Material and Medium: steel, tin, wood, paper, burnishing putty
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: Virtual2007.856-872
These objects were used for the hand burnishing of items made from silver, EPNS and EPBM (electroplated Britannia metal). The set comprises a range of burnishing tools, a glass pot containing rouge, an envelope of burnishing putty and a polishing cloth. Rouge is a red substance (an iron oxide) used to give a mirror-like finish to metal. Burnishing putty was used on a leather strop to keep the edges of the burnishing tools in a good condition.
The tools are made from cast, hardened steel. Their ends are ground and polished. The end of each tool is a slightly different form so that the set can be used to burnish a large range of different shaped items.
The tools were given to us by their owner, Mrs Edith A Jones (née Taylor). Edith began work in 1919, at the age of fourteen, at a firm called Thomas Land & Sons Ltd in Heeley. She served a three year apprenticeship learning to burnish EPBM. Edith worked from 8.30am to 6pm with a one hour break for lunch ("we did not have a canteen, but had to eat our dinner where we sat"). Her wage was 8 shillings per week, rising by 1 shilling each year for the term of her apprenticeship.
After she had completed her apprenticeship, Edith then went onto 'piece work', "that means getting paid for each item when finished, we then earned about 18 shillings per week". Edith left the firm after ten years to get married.
Hidden Histories: what is burnishing?
Burnishing is the process by which a high shine is imparted onto the surface of a metal object using smooth steel tools called burnishers. A tool with a flat head, called a bloodstone, is also included in the set. Burnishing also helps an object to resist rusting. It is the final process that an object might undergo before being polished.
How were they used?
In his 1912 publication, 'History of Old Sheffield Plate', Frederick Bradbury gives the following detailed account of the burnishing process:
"…the article is [first] scrubbed all over with a damp, clean, white linen rag dipped in white Calais sand ; then, after well scouring the plainer parts and brushing the more ornate with a hair brush, also dipped in Calais sand, it is washed all over in clean water. This operation is necessary in order to remove any grease or other substance which would be likely to remain in the path of the burnish, thereby preventing it from getting a grip on the surface".
The end of the burnishing tool was constantly dipped into a solution of soap and water to prevent it from 'dragging' on the silver. A leather strop was used to keep the end of the tool smooth.
"On this leather strop is sprinkled a little of what is known as 'burnishing putty.' The burnish is first drawn rapidly across the face of the article backwards and forwards, great pressure at the same time being exerted. This method is called 'steeling.' Then recourse is had to the use of the 'blue' or 'blood' stone. With the aid of this instrument a blacker or better colour can be produced, and any mark left by the steel burnish removed. After being completely burnished all over…the article is polished by hand with a little wet rouge. This has the effect of taking out any marks left in the track of the burnish and thereby also imparting a more brilliant mirror-like finish when completed".
Bradbury also states that, historically, the majority of burnishers were women.
Edith Jones' memories of working as a burnisher…
When she donated her tool kit to us, Edith also provided a fascinating personal account of her work as a burnisher at Thomas Land & Sons Ltd:
"The room I worked in was a long room with large windows, and a bench down one side and another one down the middle of the room. At one time there were about 30 women and girls. We sat on three legged stools, with an experienced burnisher sitting with an apprentice on either side of her. We wore a large white bib pinned in front of us to shade the work and also to catch the water we used."
"On the bench we had a white cloth like a tea towel spread out in front of us and at arms length we had a brown dish containing soapy water into which we periodically dipped our tools which we had spread out in front of us, a man came round occasionally to sell tools, but we did not like new ones as they took a long time to get into proper working order. We used to go looking round the pawnshops to try to buy second hand ones."
"In the room I was in we burnished EPBM tea pots, coffee pots, sugar & cream jugs which were gilded inside and large and small cups, some of the cups were very heavy to handle. The work came from the plating shop to us to be burnished, we rubbed the tools up and down the goods until they shone, then they were taken into the warehouse to be passed and entered into our wage book, although we were piece work, we had to clock in and out every day and we got our wages at 6pm on a Friday night."
"The putty was used to spread on a leather block on which our tools were rubbed to keep them bright. We occasionally burnished cruets and EPNS ware and then this was polished by hand with the rouge. We often had visitors round to watch us working and they were usually surprised at the work being done by hand instead of machinery."
"They were happy times when I worked there, I knew quite a lot of nice girls…At Christmastime we were taken to a theatre and in the summer we had a day trip to the seaside with the firm paying for our meals. During 1924 [or 1925] one of the sons married a girl who worked in the room I worked in, and all the work people were given a free trip with all expenses paid to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, what a lovely day we had."