July 15, 2010

What metal was a sign of social status to the Victorians?

I'm stuck on a question in my book about what metal was a sign of social status to the Victorians? I checked the internet, went to the library. And nothing is coming up. Only one little part about silver ...and I always thought it was silver, but I am confused because there is a line in my text book which reads...Britannia metal - This ware was made during Victorian times and was mass-produced in large quantities with the help of the large steam driven machines. Because of this sentence, I am really kind of lost. Can you help me sort my metal problem out? And where when I need to research something can I go , on the internet? I need a good source area or do I need a lot of reference books?

This is a easy question - more or less - Britannia metal (also known as Vicker's white metal) was invented about 1770 and really did not become accepted until 1840 or around the beginning of the Victorian era. The metal is made from mostly tin, and a little antimony which is not really a metal and copper. Antimony gives it the appearance of silver and copper makes tin more durable or stronger - a little of both went a long way. Because this metal could be molded or poured into molds, the popularity jumped when utensils, vessels of all sorts hit the market so to speak - because they were first cheaper and then much easier to care for - less polishing then silver. The metal also has a similar look to pewter, in fact was an outgrowth of pewter though pewter also has zinc. Both metals darkens with age in a similar manner.

Britannia metal may also be called Sheffield, but you'll find items such as quadruple plate or Meridian wares that grew out of this material. Victorians liked having a specific utensil, bowl, plate, etc and so on for serving foods. Since good silver could not be massed produced because each silver item required a skill that machinery could not duplicate. Britannia metal could easily be mass produced, and subsequently became popular with the mass market.

The question though as to what metal was a sign of social status is ambiguous to me and I can see why it is confusing. Status symbols were and still are metals such as gold, silver, and platinum - keep in mind though that all of these were (and still are - high quality that is) in short supply and not affordable. However, if you consider the mass or entire Victorian market - then the answer would need to be that which was mass produced and the average household could afford - the introduction of Britannia metal made it available to the average consumer.

As to doing research on the internet - yes but use a wide area of sources and try different search strings or key words. There is so much material out there and often a lot of misinformation. The amount of reference material is staggering - books too. I've amassed an extensive library and I still look for books that tell me more about history and construction of an item. To me this is a critical point in determining quality versus quantity, or carefully made versus mass produced. Don't get me wrong because items that were mass produced still have value, it's just that once you understand the details and what to look for, you'll be less prone to fall for fakes or reproductions.

Oh - yes - the industrial age just like the printing press opened doors to a whole new world - but designers and companies dedicated to producing quality products even though the products could be mass produced, thrived (some still do)!


  1. We must be studying the same book because I am stuck on that question as well. I can not find where it states which it is. I was thinking silver or gold.... I don't know. Let me know if you found out anything. Thanks

  2. OK, we all must be taking the same test from Ashford Institute! I, too have been searching for the same answer. The one posted above sounds logical, so I'm going with britannia metal. Thanks!

  3. Read page 151. The answer is silver