Monday, January 9, 2017

Four Times the Beauty?

QUESTION: I recently bought an unusual blackened metal coffee pot at a local antique coop. The person on duty told me it was silver plate.  The mark on the bottom of the pot says “WALDORF SILVER PLATE CO. QUADRUPLE PLATE.” Why is the pot so black and tarnished? Can it be re-plated? And exactly what is quadruple plate?

ANSWER: From the shape of your pot, it seems you’ve discovered a Victorian silver plated water pitcher, not a coffee pot. Coffee pots from this time were taller and slimmer and had a porcelain enameled metal lining. You’ve also asked about one of the mysteries of antique collecting—the extreme tarnishing of what were supposed to be high quality silver plate pieces.

The gleam of polished silver has always been a real joy to the owner be he or she rich or poor. But the cost for all but the very rich was prohibitive. The invention of the process of electroplating changed all that.

The first step towards making silver more affordable came around 1839 with the development of  electroplating. Electroplating was possible as a result of increased knowledge of electrical theory and the galvanic batteries needed in the process. Workers suspended the object to be plated in a conductive solution along with an electrode of pure silver. Passage of electric current through the solution caused pure silver to be deposited on the object to be plated. Direct current generators eventually replaced the original batteries as a source of electricity, enabling manufacturers to use  plating tanks large enough for mass production.

Electroplating was the ideal process to produce durable and attractive articles that had most of the desirable qualities of pure silver at a fraction of the cost. The only alternative process was Sheffield plate, a mechanical process that bonded pure silver to copper by heat. But electroplating soon took over the market.

“White metal," or Britannia metal which had the same characteristics as pewter, or nickel silver usually formed the base for electroplating. Unlike pewter, Britannia contained no lead in the alloy, making it a superior product. The usual composition of Britannia consisted of 140 parts tin, 3 parts copper, and 10 parts antimony.

The finest, and most expensive, objects used nickel silver as the base metal for plating. Nickel silver was an alloy composed of 5 percent to 25 percent nickel, 65 percent copper, and 10 percent to 30 percent zinc. The resultant metal was strong, took the plating perfectly, and even if the plated surface became worn, the nickel silver underneath was a good match for the silver plating.

Although plated objects were far less expensive than solid silver, they were still relatively expensive for the average family. For example a six-piece, silver plate on nickel silver  tea and coffee service, consisting of large and small teapots, coffeepot, sugar dish and creamer, cost around $160 in 1867. A comparable set using silver plate on Britannia metal was around $50 in the same period. The sixth piece was known as a "slop." It enabled the gracious hostess to quickly dispose of the dregs in the bottom of the cup before offering her guest a fresh cup of tea or coffee. The "slop" was an open topped vessel made to match the design of the other pieces.

In addition to the conventional tea and coffee services, 19th-century manufacturers of silver plate offered many other items, including pitchers, trays, casters, wine bottles stands, egg holders, cake dishes, goblets and cups. In addition there was a wide variety of toilet articles available, including soap dishes, tooth-brush holders and bowl and pitcher sets. The truly elegant home might have a silver plated parlor spittoon with locking cover. These sold for $4.50 to $6.25 in 1867, depending on how ornate they were.

At its peak, the silver plating industry during the late 19th century centered around Meriden, Connecticut. It was here in 1867 that Dennis C. and Horace C. Wilcox entered the holloware trade, first dealing in Britannia pieces. Later, around 1867, they established the Wilcox Silver Plate Company and started making quadruple plated holloware.

But what exactly is quadruple plate? Within the silver plate holloware industry, items marked of “Standard” indicated that 2 troy ounces of pure silver had been used to silver electroplate 144 teaspoons. Items marked "Quadruple Plate," on the other hand, used 8 troy ounces of silver to plate the same 144 spoons. Thus, quadruple silver plate pieces  were four times as heavily plated with silver than items  marked "Standard" silver plate.

So why then are so many quadruple plated silver pieces in such tarnished condition. While four times the amount of silver had been used to plate them, the layers of plating on quadruple plate were much thinner than standard plating. And while silver is stable in pure air and water, it tarnishes quickly when exposed to ozone, hydrogen sulphide, or air containing sulphur. Victorian homes not only had some of these elements present due to the use of coal-burning stoves and fireplaces, but many upper middle-class homes had overzealous servants who polished the silver pieces incessantly. Each time a servant polished a piece of quadruple plated silver, he or she removed some of the silver.

However, pieces plated on nickel silver, such as those produced Rogers Brothers and Reed & Barton, don’t look as bad today because of their nickel silver base. And, yes, any piece of quadruple plate can be re-plated to look as good as when it was new. But the cost to value ratio isn’t very good, so re-plating may cost more than the piece, itself, is worth.

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