A theory is sometimes advanced that Continental pewter is of superior quality because of a percentage of silver. This is just wishful thinking, for all pewter is an alloy of tin, copper and antimony, with some lead added when used to make trinkets. The brightness of this pewter is probably due to years of good care and frequent polishing.
Buyers of English and Continental pewter are mostly collectors who want pieces for decorative effect, although a few have well-selected collections that are representative of the craftsmanship of some particular country.
American pewter,- with which most collectors in the United States are concerned, is divided into three periods. They are the pre-Revolutionary, the middle period, and the Britannia or "coffeepot" era. All pewter made here before 1775 is scarce and high-priced, for obvious reasons. Being a soft alloy, pieces that received hard usage were worn out in a few years. Then, during the American Revolution, patriotic families gave liberally of their household pewter to be melted and made into bullets.
During the middle period, which included the last decade of the eighteenth and the first thirty years of the nineteenth centuries, pewterers, located chiefly in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, produced quantities of household pewter wares. It is largely examples of their work that are collected today.
Pewter of the Britannia years is not considered as desirable, although some very good pieces were produced then. Among them were teapots, lighting devices and communion services, in which the designs were simple, direct and restrained. This period runs from about 1835 to 1850 or, with the very few pewterers who worked in the Middle West, even as late as 1860. Sellew and Company of Cincinnati, for example, made a number of whale-oil lamps and candlesticks. Their place of business still stands and has been used for many years as an antique shop. Not long ago I saw a pewter collection in Decatur, Illinois, that included several pairs of Sellew candlesticks, all of distinctive and artistic shapes.
This period, which coincided with the time when coffee first started to compete with tea as a table beverage in America, has been called the "coffeepot" era because, with the demand for larger containers in which to serve this fragrant drink, pewterers started making pots ranging in size from eight to twelve or even fourteen inches tall. Unfortunately, the designs for them were inferior to those of earlier or even contemporary teapots, and as the Victorian years advanced they became a little too ornate.
Plates from six to fifteen inches in diameter, basins from six to twelve inches, two- to six-inch porringers, mugs, beakers, tankards with either flat or domed tops, teapots, pitchers up to the two-quart size, platters, tureen ladles, whale-oil and betty lamps, as well as objects for bedroom use were made by our craftsmen during the "good" middle period. There were about seventy-five of these pewterers, and then, as earlier, the craft was frequently followed by two or more members of the same family. Often they were father and son, brothers, or uncles and nephews.
Among these were members of the Boardman family, originally of Hartford, Connecticut, who also worked in Philadelphia and New York. Five different touch marks are known for their pewter. More numerous were the Danforths, who were related to the Boardmans. They originated in Norwich, Connecticut, but worked in Hartford, Middletown and Rocky Hill. Thomas Danforth 111 (1756-1840) moved from Rocky Hill to Philadelphia to take charge of a branch pewter shop his father had established there. He returned to his Connecticut home town in his old age and died there in 1840. Joseph Danforth II, son of Joseph of Middletown, also left his home state and established a shop in Richmond, Virginia. Eleven different marks are known for this Danforth pewter.
There was also the Bassett family of New York. They worked in both the colonial and middle periods and stayed steadfastly in their native city. The first of these pewterers were Francis Bassett, who died in 1758, and John, who survived him by only three years. They were followed by Francis 11 and Frederick, who was eleven years younger. Both men died in 1800. All together, these four Bassetts used some ten different marks.
Beginning with Joseph Copeland of Chuckatuck, Virginia, who worked before 1691 and of whose pewter the sole survivor is a marked spoon, the identity, working years and touchmarks of more than a hundred and fifty American pewterers have been studied intensively and have been subjects for books, as well as magazine articles and museum bulletins, for at least thirty years.
Although a few spoons bearing marks of known pewterers are occasionally found, the great bulk are unmarked. This is because they were largely the work of traveling tinkers who went about the country on foot, carrying their molds with them. In this way broken or worn-out pewter was thriftily melted and made into spoons at little cost. Today collectors and dealers who have such molds and pieces of pewter that are beyond repair sometimes repeat this spoonmaking process. As a result, pewter spoons of the old shapes but in mint condition, are not hard to buy and are generally inexpensive.
The one out-and-out pewter fake that I have seen is a spoon with a nearly circular bowl and a straight flaring handle. It bears on its back in block letters the mark P R in a square, and is attributed to Paul Revere, the patriot silversmith. Although that versatile man had many occupations, including that of tooth extractor, careful research fails to disclose any evidence that he worked in pewter. The mold used for making the spoon in question was an old brass one, which the faker embellished with these two initials.
Although not to be classed as counterfeits, electroplated pieces that have been stripped of their silver plate are sometimes offered by inexperienced dealers or by rummage and second-hand shops as examples of old American pewter. Such pieces are generally tea- and coffeepots, creamers, sugar bowls, spoon holders, water pitchers, mugs and trays. By wear, repeated polishings or by dipping in an acid bath, every trace Of silver has disappeared. Since the white metal base used in making electroplated pieces is an alloy similar to pewter, the error is understandable. However, their shapes are wrong. They are Victorian and frequently have an engraved decoration. Moreover, by a glance at the bottom of such a piece, one will find the mark of one of the American companies that made this plated ware, such as "1847 Rogers Brothers."
