Metalware & Silverware
Metals have been used by humans to show wealth and power, make coinage and manufacture of destructive weapons of war. Metals are involved in every item we use today, either directly in metal manufactured items, or indirectly in smelting, digging and mining of materials, transportation and electrical generation and transmission. Modern civilisation is therefore totally dependent upon metals and their continued supply.
Metals are a natural and abundant resource that is both malleable and extremely durable, which makes them suitable for all manner of practical purposes. Pure metals, such as copper, iron, lead and tin, and various alloys including brass, bronze and pewter have been used around the world for thousands of years. Metals have played a significant role in the development of human civilization, with bronze and iron used to make early tools and weapons. Drinking vessels and utensils for making and eating food have been fashioned from metal since ancient times. Pewter and spelter were inexpensive alternatives to more precious metals.
Humans have used metal objects to help and assist then in their daily endeavours. Before electricity, creating fire and light was a major problem and as a consequence a whole industry, terminology and paraphernalia accompanied the ritual of lighting the fire and making light. Metal has played a major part in cooking through the ages and even today we us a range of metal items when preparing, cooking and serving food and drink. However the shape and types of metals used has changed over time and some are no longer used today. Jelly moulds, ale warmers, bed warmers, wax jacks, chamber sticks, taper sticks, snuffers and trays, trivets, footmen, sadirons, fenders and firedogs were all items in everyday use that our ancestors took for granted that today makes an enjoyable collecting area.
There was no requirement for makers to mark their work made from base metal. As a result, much of the output and history of many makers remain unknown, whilst for others, their history has been put together from old catalogues, published information and similar.
Ever since it was discovered silver, like gold has been converted into gleaming artefacts of great splendour and beauty. Such symbols of wealth and power are collected not only for their superb workmanship, but smaller more ornate pieces also have a unique attraction. This is in part because silver has always been a precious metal. The intrinsic value of silver has had one undesirable effect, silver objects have long been regarded as recyclable and thousands of pieces have been lost over the centuries, melted down to finance wars, to cover up theft, or simply to make something more fashionable.
Silver in its natural state is 99% pure and is too soft and malleable to be used effectively for any practical purposes. It is alloyed with copper or zinc to toughen it up. Sterling Silver is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper. It melts at 894 degrees Centigrade. Sterling Silver is one of the most popular metals in the jewellery trade, and people with allergies to other metals can safely use this metal. A multi-faceted metal, it is used extensively for coins, utensils, storage containers, jewellery and other decorative pieces.
The term "Sheffield Plate" is widely used these days by those dealing in electroplate produced in Sheffield, and most collectors prefer to use the term "Old Sheffield Plate" to identify the early fused plate product. Another misuse of the term is in describing "Close Plated" ware, which was generally made in Birmingham in the first half of the 1800s. The close plate consists of silver foil soldered onto a steel base and was used for items such as candle snuffers or cutlery requiring greater strength than the fused plate.
In the 1830s George Richard Elkington and his brother Henry Elkington patented the process for electroplating silverand by the 1840s had perfected the techniques to make them famous. Electroplate or silverplate was a completely different process from Sheffield plate. Instead of fusing two or three pieces of metal, the method used electricity to deposit pure silver onto a base metal. Various base metals were used but “nickel silver,” an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, proved to be the best for electroplating.
Precious metals in the UK are controlled and marked by law. Silverplate pieces were not subject to this control regime so some pieces have marker marks whilst others are entirely unmarked. To make matters worse some manufacturers used marks on their silver-plated pieces similar to sterling silver hallmarks, whilst others only used figural symbols, so proceed with caution.