum. This method was dangerous and expensive. The former consideration not likely so important for our ancestors and forefathers, while the latter was vital!


Old Sheffield Plate, or 'fused plate' as it is sometimes known, was the first retail viable method of plating metal. The strategy itself was invented by a Sheffield Cutler named Thomas Boulsover in 1743. The various accounts of his innovation are vague and slightly contradictory*, but suffice it to say that in the course of his work, by a happy accident, Boulsover found that applying sufficient heat to contacting silver and office assistant the two metals fused. This, in effect, meant that the two metals acted as just one, and when worked or hammered out the proportions of silver to office assistant stayed at the same. The technique Boulsover developed was to sandwich an ingot of office assistant between two plates of silver, properly bind it with line, heat it in a furnace and then work it out in to page, from which 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 his or her own products. The potential of the material was quickly knew, 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 had to 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 array of solders with low reducing points had to be created, and used very carefully. Secondly, all proof office assistant must be hidden, restrictive finishing of edges had to be acknowledged with special care and attention.

The very early pieces often have a fairly gross charm, but quickly the Old Sheffield Plate producers became very proficient at hiding seams, disguising joins, and generally giving the impression of solidity and quality. Indeed, in many ways the creation of a good joint 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 drastically 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 repeatedly at least! As well as the high silver content Old Sheffield Plate manufacture was more work intensive than solid silver, meaning higher work costs. So some of what was saved in silver content was spent on work. 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 spend the money for silver alternative, but simply preferred to save the money. While much Provincial silver lagged behind the changing times somewhat in terms of fashion, many of the better Old Sheffield Plate producers guaranteed their designs were at the height of fashion. Perhaps this has been because they felt they had something to replace, but it is also because while provincial silversmiths focused to a local market Sheffield Plate was meant to contest with London made silver.

The renowned Old Sheffield Plate manufacturer and industrialist Matthew Boulton once said which he wished 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 seated in the history of the British Industrial Innovation, 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 office assistant wearing through on the high points (known as brusing) is very attractive (especially against mahogany! )#). For those of us keen on the design of an object than the material it is constructed of Old Sheffield regularly provides us with exceptional examples of Adam, Neoclassical and then Regency styles. While the 18th century ware has the stature of age and originality the 19th century Old Sheffield Plate producers really improved upon their art, and much of their output is of truly wonderful quality. Also, many makers of solid silver had at this time followed many of the work saving techniques of the Sheffield Producers (such as die stamping for shape and decoration), so the quality and effect are very often identical.

What started off as a method for providing guys with cheap coat buttons became something much larger and more interesting than it's likely Bouslover ever imagined. However, by animal discovery at a pivotal moment a whole industry is 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 company techniques were coming to the silver industry (and of course industry most importantly) 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 innovation and Sheffield Plate in general see Crosskey, 2011 "Old Sheffield Plate: A history of the 18th Century Plated Trade"

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