Antiques: Pewter info


The thought that nothing is new, and that everything which man prizes for ornamentation goes through cycles of esteem and disregard, is aptly illustrated by pewter. Before going into details, two important facts should be established. The first is that this trade of working in an alloy of tin, copper, and sometimes bismuth or antimony was usually separate from that of the silversmith and required a rigorous apprenticeship, of four or six years' duration; the second, more or less a skeleton in the closet of the craft, is that the history of pewter making is badly scarred by repeated use of low-grade metal. Most frequently the trouble was lead. At other times it was too much copper.

To cope with this, the Old World pewterers guilds were constantly disciplining their members. Rigid adherence to the established formula was demanded and enforced. Even as far back as 1351 an English follower of the craft was punished for making ware not up to the standard formula. It was not a governmental chastisement, but action within the trade.

These old guilds possessed real police powers. They could fine a member, make him suspend work for a time, and finally banish him from the trade as an extreme penalty. And no artisan could work without guild sanction.

The earliest known pewter is that of Imperial Rome. Pewter was taken by its legions to all parts of the empire and samples of it have been found as far east as India and as far west as England. Incidentally, the old Roman formula was lead-loaded, having approximately 71.5 parts tin to 27.8 parts lead. Then came five hundred years of oblivion. By 1047 pewter had re-established itself sufficiently so that the Synod of Rouen ruled that church vessels of pewter could be substituted for those of gold or silver. The first domestic use is the mention of pewter meat caldrons at the coronation of Edward I of England in 1274. By 1437 the pewterers of Montpellier were making dishes and salt cellars of an alloy that adhered to two established formulas. In turn, Limoges, Nuremberg, and other European cities saw the establishment of chartered guilds. By the beginning of the fifteenth century the famous Worshipful Company of Pewterers of the City of London had come into being.

This London guild interests us most, of course, since their trade practices and ways of working were the background of American pewter making. The first formula of the London guild, established by decree of 1474, was as much brass to tin "as it wol receiuve of his nature." Then, the formula shifted to twenty-six pounds of brass to a hundredweight of tin. Later "tin glass," bismuth, was added, first as an adulterant and then as a legalized part of the formula. Next the use of antimony crept in.
Generally lead was added when making spoons and other moulded articles. There is a pretty tale that some of the English and French pewter of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries was made with a sizable proportion of silver. Assays of pewter of this era disprove it entirely and establish the fact that the formulas in turn were:

Tin 112 pts. Copper 26 pts.
Tin 100 pts. Copper 4 pts. Antimony 8 pts.
Tin 90 pts. Copper 2 pts. Antimony 8.7 pts.

For spoons and other cast pieces the formula generally was: Tin 95.6 pts. Copper 1.06 pts. Lead 3.64 pts.

The English pewterers were divided into three classes: sadware men, who made plates, porringers, and platters; ley men, whose product was largely spoons and other cast pieces; and triflers, who produced salt cellars and other small articles.
Pewter was the second step in the evolution of eating utensils. The wooden trencher age was over and pewter, which marked the beginning of a more formal type of dining, was in turn superseded by china and silver. Its last stand in both England and America was the teapot, candlestick, and lamp. With the advent of electroplating, making of even these articles passed into the silver category.

In America pewter's rise and fall followed the same course, but divided itself into three periods: before 1750; 1750 to 1825; 1825 to 1850. Although fine examples of American-made silver of the seventeenth century exist, pewter specimens of the same period have been so conspicuously lacking as to indicate that most of this alloy was imported from England to the English-speaking colonies and from the Low Countries to New York.

That the American home had at least a few pieces among its furnishings during those years has long been evident from contemporary references, wills, and inventories. There is also mention of pewterers, such as the unruly Richard Graves of Salem, Massachusetts, whose talent for running counter to law and order seems to have far outstripped that of his trade; but it has been a question as to whether any of them were more than importers or repairers of the alloy. Not long ago, however, a spoon handle bearing the mark of Joseph Copeland, Chuckatuck, 1675, was dug up in Virginia during certain public works excavations. Fragment that it is, it still proves that not only was pewter made in America before 1700 but was made in a colony with no other known record of the craft save for a few New England pewterers who migrated there in the nineteenth century. Chuckatuck is a locality in Isle of Wight County, Virginia.

The fact that only a long-buried fragment apparently remains of seventeenth century workmanship is not surprising when one remembers the fragile nature of this alloy. Dampness, cold, and rough handling take a heavy toll; and direct heat of a fire can shortly make a molten pool of any pewter piece. In fact, spedmens of even pre-Revolutionary pewter are comparatively rare, not only from natural causes but for two other reasons. First, the idea of trading in old models for new did not originate with the automobile industry. As early as 1756 Cornelius Bradford, Philadelphia pewterer, advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette, "all persons may have pewter mended at a reasonable rate, and ready money given for old pewter, or exchanged for new."

