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Rockford Silver Plate Company

The Racine Silver Plate Company was formed in Racine, Wisconsin is 1875 when about $18,000 was raised and the machinery of a defunct Milwaukee concern was purchased and moved to that city. The company was not managed efficiently and it was soon found necessary to raise the capital stock to $30,000 in order to do a competitive business. This even, was not enough, and the company was continually in debt to the banks. The company was always lame, never had enough to pay its own way, but it kept on running and made good silver plated items. Finally in early 1882 the company landed a large contract that would have finally brought a profit to the struggling company.

It was a stormy night on May 5 of 1882 that a fire swept four business blocks in Racine, Wisconsin, the Racine Silver Plate Company being in the center of the ruined district. Nothing was left except a pile of molten metal and with little insurance and past track record, the company decided not to rebuild. Pullman, Illinois raised $75,000 in an effort to bring the silver plating industry to that place, but a group of Rockford capitalists sent a delegation to Racine and spent hours talking with the stockholders of the company there. Rockford landed the concern and it was renamed to the Rockford Silver Plate Company. While in Racine the representative's recruited skilled workers from the burned out silver plate company and were very successful in their efforts.

When the new workers arrived in Rockford, the plant of the Rockford Silver Plate company was located in the old dingy quarters of the Rockford Bolt Works factory on the water power. The workers were grievously disappointed over the change in environments as compared with the destroyed Racine plant. Among the people hired to work at the new silver plate company was George B. Kelly,  the former manager of the Racine plant and who was instrumental in getting the Rockford plant up and running.

But before the end of the year they were located in in handsome new modern building at 202-206 South Wyman Street. - South Wyman and Elm Streets, in the downtown district. The Rockford silver plate company's plant was one of the finest and most substantial four-story brick structures in the city, forming an L shape, with ninety feet facing on South Wyman Street and One hundred sixty five feet along Elm Street. Several large annexes were also utilized. The entire plant was equipped with every device and appliance known to modern science that tended to facilitate or improve the business. The company employed around two hundred people, most of whom were high-priced skilled mechanics.

From the very inception of the Rockford Silver Plate Company, the company had manufactured nothing but the very best grade of gold and silver plated goods and had always been awarded the premium when their wares had come into competition with east coast or foreign goods. They kept in their employ several artists and designers who were constantly evolving new designs and styles. Their flatware and hollowware was guaranteed to contain twenty-five per cent more silver than the best triple plate made by other silver plate factories. The product was sold to the retail jeweler trade exclusively throughout the country. The company manufactured a wide array of table ware related products.

In 1883 the Pullman Palace Car Company of Chicago, built a magnificent exhibition car for the Railway Age, and the Rockford Silver Plate Company was chosen to produce the tableware and silverware for the exhibition car. The elegance of the silver, both in design and finish called forth words of admiration by all who beheld it and it was given special notices in all descriptive write ups of this moving Palace of beauty on rails.

In 1924 after almost 50 years in business, the firm's general manager died, and there was no one left with the knowledge to manage the Rockford Silver Plate Company, so the stockholders decided to liquidate it. A man named Raymond W. Sheets, owner of Sheets Paper Box Company, tried to collect a $7,000 bill the silver plate company owed him for boxes he supplied to them. Continued below.

Sheets - Rockford Silverplate Company

While trying to collect his $7,000 debt owed to his Sheets Paper Box Company for boxes he supplied to the Rockford Silver Plate Company, Raymond W. Sheets discovered that the company was being liquidated, so he made bid for the company - and won. Sheets later said he was surprised when he won the assets because his bid was so low. Influencing him in making a bid for the company, was the desire to provide continued employment for the people who worked at the silver plate factory, and the flip of a coin. On March 18, 1925, the Sheets Rockford Silver Company was incorporated by R. W. Sheets, C. W. Hammond and Charles D. Bowden, as a general manufacturing business, including manufacture of all kinds of silverware and tableware and does a general jobbing business of silver plating.

After the purchase of all of the equipment and machinery of the old Rockford Silver Plate Company,  Sheets would move the assets of the silver plate factory from its old location at South Wyman and Elm Streets to a space in his paper box company plant at 1008 Mulberry Street. A modern new four story steel and brick "daylight" building was added on to his plant to accommodate the new venture and was ready for occupancy in May 1925. The addition added 11,350 square feet of floor space to the plant. In it was installed every possible labor saving device and every convenience conductive to the high grade work by master silver craftsman. Throughout the country this building had become known as the "daylight silver shops".

