Tools & Technology

(Electro) Plating to Success

What happened when the Industrial Revolution met the middle classes? The silver plating of common household goods such as teapots provided luxury at little cost. 

By Victoria M. Indivero | June 2, 2010

In the last decade of the 19th century Caroline Bowden became the proud owner of a Reed and Barton tea service. The set, likely received as a wedding gift, was electroplated with silver. Silver-plated objects first reached an eager market during the mid-19th century when the rising middle class met the expanding Industrial Revolution as it pushed across the world from England. Prosperity and technology drove the trade in faux luxury items. While the middle class couldn’t afford sterling-silver flatware or tea services, it could afford the silver-plated versions. For Bowden, a New York City grocer’s daughter newly married to a meat supplier, a silver-plated tea set was as much a status symbol as sports cars and designer handbags are today.

(Electro) Plating to Success

Silver-plated teapot

Objects electroplated with silver created an illusion that people owned finer things than they could afford.

Science History Institute/Gregory Tobias

The origins of electroplating metals remain shrouded in mystery, but some evidence points to chemist Luigi Brugnatelli as its discoverer. Brugnatelli’s friend, Alessandro Volta, first demonstrated the battery (then called a voltaic pile) in 1800, and Brugnatelli used this invention to plate metal. After experimenting for a few years Brugnatelli could plate large silver medals with a thin layer of gold. However, despite mention of his research in at least two scientific journals, his work was largely forgotten. Not until the 1830s, when others independently discovered various processes for plating one metal with another, did electroplating resurface.

Silver plating occurs when an inexpensive base-metal object, such as a spoon, is coated with silver, making it shinier and more expensive looking than the original. The object is submerged in an electrolytic solution that contains silver salts and connected to the negative terminal of a current source, like a battery, while the silver source, such as a silver wire, is connected to the positive terminal. As current flows through the solution, silver ions begin to coat the spoon; at the same time, the solid silver begins to dissolve, replacing the silver ions in the solution and keeping the metal content of the electrolytic solution constant.

Thanks to the rediscovery of electroplating, Caroline Bowden was able to acquire the teapot shown here, which is part of her tea service. Each item in the set has Bowden’s initials engraved on it, and stamped on the bottom of each piece is the Reed and Barton hallmark. Reed and Barton started out in 1824 as a family-owned business in Massachussetts selling sterling silver and, later, silver-plated products. Today the company, which remains family owned, manufactures many different types and styles of tableware, including silver-plated objects.