SHEFFIELD PLATE

Every one is familiar with the name “Sheffield Plate,” and many have a
vague idea as to what, superficially, marks its distinction; there are
fewer, however, who know its story. It is interesting. A few years prior
to the middle of the eighteenth century–1742 is the generally accepted
date–there lived in a little house on Sycamore Hill in the English town
of Sheffield an ingenious mechanic, Thomas Bolsover by name. His knife,
which had a handle made partly of silver and partly of copper, had been
broken, and one day in a leisure moment Bolsover took it to his attic
room to repair it at the little work-bench he had fixed up there. In the
course of this operation an unusual accident brought about the fusing of
the copper and silver parts of the knife-handle. To Bolsover’s surprise
he found the metals had cohered, forming a copper basis with a surface
of silver.

To a stupid mechanic this would have given rise to no reflection, or
only to futile and passing curiosity. To Bolsover it at once brought
the reflection that a process developed by experiment from the results
of this accident would be of definite utility. In view of the fact that
the value of silver at that time was three times what it is to-day, the
discovery of a substitute for the solid precious metal was of great
commercial importance.

Bolsover was a cutler by trade and steel-working was Sheffield’s chief
industry. So little silver-working had been attempted in the town that
there was not even an assay office there; in fact, one was not
established until some thirty years subsequent to Bolsover’s discovery
and inventions. Although Bolsover was only a struggling workman, he had
the good fortune of interesting a Mr. Pegge of Beauchief, who furnished
him with the capital to set up a manufactory of articles produced by the
new process. Buttons, buckles, snuff-boxes, and knife-handles were
turned out from the new shops on Baker’s Hill. This business Bolsover
conducted in conjunction with one, Joseph Wilson. During this period
Bolsover was probably so concerned with his work and the manufacture of
the small articles mentioned that it never occurred to him that his
process was capable of greater developments. Changing conditions open
new channels that are to be anticipated only by imaginative minds.
Bolsover’s mind was, I think, less imaginative than of a generally
intelligent and practical turn. It was sufficient for him, in all
probability, that he had stumbled on material which would replace silver
in the manufacture of the small articles that appealed to his commercial
instinct.

The middle of the eighteenth century was a period in which only the very
well-to-do could afford articles of silver for household use. The middle
class still contented itself with pewter. It apparently remained for
Joseph Hancock, a brazier who had been in Bolsover’s employ, to realize
the possibilities of Bolsover’s copper rolled-plate process (as it was
then and for a long time afterward called), as a suitable material for
silverware. Hancock produced tea-pots, coffee-pots, candlesticks,
tankards, waiters, and so on.

It may seem strange that neither Bolsover nor Hancock followed the new
industry for long. As astute business men, they might be expected to
have anticipated the vogue that the copper rolled plate was later to
enjoy. On the other hand, I think one should take into consideration the
fact that the well-to-do of the day sought no silver substitutes, and
that on the tables of the middle class such things as epergnes,
bread-baskets, and cake-baskets were hardly to be found before 1750,
while coffee-pots and milk-jugs were rare even in silver, and
tea-kettles and tea-urns even more so. As these various articles came
into more extended use in silver form, they suggested to the immediate
followers of Bolsover and Hancock the greater commercial field that
would open to their manufacture in copper rolled plate. Still the old
Tudor & Leader firm, founded by Dr. Sherburn in 1758 and existing till
1814, a firm advertising “the best wrought silver plate,” devoted most
of its attention to the making of buttons and snuff-boxes.

Authorities generally assign to about 1760 the earliest table pieces,
except those (and they were very few) which Hancock produced. After this
time the copper rolled plate, the manufacture of which Bolsover and
Hancock found less remunerative than the metal rolling business they
entered, developed rapidly. By 1774 there were some sixteen firms
engaged in the hollow-ware making in Sheffield alone, and Boulton had
established a factory for copper rolled plate in Birmingham. We may
assume that Sheffield plate, as the ware came to be called then, became
widely popular, for Ashworth, Ellis, Wilson, and Hawksly opened branches
away from Sheffield–in Paris and in Dublin. There were, of course,
many improvements in Sheffield plate, such as the method of preparing
for and applying the ornamental silver edges which was under the patents
of Mr. Roberts of Roberts & Cadman in 1824.

