The History of Silverplate
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Silver plating Process:
A base metal is ran through a water bath that includes trace amounts of silver.
Electricity is then ran through the bath and the silver is permanently attached to the base metal.
Some pieces were ran several times accounting for marks such as "quadruple plate, triple plate", etc.
How Silverplating Was Invented
The fledgling technique was brought to America in 1837 by John O. Mead of John Mead and Sons, a manufacturer of Britannia Ware located in Philadelphia. He worked on it for a few years without success and turned to William Rogers, a Silversmith from Hartford Connecticut. In 1845, they formed the partnership Rogers and Mead.
Together, they were the first American's to successfully electroplate and sell their wares in the market. This invention, based on battery technology, created an industry in America that produced thousands of jobs for over a hundred years.
During the late 1800's and early 1900's, silver was fairly scarce. With the invention of the plating process, a larger part of the population was able to own silver. When the price of silver dropped in later years, silverplate went out of fashion and out of production as people could afford to buy Sterling, the 'real thing'. Now, some older silverplate has become collectible leading to prices higher than some sterling silver flatware.
Many books have been written about the history of electro-plate so here is a 'short' version of the history of this success story. Knowing a few basic things about the history of silver helps one to follow the story. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
History of the Value of Silver
Silver, for a long time, was tied to the value of money and was used as cash which achieved widespread use with the Romans. Charlemagne standardized the practice in 800 and the idea spread throughout Europe. In the US, the coinage system was worked out during the Jefferson Administration. It was decided to that 16 ounces of silver was equal in value to one ounce of gold. The US demonetized silver in 1875 and it has not been officially recognized by the US since then. Pure silver is soft so it is mixed with other metals before it is molded or fabricated into shapes. The alloy, usually copper, strengthens items allowing them to withstand ordinary use.
The Origination of Hallmarks
Changing the ratio of silver to cheaper metal (up to a certain point) is not very noticeable to the naked eye. During the reign of Edward I in England, frauds were so extensive that the government developed a regulatory system. Starting in 1300, silver had to be tested and stamped with a leopard's head in order to be sold in the market. This regulated formula for the amount of silver vs. other added metals is called "Sterling". The formula for Sterling is 925 parts of pure silver and 75 parts of alloy which is written as 925/1000.
In 1363, Silversmiths were required to each have their own mark as Assigned by the King. Pieces were still then required to be assayed and marked by the Assayers office with the King's mark.
So evolved the Hall Mark. In Europe, regulatory offices were located in various cities.
The process a Silversmith would go through is this: He or she would create something, mark it with his or her maker's mark and take it to the government office where it would be tested.
The oldest method of testing the quality of gold or silver was by the 'touch'. This consisted of making (by the metal to be tested) a steak on a black stone called a "Touchstone" and comparing it with a streak made by a standard sample of known quality and composition, which was called a touch needle.
After the metal was deemed to be in the proper ratio for “Sterling”, it was marked with that office's Assay mark and it could be sold.
The assay mark guaranteed that the item was "Sterling" with the proper ratio of silver to the other mixed in metal. It could than be given a monetary value related to the weight of the item and was often used as cash.
Assay marks from European silver are fairly easy to follow as the marks are published in mark books. You look up the marks and can tell where it was assayed, the date and the maker.
When American colonies were settled, Silversmith's had their own maker's mark and there was an assay system here in the States for a while but it fell off, probably due to the distance people would have to travel to have an item assayed. Documentation of American maker's marks are found in some books, but they are far from complete which makes some early American silver virtually impossible to identify.
The use of the words "Coin Silver" as a brand was never used on Sterling Silver. Items that were silverplated were sometimes stamped with this brand as a way for the plater to advertise the quality of the plate.
If you run across and item with that stamp, it is silverplate.
With that in mind, lets go back to Europe and follow the fascinating story of the beginnings of electro-plated silver ware. It starts in Sheffield, England.
People who work with silver had long been looking for ways to produce less expensive silver products.
Sheffield Plating, not the same as silverplating, was discovered in 1379 by a cutlery maker Thomas Boulsover while mending a knife. He left it in the fire too long and fused silver and copper in two layers.
Silversmiths further developed this technique as way of creating silver items by covering a cheaper metal with silver. Beating sheets of fused copper and silver, items such as coffee and tea pots, milk jugs and candlesticks were made. At the time, it was called "Copper Rolled Plate" and an industry was born. Early Sheffield plate has silver outside and tin on the inside. Later, silver was fused on both sides and named "closed ware". Red copper that showed through was called "bleeding". Pieces that show bleeding are now prized by collectors as they prove authenticity.
Early cultural attitudes towards this new ware was disfavorable until 1784 when the English Parliament, recognizing the economic value of this industry, granted approval for makers to add their maker's mark to their wares. Prior to this, only sterling silver was allowed to carry a maker's mark which had to be approved by a government office (Assayer's Office) in order to be sold in the marketplace. Do a web search on "history of sterling silver" for more information on this topic.
