This butter or cheese knife is a decorative example of electroplated cutlery that had become an affordable alternative to more expensive silver cutlery in the late 1800s to early 1900s. The knife has stamp marks in the back of its handle that are a combination of letters and symbols used by British silversmiths to identify their workmanship.
The design and type of this knife was not normally used by everyday people but rather those of a higher social class with time and money to have a particular decorative knife to serve butter or cheese. The marks on the handle tell that it was made of nickel silver, and electroplated with superior quality Stirling silver. The Barker Brothers of Birmingham made the knife between 1885 and 1907, but most likely before 1895. It was made for the British, or British colonial, people, connected with a government department such as the navy or defence. This story may be slightly inaccurate, as some silversmiths added extra ‘pseudo marks’ to their wares to disguise the quality.
THE MARKS and their meaning –
- ‘A1’ The silver used in electroplating this knife was the highest level, ‘superior quality’, measured in grams of silver per table spoon or table fork, with ‘A1’ being 2 2/3 grams, and ‘D’ being 0 1/2 grams of silver.
- ‘BB’ The Baker Brothers used these initials from 1885 to 1907.
- ‘[crown symbol]’ – This symbol is used for Sterling silver but this knife is a metal alloy. The crown is also the town mark of Sheffield (appointed by the Sheffield Assay Office) but this knife was made in Birmingham, which has the town mark of an anchor. The Barker Brothers may have added the crown mark to this electroplated silverware as a ‘pseudo hallmark’, leading the buyer to think that it was actual Sterling silver. The use of pseudo hallmarks by electroplaters of the Victorian era was common practice but it was illegal. In 1895 the unlawful practice was seen as imitating the Sheffield Silver Mark and the law was firmly applied to eradicate the deception, so items with this mark probably date before 1895.
- [EPNS] Electro Plated Nickel Silver, called nickel silver or German silver, is a metal alloy that usually combines copper, nickel and zinc (60 percent copper, 20 percent nickel, 20 percent zinc). It has a silver-white appearance and is sometimes referred to as ‘white ware’. It does not contain any silver but is often used as a base for electroplating, when the item is covered with a thin layer of silver to give it the polished appearance of pure silver. It became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century as an affordable substitute for sterling silver.
- Broad Arrow - an official stamp that indicates it was once the property of Britain government, either in Britain or one of its colonies, and used in the defence force. In Great Britain, from an 1875 government act, it was, and still, is a crime to forge or wrongfully use, the broad arrow symbol.
The BARKER BROTHERS of Birmingham -
Barker Brothers were one of the earlies firms of Birmingham silversmiths, established in 1801 by Mary Barker. They became Barker & Creed, then William and Matthias Barker, then from 1885 they were the Barker Brothers. They were operating in Paradise Street in 1871 until in 1903 they moved to Unity Works, Constitution Hill, in Birmingham. The firm also had a showroom at 292 High Holborn, London, from the early 1900s to the 1980s.
In 1907 the firm became Barker Brothers Silversmiths Ltd, then in the 1960s they merged with Ellis & Co, becoming Barker Ellis Silver Co. Ltd. In 1979 they were registered in USA as Ellis & Co., Barker Ellis, and Ellis Barker. The business went into administration in 1992, after almost 200 years of production. The firm advertised as specialists in electroplating, and used the trademarks BRITANOID, UNITY PLATE and THE HYGENIA.
This knife is historically significant, dated from 1885 to 1907 but most likely pre-1895, and made by the longstanding Birmingham silversmiths, the Barker Brothers, established in 1801.
The knife is an example of decorative flatware used by people of ’class’. It also has the broad arrow stamp, connecting it to the British government, in particular the ordinance department. The stamp also connects it to other items in our collection with that stamp. It may have been connected to pre-Federation government organisations and officials such as the army Garrison, government naval vessel, police, lighthouse keepers, harbour masters.
The knife is the only example of its kind in our collection, being a decorative silver butter or cheese knife, made by the Barker Brothers of Birmingham.
Butter knife, or cheese knife, electroplated nickel silver (EPNS). Upper blade edge has decorative shape and engraved motifs, lower blade edge is bevelled to a cutting edge, and narrow plain handle flares out to a wide, rounded end. Maker’s marks are stamped on the reverse. Made by Barker Brothers of Birmingham in the late-19th century.
“”- A1 inside diamond
“[BB]” – BB inside lozenge
“[crown symbol]”- crown inside square with cut corners
“[EP/NS]” - EP over NS inside shield, on its side
“’←” - Broad Arrow on its side
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