In October 1926 Sheets Rockford Silver Company acquired an adjacent lot next to its plant and announced plans for a three story addition next to the present plant. After demolition of three houses that were located on the site, a new building was constructed which had a 132 foot frontage on Mulberry Street by 160 feet deep. The original plant was also totally remodeled at that time and an additional $20,000 was spent for new machinery as the firm enlarged the scope of manufacture of its "Rockford" line of silver and gold plated and pewter items. In early 1928 a one story building was erected next to the plant to house the Sheets Paper Box Company, which allowed the silver plate company to expand into the space formerly occupied by the paper box company.

By this time the rapidly expanding company was becoming generally known as one of the leading manufactures of silver plate in the Midwest. The company had exceeded other competitive firms in the volume of prize trophies manufactured, and they enjoyed the distinction of being the leading manufacturer of prize trophies in the United States. A new and simpler method of etching sport and other designs upon round services was developed by the company and they were credited for originating this process.  In addition to a splendid line of prize cups, their cigarette sets, cocktail sets, water pitchers, plaques, and many unusual articles were included in the trophy list.

In May 1928, The Sheets Rockford Silver Company acquired the patent rights on two newly invented designs for silver tableware. The local firm was named the assignee for an ornamental design invented and patented by Sidney V. James of Niagara, New York. The designs, which were used on various articles of flatware, were named Bradford and Clayborne, respectively. To introduce the new line to the public, they offered $20.00 worth of flatware from the new line, for a bargain price of only $5.00 at their factory outlet store at 206 North Main Street.

A fine hotel must have fine silverware, and the management of the newly constructed Hotel Faust, in 1929, chose Sheets Rockford Silver Company to furnish fine silverware for the hotel. Sheets Rockford Silver Company had maintained a reputation based on the fundamental fact that company's products, like their predecessor, the Rockford Silver Plate Company, had been "heavier than standard since 1875."  Another success for the firm had been in the pewter field. Recognizing the possibilities of this honest metal and the growing appreciation of its beauty and charm, the Sheets genuine pewter line was introduced. A pioneer in the rediscovery of this famous tableware, the local company had established Sheets Genuine Pewter as what was considered the finest and most complete line in America at the time.

The Sheets Rockford Silver Company sold to jewelers and retailers, and even had a local store where the company’s items were sold. By 1930, the firm had 18 salesmen on the road selling the Rockford line to stores, and four branch sales offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, which served those important markets. In carrying out the policy of close co-operation with retailers, the Sheets Rockford Silver Company had also opened a silver repair department. It was said that the excellent quality of the work done, the extreme modesty of the charges, and the promptness of this of service had been outstanding.

In January 1931 the company introduced an entirely new invention that was discovered by the firm, silver plated tableware that will not tarnish or blacken. It was released to stores across the United States and was known as Sheets Tarnish Proof Silver Plate. Sales of the product increased the business of the company as house wives no longer had to worry about their silver tarnishing.

During World War 2, many of Rockford's factories were re-tooled to supply the government with much needed supplies for the war effort. Sheets Rockford Silver Company was no exception. The government put restrictions on metals, including silver used for silver plating, and the last piece of silverware was turned out by the company in January 1942. The Sheets firm was put to work manufacturing parachute hardware and accessories used on parachutes being made for the army and navy. The picture above shows Phillip R. Bennett of the Sheets Company, at the War Products Exhibition in the Shrine Temple, trying to recruit additional workers, such as Marian Didier and Pat McAllister. It would not be until May 1945 that the government lifted its rules on the manufacture of silver plated ware; however the Sheets Company would not take advantage of that until its war contract ended later that year.

The company remained in business after the war, but for some reason they never regained the prominence they once held in the industry. The Sheets Rockford Silver Company filed for voluntary bankruptcy on September 20, 1956. Liabilities were listed at $202,190.74 and assets at $81,802.10. Today you can still find many items made by the Rockford Silver Plate Company and Sheets Rockford Silver Company at estate sales, auctions and online auction sites.

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