There were approximately 16 original manufacturers of this product. Other producers sprang up all over Europe and Russia after Parliamentary recognition was granted. Some was slated for export but my experience has been that these items are fairly rare to find in the US.
The term "Sheffield Plate", later adopted by electro-platers, was often used as a mark on silver plated items. This is not the same thing as the rolled, fused Sheffield Plate of the late 1700's / early 1800's.
The industry was short lived. Right afterwards, another revolutionary invention was forthcoming: Britannia Ware
Britannia is a metal close to pewter that was invented, also in Sheffield England, sometime before 1768, by M. Gowers. Electro-plating was invented there too, but that is later in the story.
Made of about 150 part of tin, 3 parts copper and 10 parts antimony, Britannia ware soon replaced most pewter. The formula was purchased from Mr. Gowers in 1769 by James Vickers who gave Sheffield fusion silver plate a true competitor as it held a high luster finish. Britannia ware quickly spread throughout the globe including America where it was manufactured by several companies.
Founded in 1808. Now Called International Silver Ashbel Griswold learned the pewter trade while working at Danforth's. He moved to Meriden Connecticut and attempted to manufacture his own version of Britannia ware. He came up with a metal formula and started the Meriden Britannia Company.
His expertise drew other aspiring metal workers and Meriden Connecticut became a hub for people wanting to get in on the action. They learned the trade from him and started their own companies manufacturing Britannia ware. These companies were the supply base for platers that came along in the 1850's which we will get to later.
The missing piece of the pie for this Britannia Ware was Marketing. H. C. Wilcox filled the bill. He assembled the wares of the various manufacturers and sold them under his company name. This is the beginnings of the Meriden Britannia Company.
Other types of base metals that were developed during that general time period were German Silver (See Wallace Section below) and Nickel Silver. Both of these metals were developed and used by spoon manufacturers for their hardness. Neither are considered 'real' silver.
About the same time, Isaac Babbitt invented Babbitt Metal in Tuanton Massachusetts. This discovery has a place in the history of silver plate. Eventually, the company known as Taunton Britannia Manufacturing and later as Reed and Barton (1840) emerged. Before 1850, they produced teapots with wood handles. Henry Reed later perfected the pearl oyster shell insulation that became a hallmark for later designs.
Competition between these two companies drove down prices for Britannia ware.
These manufacturers, among others, later supplied the 'blanks' for the silver plating industry that had yet to be born. Early flatware patterns were mass produced and sold to plating companies who would mark them with their own name.
That takes us up to the early 1830's which is where the next part of the story occurs.
A European Breakthrough
The idea of plating items was always in the background as Sheffield Plate had gained it's commercial value in 1784 (as mentioned earlier, the English Parliament recognizing the economic value of this metal working of fusing sheets of silver to sheets of copper and granted approval for makers to add their maker's mark to their wares).
Others were busy trying to find an easier way to create a layer of silver over a cheaper metal.
Dr. H. Wollaston, a chemist in London, wrote " If a piece of silver in connection with a more positive metal be put in an acid solution of copper, the silver is coated over with copper, which coating will then stand the operation of burnishing."
Hmmm... ok. So now they could coat silver with copper. But they would rather coat copper with silver!
Though Dr. Wollaston's idea achieved the reverse of what they needed, it provided a place to start. The Sheffield fusion plate makers began experimenting.
Even the government was involved in this pursuit. They set up lectures on the subject of depositing silver by electricity.
Manufacturers, using voltaic batteries (Cruikshanks, Michelson and Brugnatelli) coated silver with lead and copper but could coat nothing with silver.
The specific of the perfection of the technique is slightly blurred as one story gives credit for the invention to a medical student in Sheffield that accidentally figured out how to plate silver to copper.
Other stories give the credit to an American who traveled to Europe to acquire a Smee battery and worked on the technique for years before figuring out the way to use a cyanide solution to acquire a silver plate.
Either way, the next character presented in this version of the story is Mr John O Mead of Philadelphia.
Silverplating comes to America
Across the ocean, American mines would soon become the world's largest producer of raw silver.
John Mead was in the middle of the silver industry in the early 1830's. His small business catered to a company called N.P. Ames Manufacturing. They made swords, cannons and military equipment and John Mead was in charge of executing all the silverplating and gilding using the old process of quicksilver and acids.
The company heard of the lectures that the English Government was holding regarding the topic of depositing silver by electricity. In 1837, John went to England to attend and acquired a Snee Battery. He then began the long tedious process of developing the idea of electro-plate.
Some accounts say that he had a breakthrough in 1840. With the use of cyanide, he could deposit any amount of silver on a base metal. However, there are no records of any item being made in this fashion until after 1845 when John went to Hartford Connecticut seeking help from a Coin Silversmith named William Rogers.
