Caring for Silverplate
Old House Journal|November - December 2021
Whether the design is Rococo, Aesthetic, or Art Deco, silverplate is collectible—and needs care.
Brian D. Coleman

Decorative silverplate was a staple in Victorian households of the 19th century, and popular into the 20th century. It describes flatware and hollowware with an electroplated outer layer of silver on a base metal, usually nickel or copper. Quite functional and good-looking, silverplate was produced in a wide range of styles and designs, and might be found in every room.

Nicole Mullen and Daniel Calderon, curators at the San Francisco Airport Museum, recently mounted a fascinating exhibition of Victorian silverplate, giving us a tantalizing glimpse into the beauty of its design. We asked the Museum’s talented conservator Alisa Eagleston–Cieslewicz how to clean and polish silverplate properly. Her guidelines follow.

1. Examine Carefully

The first step, Alisa explains, is to take a good look at the piece and decide if it truly needs polishing—or not. Every time a piece is polished, a little bit of the surface silver is removed. This wears down engraving or surface details, and may eventually wear down the plating layer.

2. Make a Plan

Next, assess the piece to identify any problem areas: plate lifting, structural issues such as dents or loose components, pitting, old coatings, hollows, or detachable areas. Look for moisture-sensitive components—wood, ivory, or perhaps textiles, such a those lining jewelry caskets—to plan how to avoid contact between these materials and the metal-polishing compound. See if the area can be unscrewed or removed; otherwise, try to slip a thin plastic sheet between the metal and adjacent material. Don’t use tape, as this may damage surfaces.

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