To another discovery we may credit the decline of the fine copper rolled
plate after 1840. It seems that a medical student, Wright by name,
studying with Dr. Shearman of Rotherham, near Sheffield, discovered a
process of depositing silver on copper by electro-decomposition. He sold
his discovery to Messrs. Elkington in Birmingham, who took out patents,
March 25, 1840. Those who have not studied the matter usually rest under
the impression that Sheffield plate, as collectors know it, is an
electroplated ware. On the contrary, although many of the beautiful
original Sheffield-plate forms have been imitated in electroplated
articles, it is not the latter that hold a collector’s interest.
Moreover, the true Sheffield plate so treasured to-day has the silver
rolled on copper and not on nickel or white metal. I suppose tons of
machine-made copper articles, electroplated, pass to-day with the
unknowing as true Sheffield plate. Such of these as imitate the fine old
forms that have been unsurpassed are certainly preferable to other
modern wares that lack the beauty of form and the traditions of design.
However, the electroplated wares should be declared such, and should not
be fabricated to deceive.

Another point is that the cost of making copper rolled plate is twice
the cost of making electroplate. It is, I think, better for the home
furnisher to pay twice as much for a few excellent things than to have
twice as many inferior ones at the same price. Modern Sheffield
plate–that is to say, the rolled plate of to-day–is nearly all worth
having. The old Sheffield pattern-books and many of the dies for the
forms survived the capricious fortune that for so many years led the
older art to give way to the commercial aspect of electroplate. Now,
electroplating does not wear well unless it is done on nickel; a hard
copper basis, moreover, enhances the beauty of the silver coating, and
brings out a quality which nickel and white metal do not.

As it was not until 1784 that Parliament repealed the act that
prohibited marking plated ware, no Sheffield plate that is genuine is
found with a mark antedating 1784. From 1784, to, say, 1880, Sheffield
plate may bear mark and maker’s name beside it. The firm of W. Green &
Co. was the first to have its mark and name registered for Sheffield
plate; this was September 8, 1784. However, the collector finds pieces
bearing names and marks together very rare. Marks are generally so
inconspicuously placed as often to be missed even when they do occur.
Careful examination is necessary to discover them.

It should be borne in mind that the genuine Sheffield-plate metal
consisted of silver and copper sheets inseparably joined and pressed out
to the required thinness by being run cold through rollers. The metal
was then cut and shaped by hand-hammering into the forms desired.
Electroplated ware consists of a baser metal form already shaped before
being coated with silver in galvanic solution. The possessor of any
pieces of genuine Sheffield plate will subject them to ruin if he is, at
any time, so ill-advised as to have them replated. Such a renovation
will utterly destroy the beauty that intrinsically resides with even
worn pieces of Sheffield plate that show copper traces.

On traveling to the Adriatic coast some years ago, I stopped for several
days in a little Italian town not far from Ancona. I suppose few
visitors have ever alighted there; at least that is the impression I got
from the profuse welcome accorded me at the primitive _albergo_ where I
put up. Just why even the slow-creeping trains of the Marche ever
bothered to stop here at all I have yet to determine. With myself I seem
to have established a precedent. No errand other than that of the spirit
took me there. It all happened because, when journeying eastward, I had
asked a fellow-traveler what there was of interest in this town, and,
then, why the train made so short a stop.

“No one ever gets out here,” he explained; “there is nothing to see.”

From that moment my curiosity was aroused, for experience has taught me
that the most interesting places are those which most people find
uninteresting.

One of the things I found in this little town will, perhaps, dear
reader, interest you, and so I will make mention of it as introduction
to my subject. The room to which I was assigned by my host of the inn
was, I have reason to believe, the _chambre de luxe_ of the
country-side. The high beamed ceiling was painted much after the manner
of the great ceiling of the Florentine church of San Miniato al Monte,
although I saw nothing of it all by the flickering candle which lighted
my arrival at this medieval hostelry. In the morning a burst of golden
sunlight awakened me, and in through the windows was wafted the
fragrance of the grape flowers in blossom outside. My sleepy eyes
followed the walls around. And then opened wide on beholding a quaintly
framed canvas of beautiful freshness, the picture of a group of saints.

Jumping out of bed and going over to inspect the painting, I observed on
an old marqueterie secrétaire which stood just below it an array of
curious, golden-hued objects. On closer examination I found some to be
boxes, some jewel-caskets, others yarn-containers, while needle-cases,
frames, book-covers and the like completed this odd assemblage of
curious antiques. Then I discovered that they were all examples of straw
marqueterie, but finer, of them, than any pieces of the sort that ever
before had happened to come to my attention.

I suppose being a collector makes one a discoverer. At any rate, a
discovery it was, and I asked myself how on earth these things happened
to be here. That morning my host explained.