Boston and New York papers carried similar advertisements of local pewterers. Obviously, many owners of old and battered pieces responded to these offers and, with no thought of posterity, these early specimens were melted down to appear again in newer and more fashionable forms. Then came the Revolutionary War and before France began to supply the needed munitions material for bullets was so scarce that into the melting pots went every scrap of lead the patriots could find. Statues of stubborn George III, piping and sheathing from the more pretentious houses, lead from windows, and even household pewter were all offered up with characteristic American abandon. Nor were church communion services of pewter considered too sacred to sacrifice to the cause. So general was this patriotic outpouring of plates and platters, mugs and tankards, that rarely does one see a piece of pewter dating before 785. Further, if its history can be traced, it usually leads back to a Tory family which naturally did not join in the donations for bullet material.

Today thanks are due the Tories that a few stray pieces of pewter yet remain to represent the sizable number of craftsmen working during the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century. From examples in museums and private collections it is evident that various things were made in this alloy, such as plates, porringers, mugs, tankards, cream pitchers, and sugar bowls, communion services, inkwells, writing boxes, and utilitarian objects like nursing bottles and funnels. Many of the pieces followed the designs of Queen Anne and Early Georgian silver.

Among the men who started working early in the eighteenth century were Francis Bassett and John Bassett, who carried on their craft in New York City and may have been brothers; William Bradford, Jr., Joseph Leddel, Sr., and Peter Kirby, all of New York; Joseph Belcher of Newport, Rhode Island, and Simon Edgell of Philadelphia; John Christopher Heyne of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who came from Germany; and John Carnes, who worked in Boston. Obviously by the late seventeenth century there were master pewterers in America, capable of training apprentices and the demand for this ware was sufficiently large to attract craftsmen who had learned their trade in the Old World.

Pewter making as an active and profitable craft in America dates from 1750 to 1850. By the middle of the eighteenth century the colonists had become sufficiently prosperous to afford home furnishings up to the English standards of the day. And they were becoming conscious of their Americanism, so that gradually the home product gained preference. Native pewterers could at last make a living and their number increased. For a half century they made plates almost entirely, and at least eighty-three men are known to have worked at that time. The next twenty-five years form a period of transition from plates to coffee pots. Then came a quarter of a century when plates gave way entirely to coffee pots, candlesticks, lamps, and the like.

As far as pewter is concerned, the second half of the eighteenth century in America was an era of plates, porringers, mugs, as well as tea- and tablespoons. Slid' were the articles advertised in 1780 by the agents of William Will, Philadelphia pewterer and innkeeper. His contemporaries include Henry Will; Francis and Frederick Bassett, listed in the New York City directory as early as 1786; Nathaniel Austin, listed in the Boston directory of 1789 as pewterer and goldsmith; and Richard Lee, a pewterer of many abodes and a variety of callings as shown by his autobiography, now in the library of the Vermont Historical Society. He is credited with making uniform buttons for the Continental Army. He apparently worked at his craft in Lanesboro, Massachusetts, about 1773 and later sold pewter for his son who worked in Springfield, Vermont. The latter marked his pieces "R. Lee."

There were also Thomas and Joseph Danforth, who worked in both Massachusetts and Connecticut and were the first members of the famous Danforth-Boardman dynasty of pewterers. Although after 1825 pewter as tableware was displaced by china and silver, the next twenty-five years mark the heyday of the craft as far as quantity is concerned. In these years worked the Boardmans and the later Danforths of Hartford, Connecticut; R. Dunham of Portland, Maine, who made pitchers and candlesticks; Capen and Molineux of New York, whose specialty was lamps; and the Taunton, Massachusetts, firm which started as Babbitt, Grossman & Co. and finally became Reed & Barton.

Nor was the making of pewter in this last quarter century confined to the Atlantic seaboard. The early i830's found pewterers moving westward. Cincinnati directories listed such firms as Sellew & Co. and Flagg & Holman. In St. Louis, Benjamin Archer, Britannia ware craftsman, and H. Sage & Co. were working in 1847. This brings to the surface another pewter myth which should be laid to rest. For some unknown reason early collectors decided that the term "Britannia" ware meant the use of inferior alloy. Addition of lead was generally held to be the crime. Actually the formula for good pewter and Britannia ware is practically the same. Its origin is an interesting story of business enterprise.

About the time the periodic dream of world empire was being indulged in by Napoleon, a pewterer in England, finding his sales falling off, changed his formula ever so slightly and gave his product the new and patriotic name of Britannia ware. Of course, very late Britannia ware is not worth collecting any more than is pewter of the same era, but that is because of the Victorian blight not the alloy.

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