Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, plates were among the least decorated objects made out of sterling silver. Though relatively common in England and France, American-made sterling-silver plates from these centuries are rare. The demand for them was low, their cost was high, and producing a strong, perfectly flat plate from soft silver took a great deal of expertise.
Most sterling plates were used as bases to carry porcelain or glass plates, which were the dishes that people actually ate off of. As a result, the centers of sterling plates were often left plain, marked only by a monogram or coat of arms. One particularly renowned American silversmith of the early 1800s was Fletcher & Gardiner, which produced all manner of Federal style sterling-silver objects—from pitchers to trays to bowls—in their Philadelphia shop.
The brims of silver plates were usually raised. This made them easy to pick up and kept the porcelain plates on top of them from sliding around. Brim decorations were typically limited to engraving, while three-dimensional treatments such as gadrooning and reeding were reserved for the edges.
Two things happened to change the way silver was used in the mid-1800s: The first was the introduction of electroplating techniques in the 1840s. This allowed manufacturers to plate inexpensive metals with thin coats of precious silver. The second great event was the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1959. This major silver strike, along with others that followed in Colorado in the late 1870s, made the metal more affordable.
The differences between silver plate and solid sterling are fairly easy to spot. First, sterling wares were always hallmarked, whereas plated pieces often bore the full engraved name of its manufacturer. Silver-plated objects tend to be heavier than similar pieces made of sterling silver, and the heavier metals beneath their thin silver surfaces are often visible on edges, high points, and other spots that get a lot of wear.
By the late 1800s, as the fussy styles of the Victorian Era flourished, sterling-silver plates made by Tiffany and others gained some popularity, although their need was never as clear as that of serving dishes, ladles, and other sterling-silver tableware. Art Nouveau artisans took to illustrating their plates with raised and chased floral motifs and storybook characters, while those who favored Arts and Crafts made sure the hammer marks on their pieces were still visible, since process was a centerpiece of that aesthetic.