“All these,” said he, “I have been collecting as a hobby for
years–things made by prisoners of war, interesting and worth
preserving. The inlaid straw objects are but part of what I
have–ivories, carved cocoanuts; jewelry, paper models, embroideries,
and so on, all made by prisoners of war, mostly in Italy, I presume, as
I have picked them up here in my own country in traveling around. I
would not part with them for the world!”

This declaration dashed my hopes to the ground, but one can forgive much
in a landlord who collects things more spiritual than rent, and a
landlord in Italy who “travels around” also commands one’s respect for
his ability to be so independent. That is why I listened instead of
bargaining, and in that morning I learned many interesting facts about
my host’s unusual collection. Perhaps there were few kindred collecting
souls in the neighborhood who deigned to listen as sympathetically as I
did or who made no effect to conceal an enthusiasm which these things
awakened within me. At any rate, the amiable innkeeper who would not
part with his treasures for the world proved finally willing to sell a
few of them for considerably less than a hemisphere, which gave me a
chance to weave tales of my own in the years that were to follow.

Dr. John Eliot Hodgkin, F.S.A., a renowned English antiquarian, had a
collection of some eighty pieces of straw marqueterie, a collection
exceeded in extent at that time by two French collection only. Probably
not over a hundred pieces of straw marqueterie are to be found in all
the British museums combined. Dr. Hodgkin’s interesting volumes under
the title of “Rariora” are, unfortunately, out of print. In one of these
he reproduced some of the specimens of straw marqueterie in his own
extensive collection, and the reader who wishes further to interest
himself in the subject is referred to the pages of those erudite tomes,
which he may be fortunate enough to find on the shelves of some of the
more important art libraries in America.

In Europe the earlier centuries brought into existence many small arts
of which we have well nigh forgotten the very existence. It was thus
these straw marqueterie objects of the sixteenth century, the
seventeenth and the eighteenth, objects whose form of decoration is so
rare as to be almost unknown to dealers in antiques and curios. Indeed,
I have failed to find a single specimen of _early_ straw marqueterie in
any shop in America, or to discover any dealer who really knew anything
about it.

This decoration, composed of filaments of colored wheaten or oaten straw
applied to small cabinets, pictorial panels, mirror frames, caskets,
bookbindings, étuis, bonbonnières, plaques, etc., boasts of an early
origin. Possibly it was known in the fifteenth century, but I have not
found any examples that can with reasonable precision be attributed to a
period earlier than the first quarter of the sixteenth century. In
certain instances the straw filaments composing the mosaics or
marqueterie covering of the objects was highly colored originally, but
time has softened and toned them down. The finest specimens of this work
resemble chiseled gold, and nearly all examples of straw marqueterie
show a play of light on the grain of the fabric that produces the most
exquisite effects imaginable, which one must see really to appreciate.

Very crude modern Japanese trays, boxes, etc., are technically akin to
this old marqueterie, but are not worthy to be classed with it or placed
near these rare old European specimens. Indeed, the Oriental
artist-craftsmen have never appeared to grasp a full realization of the
resources of straw as a material for producing the exquisite effects to
which the earlier European workers attained, except in a few instances.
This seems strange, considering the ingenuity of Oriental craftsman. The
European artist-craftsman appears to have developed the art
independently of Oriental suggestion, or at least independently of
Oriental influence.

In all probability straw marqueterie started in a humble way with the
peasantry. The materials for working it out lay at hand without cost,
infinite patience being all that was required, with skill and inherent
taste and a sense of design, which peasant art invariably exhibits.
Probably the early Italians were the first makers of objects in straw
marqueterie and the French were probably the next ones to take it up,
borrowing the art from the Italians.

As no straw-work of this sort is being made in Europe to-day, one can
but venture to guess at the details of the process. Such old volumes as
Barrow’s “Dictionarium Polygraphicum,” and the “Handmaid of the Arts,”
in which one might reasonably look for some hint on the subject, are
strangely neglectful of the matter, which leads to the conclusion that
though straw marqueterie was at one time one of the flourishing small
arts on the Continent, it was less generally known in England. In fact,
nearly all the English work of the sort dates from the eighteenth
century.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum is an ingeniously constructed work-box
of pine, decorated on the outside and the inside with colored straw-work
arranged in panels containing checkers, diagonal lines, and other
devices. The front is fitted with a revolving shutter, behind which is a
panel ornamented in the center with buildings and fitted below with a
small drawer. Below the shutter is a larger drawer, divided into four
lidded compartments, two of the lids being of glass; under this drawer
is another small drawer. At the top of the box is a lid fitted inside
with a mirror and covering two compartments with hinged lids. The word
“HOPE” appears on both the front and the back of the box. There are four
turned bone handles and a lozenge-shaped lock-plate of the same
material.