The two men formed a partnership, Rogers and Mead, and produced their first pieces of electro-plated flatware in 1845 with Mead contributing the plating and Rogers providing the spoons.
The partnership dissolved and within a year, John Mead moved back to Philadelphia in 1846.
He reestablished a business and was soon successfully plating wares. His business, John Mead and Sons, was in business until 1860.
In Philadelphia, John's business flourished. He would buy 'blanks' of designed Brittania ware from suppliers such as Reed & Barton that he would plate and sell. With over 200 employees, the company sold tea sets and dinner services to private families, hotels and steamboat and ship builders. He also developed a good export business and shipped product throughout the world.
Back in Hartford, William Rogers contacted his brother Asa who had a shop in Granby Connecticut. In 1842, their partnership produces silver plated flatware of such a high quality that they soon captured the market from coin silver and tinplate. The name Rogers Brothers became a household word.
The Rogers Brothers bought blanks from Reed and Barton and Meriden Brittania and plated them. As the plating technique was a carefully guarded secret, Reed & Barton hired away the star plater D. H. Peck who had been working for Rogers. They also brought an expert plater over from England and soon began turning out superb sets of plated wares.
The competition was fierce. The Rogers, being synonymous with quality, was copycatted by many firms. At one point there were 4 companies that called themselves Rogers Brothers and the real Rogers Brothers sued as they tried to protect their name.
The Rogers Brothers were busy. William Rogers left the original Rogers Brothers Manufacturing Company in 1856. Partnering with George W Smith, he formed the Rogers and Smith Company of Hartford and New Haven.
In 1858, the other two brothers forms Rogers and Brother in Waterbury, Connecticut.
In addition to William Rogers Mfg, other companies somehow related to Rogers family, also used the name:
In 1898, Meriden-International Group absorbed them all. The names of the companies included in that final consolidation were:
The company name, Oneida Community, accurately reflects the origins of this company.
A perfectionist religious cult was founded in around 1840 in New England. They were driven out due to their ideas about marriage and resettled in Oneida New York. During that time, a number of these religious community groups were doing the same thing.
Oneida was the only one that succeeded economically. They had the sense to supplement farming with business and tried several ideas before turning to the manufacture of silver plated ware. In 1877, a new convert brought the idea and the skills with him. The Oneida Commune (Oneida "Community") first started their silverware business producing cheap silverware. Within a short time, they tried plating and began producing high quality wares. Having somewhere around 250-300 members, their sales force was aggressive and the business flourished.
Going back to their beliefs on marriage, the Oneida Community held that every woman was every man's wife. This arrangement lasted until 1880 when public clamor forced the group to disband. The silver company was divided up and put into a stock company in 1881.
Oneida made silverware under many brands including: Community Plate, Heirloom Plate, Tudor Plate, Reliance Plate and WM A Rogers. Even Oneida could not resist the temptation of developing a brand that would utilize the Roger's name.
A farm boy, Robert Wallace was mechanically inclined. He worked for a shop owned by Captain Robert Mix in Prospect Connecticut and learned how to make Britannia spoons. He left and started his own production in a rented grist mill.
Wallace later came across a spoon made of German silver then produced in England. He then went to New York, bought 60 lbs of metal and made further arrangements to have the metal imported regularly from Germany. He began producing German silver spoons.
He later met a man from Waterbury that had acquired a formula for the new metal while in England. Wallace bought the formula from him for $25.00.
The metal was cast at the Wallace plant and rolled into sheets at Waterbury. Within a year, Wallace sourced the work to another Waterbury company that would compound the German silver and roll it into sheets.
In 1834, his business was growing and he needed more space. He built a shop on the banks of the Quinnipiac River. This was the first part of what would become a very large plant at that site.
Wallace first contracted work for Meriden Britannia company among others.
Around 1871, Wallace started production of iron spoons which lead to the later development of the manufacture of a new type of silver plated flatware with cast steel as the base. In 1871, during this time of change, the company also began producing Sterling forks and spoons.
The company manufactured flatware and diversified into hollow ware of all types including dresser silver and practically all other lines of articles in which silver is a component part. In later years, they produced wood handle kitchen cutlery, chrome plate flatware and stainless items.
They also developed a diversified line of trophies in sterling, silver plate and solid gold ranging in all size and price ranges. Employing around 1,000, it maintained it's roles even during the Depression and even during 1934, they were hiring.
Over the years, Robert took on partners and the name of the company changed several times
Robert Wallace died in 1892 and his sons ran the company for many years.
Additional notable dates for the Wallace Company are:
R WALLACE & SONS MANUFACTURING CO
Pairpoint Manufacturing was located in New Bedford MA.
In 1894, it merged with Mt. Washington Glassworks. It was shortly after that when they began making silverplated items.
This short summary only covers a few major players in the silver plate industry. There is much more information available on this subject.