Victorian Silversmithing
Research at the California Academy of Sciences



In Victorian England, a household's inventory of silver serving pieces clearly indicated  one's wealth and status. Silver was the main source of revenue for England's royalty for centuries, and as early as the 1300s, a standardized system for hallmarking silverwork had developed in England, consisting of five hallmarks. The first hallmark was the maker's mark, followed by the county and city marks, the date letter in an oval, and finally, the sovereign's head. The most valuable pieces were called Sterling signifying that their content was at least 925 parts fine silver per 1000. Three wonderful examples of Sterling silver pieces are the wine tasting cups (or quaichs) shown below.

 Silver wine cups

Sterling Wine Testing Cups or "Quaichs" (Scottish type of vessels).

Far left: hallmark at rim "GU," Unite G Company, Birmingham, England. Date: 1912-1913. CAS 0389-2016

Center: hallmark at rim "E&C," Elkington & Company, Ltd., Birmingham, England. Date: 1909-1910. CAS 0389-1953

Right: hallmark "Willson & Sharp Ltd.," Edinburgh, Scotland. Date: 1799-1800. CAS 0389-2015

The Industrial Revolution resulted in new metal working techniques which ultimately made silverwork less costly and thus more readily available to working class people. Silversmiths could also experiment with a variety of imaginative designs, thus starting a mid-Victorian passion for collecting all kinds of silver plate objects that were used in table settings.

Two new alloying techniques that were developed in England were Sheffield Plate and Plated Silver. Although it is not certain that the firm of Elkington and Company actually discovered these processes, clearly this firm first saw the practical possibilities for applying the techniques for mass production. Sheffield Plate is the name applied to wares created by fusing together thin sheets of silver and copper. An example is the tea ball shown below.

Salt, pepper and tea ball

Silverplate Pepper Mill (left). Nickel silver. CAS 0389-1950

Saltshaker (center). Electroplating on nickel silver. CAS 0389-1276

Sheffield Plate Tea Ball (right). Hallmark "A,B,J,B," London, England. Date: 1858-1859. CAS 0389-1663

In contrast to Sheffield Plate Silver, British Plated Silver (also called Silver Plate or Electroplate in the United States) uses an electrical method to coat a base metal (copper or nickel) with a thin layer of silver. The resulting metal plate is very flexible and is easily worked, but it is so thin that the silver coating is often rubbed off after extended use. However, when first introduced, this new method permitted goods to be sold at unbelievably low prices because it required considerably less labor than the Sheffield Plate method. The list of silver plated articles made during the Victorian era is extensive, and in addition to the usual household tableware (knives, spoons and forks), it also includes things like cruets, sugar cub with tongs and soda-syphon stand (used for chilling bottles of soda water), some of which are shown in the next two images.

Cruet set and pickle canister

Dinner Cruet or Condiment Holder Set (left). Electroplating on nickel silver, bottles in pressed and cut glass. CAS 0389-1051A-H

Pickle Canister with Lid, Serving Stand and Tongs (right). Triplated and pressed glass. Hallmark: "ROGERS & BRO." The upper panel lid is made in typical Victorian mythology design. CAS 0389-1359A-D


Wine holders

Bottle Stand (left). Base wood, silverplate and pewter (or Britannia metal). CAS 0389-1283

Silverplate Cup Stand or Glass Stand (center). CAS 0389-1279

Wine Bottle Chiller or Soda-Syphon Stand (right). Electroplate on nickel silver. Hallmark: "WS & S." CAS 0389-1285

The collecting passion developed by mid-Victorian English people was soon imitated all over the world, and today you can see objects like these in the 19th and 20th century historic houses throughout Europe and America.


Victorian Electroplate. London, Country Life Collector's Guides. 1971
Early American Silver. New York, Funk & Wagnalls. 1970
The Book of Sheffield Plate. New York, Crown Publishers. 1949

Victorian Kitchen Technology Silversmithing Blue & White Crockery Food Molds

Victorian Kitchens Home

Kitchen Technology Silversmithing Blue & White Crockery Food Molds Victorian Kitchens Home

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