In the author’s collection is a cabinet of straw marqueterie, measuring
8½ inches in height, 9 inches in breadth, and 4¾ inches in depth.
There is one wide, deep drawer at the bottom, above which six narrower,
shallower drawers are placed in two sections of three each. From the
shape of the handles, the proportion of the cabinet, the quality of the
black lacquer inside finish of the drawers, and the design of the panel
across the bottom, one is led to conclude that this is an uncommon
example of Japanese workmanship.

A number of small boxes with figure subjects, all carefully and
wonderfully worked out in filaments of colored straw, are extant to
attest to the durability of straw marqueterie, which is not nearly so
fragile as its name suggests it to be. Some of these were executed by
French prisoners of war as Norman Cross in 1810.

From times immemorial, I suppose, war prisoners who have not been
enslaved by their captors but have been treated without barbarity have
sought to enlighten their tedium by various sorts of handicraft,
exerting to the utmost their ingenuity in the matter of tools and
materials. To-day the subject is one of immediate interest to us.
Already have art objects made by prisoners of war interned in Holland
and in Switzerland reached us. In time they will come to be as treasured
as the antiques made by the prisoners of war of the Napoleonic period
and of earlier times. To catalogue the variety of such things would
require page after page. Naturally, nearly all such objects are “handy”
in size and one does not look for particularly large specimens of war
prisoners’ art work. One begins to realize, after visiting the
convalescents’ ward of a military hospital, what a blessing to the
soldier some knowledge of an art handicraft may be. I have seen several
marvelous things whittled out of wood by prisoners of war–bone
carvings, beadwork, jewelry–that indicate the godsend the work must be
to the soldier prisoner detained in the enemy’s camp. But of all these
objects I know of none that are more beautiful than those of straw
marqueterie.

I do not know where the art originated. Mr. Hodgkin confessed to a like
hiatus in his knowledge of the subject. However, I have no doubt that
artistic straw inlaying was practised in the Orient at a very early
date. Thence it may have been brought into Europe. I feel sure that it
was known and practised during the period of the Renaissance in Italy,
and I consider the old Italian examples of this craft to be the earliest
European ones.

This early Italian straw marqueterie is distinguished by its golden
hues, suggesting the richness of Venetian paintings. The objects to be
covered by the artist in straw were of various materials, such as wood,
paper, papier-maché, cloth, and occasionally glass, metal, or bone. The
design, pattern, or picture was worked out by pasting filaments and
little sections of straw (stained to various colors) on the surfaces of
the objects to be covered, which were then varnished. The minuteness of
some of this straw-work is extraordinary. It would seem to have
necessitated the use of a glass of high magnifying power as well as to
have required almost super-human patience and ingenuity to put it
together. Moreover, these early pieces in straw marqueterie were so
faithfully fabricated that they have come down to us in excellent
condition.

I imagine the French learned the art of straw marqueterie from their
Italian cousins. I feel sure that the Spanish craftsmen did. At any
rate, French prisoners of war have shown themselves wonderfully
proficient in this art in the past. The French prisoners of the
Napoleonic Wars who were quartered in England were prolific in their
output of this sort. Numerous tea-caddies have I seen from their hands,
here and there preserved in the cottages of the country round about
Peterborough. At near-by Norman Cross was one of the chief camps of the
Napoleonic prisoners of war. We are told that a regular market for the
art wares made by French prisoners at Norman Cross was held daily in the
camp. Perth was another prisoner-of-war concentration center and
contemporary writers tell us that the objects made by the French
prisoners there were of a finer design and quality than like things
produced by the English townsmen, in consequence of which there was
brisk market rivalry. At Dartmoor, Stapleton, Liverpool, and Greenland
Valleyfield the French war prisoners exhibited their skill. At the
Liverpool prison they constructed little straw marqueterie cases to
contain miniature ships and like articles.

What stories the objects of straw marqueterie made by prisoners of war
could tell could they but speak! What silent testimonies of grit,
patience, and fortitude! But perhaps we may be glad that we do not know
all they might tell, for to-day has sorrow enough and we should be
grateful that time has been kind enough to leave us just the beauty and
not the life details of these objects from the hands of those who
suffered in the yesterdays of other wars.