The tea machine first appeared in Britain in the late 18th century and was used to serve both tea and coffee. The central urn would have contained the hot water and could pivot, enabling it to fill the smaller urns containing different types of teas, or coffee, on either side. This tea machine is made from Sheffield plate, a technique discovered in Sheffield in 1742 by Thomas Boulsover, in which silver and copper are fused through heat. This could be rolled into sheets of laminated metal and worked like silver at a much lower cost. Each component of the tea machine was costly to make, and required plating of extra thickness to withstand heat and allow for engraved decoration without revealing the copper. The production of plated wares flourished in Sheffield – from which the name derives – and other cities such as Birmingham for about 100 years, until the technique was superseded by electroplating in the 1840s. The fashion for Neoclassical designs also lead to the material’s demise, as it proved impossible to replicate traditional silversmithing techniques such as engraving and casting, which risked exposing the underlying copper.
This tea machine is engraved with a crest above decorative bands of anchors, acorns and oak leaves, the emblematic tree of Britain, which might suggest that its owner had ties with the British navy.