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The Legend of Bohemian Glass:
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Bohemian Tango Cordial Set

Four Times the Beauty
by Bob Brooke


Contrary to popular opinion, quadruple plate silver isn’t the lesser cousin of traditional silverplate. In fact, its plating process uses four times the silver as the regular silver plating. But many pieces of quadruple plate silver now look dull and black, leading to 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 Invention of Electroplating
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.

By the 1850's. a number metal craftsmen had shifted their operations to the manufacturing of silver-plated wares in various forms ranging from silver tea and coffee services to silver butter dishes, pickle castors, cake dishes, silver platters, silver tureens, and table ware. Among the large manufacturers besides Rogers Brothers was ware Reed & Barton of Taunton, Massachusetts, which began electroplating in 1848, and Meriden Britannia Company, founded in 1852 in Madden, Connecticut, and by 1863 the largest of producer of plated silver in America.

Since the change from crafting wares of pewter to electroplated silver occurred at the height of the Victorian period, the pieces made in using the new method were always more elaborate in design than the earlier pewter. Not only were the silver-plated pieces ornamented with Victorian details, they were often embellished with florid end decoration.

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, 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, toothbrush holders and washstand 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 hollowware.

But what exactly is quadruple plate? Within the silver plate hollowware industry, items marked as “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 silverplate pieces were four times as heavily plated with silver than items marked "Standard" silverplate.

Quadruple silver pieces are not plated four times, but simply had four times as much pure silver, known in the industry as .925.

So why then are so many quadruple plated silver pieces in such tarnished condition? While four times the amount of silver 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 sulfide, or air containing sulfur. 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 replated to look as good as when it was new. But the cost to value ratio isn’t very good, so replating may cost more than the piece, itself, is worth.

Identifying Silver-Plated Items
Since 1860, pieces made of solid silver have been stamped as “sterling.” Those pieces not bearing that stamp were probably plated.. Sterling silver may also be stamped with “925”, a lion’s head, or another sterling identification mark. However, there’s no standard system of stamps and markings for plated silver, so it may be difficult to determine its origin. Many manufacturers now include a “quadruple plate” mark on their items.

Determining the Value of Quadruple Plate Silver
The value of quadruple silver hollowware or flatware can vary widely based on a piece’s condition, age, and the collectibility of the maker or style. Items made before 1880 can be worth considerably more.

Collectors can identify the manufacturer and production date in books on antique silver and flatware. The quadruple plate hollowware pieces that match a flatware pattern are the most valuable. Quadruple plate silver hollowware with patterns matching items sold in .925 silver can also be valuable.

There are about 5,000 different silver-plated flatware patterns; about 300 of these patterns are valuable to collectors who have items with the same pattern and wish to add to their set. Most quadruple plate silver items, such as dishes and serving items, sell for under $100. However, depending on the particular item and its condition, they may be worth up to several thousand dollars.

Quadruple plate silver in the form of hollowware can be valuable depending on the item. But unlike sterling silver items, quadruple plate silver items can't be melted down for their scrap silver value. Therefore the value of one of these items is determined by its pattern and collectibility. Some patterns and brands are more valuable than others and older items can sell for the most money. In particular, antique items from the 19th century can sell for hundreds of dollars.

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