The reverse of this sometimes happens-that is, a piece of antique American pewter that was modernized many years ago by silver plating. Once, at a country antiques show in New Jersey, I bought a communion flagon for two dollars that bore the mark of Roswell Gleason of Dorchester, Massachusetts, one of the desirable American pewterers of the middle and late periods. Because it was silver-plated no one had troubled to turn it over and look at the touchmark on the base, so it was a "sleeper" and sold at a low price.
Less easily identified was a domed tankard, now in a large collection of American pewter, by William Will of Philadelphia, who made the pewter inkstand used when the Declaration of Independence was signed. This tankard is a fine piece in mint condition. Its present owner found it one winter in a Florida shop. The silverplating had so dimmed the touchmark that it could scarcely be seen, even with a good glass, but he bought it and then paid nearly as much more to have it stripped expertly so that the pewter underneath would not be acid-pitted.
"From its shape and proportions and the style of thumbpiece, I was certain it was a Philadelphia piece dating before 1775, so I took a chance that it would have a good mark when stripped," its owner remarked as he returned the tankard to its place of prominence in a corner cupboard filled entirely with pewter. "I was just lucky that it turned out to be a William Will piece."
Collectors, in buying pewter, would do well to remember that during the years between World Wars I and II, many of the shops in England and on the Continent-sold American tourists new pewter pieces as souvenirs that copied or approximated the old in shapes and designs. Small porringers that could be used as ash trays were very popular, as were mugs in standard and children's sizes. With the time that has elapsed, some of these pieces now look old and well used. Most of them bear no maker's touch and, having been bought abroad, no country-of-origin mark; therefore they are hard to place and date. However, the shapes differ enough so that they should not be confused with antique, unmarked American pewter.
In the search for pewter, do not be too rigid about taking only pieces that are unblemished and on which a maker's touch can be clearly seen. Originally, pewter, both here and abroad, was for everyday use. Being a soft alloy, pieces became bent and even developed holes. Then, after being stored away unused for years, such pieces gathered a dull, lead-like surface. That is the condition of most old pewter when dealers acquire it and so most of it remains, unless it is in the stock of a dealer who specializes in pewter or in the possession of a collector of pewter. Cleaning and polishing pewter takes skill and time. Many dealers don't know how to do it properly, and they also lack the time required.
So the pewter usually stays so dull and discolored that the maker's mark is faint and sometimes illegible. This suits the real pewter collector. He finds it a challenge to his judgment about various pieces. Can a certain tankard be mended without harming its value as a collectible? How keen is his eye in spotting and identifying the obscured marks on a six-inch plate? Can the scale on another be removed, or is it too deeply embedded?
About ten years ago I saw a large circular plate hanging in the shop of a man who mainly did furniture repairing. He knew nothing about the plate except that it came with some furniture he had bought, which had been stored for years in a woodshed attic. I took the charger down. It was discolored but not corroded. There was a small hole in the rim for the wire by which it had been hung. Held up to the light, I could see no holes where dents had pierced the metal. Then I turned it over, and although no maker's mark was visible I could see traces of hammer marks whereby the plate had been struck up. It was of unusually large size, measuring twenty-two inches in diameter. So I bought it for under ten dollars. When I got it home I cleaned and polished the upper side and used it for several years as a coffeetable top.
Although at times I thought I could see what might be a maker's touch, it was a mark unknown to me. One day an acquaintance particularly interested in English pewter studied it. In the course of an hour, during which he used up two typewriter erasers, he "raised" the mark and cleaned it enough so it could be identified. It was that of Sir John Fryers, who was master of the London Company of Pewterers from 1695 to 1703. Later the curator of an historic house museum pestered me until I sold him that salver for more than ten times what it cost me. I now regret that I let it go. The money is spent, and I doubt if I'll ever again find the plate's equal for size, age or condition.
Although buying pewter so dull and tarnished that its complexion is similar to that of a dirty blackboard usually has a happy outcome, one should be wary of pieces that show signs of serious corrosion. This could be the result of being stored in a place where it was damp, such as a cellar or a shed with a leaking roof, or, if a plate, being used under a potted plant. Such corrosion can be so extensive that even after skilled treatment with an acid bath or by buffing, the surface is badly pitted. There are likely to be fine pinholes, too where the corrosion has gone through the metal.
A piece so disfigured is not worth over a quarter of what it would be if in average condition; I know from experience. I have a sixteen-inch plate by Simon Edgell, who worked in Philadelphia from 1713 to 1742. It is well marked with his name and bird touch, and would be desirable and rare if in average condition. As it is, I do not value it at over what I paid for it, which was nothing plus five dollars, the cost of having it cleaned as a chance experiment that it might not be as seriously damaged as the surface indicated.
While some pieces of pewter that have the American look are unmarked, more are touched with the maker's mark. The places where these touchmarks are usually found are the under side of plates; the bottom of teapots, tankards and other hollow pieces; the back of the handle of spoons and ladles; and the bottom or the handle of porringers. They were not always clearly impressed, and consequently there are instances where only part of a mark can be seen, even after the piece has been thoroughly cleaned and polished.
When hunting for old pewter, go equipped with a good pocket magnifying glass and an ink eraser. With a few strokes of the latter, one can soon bring out enough of a mark so it can be identified, at least tentatively. Detailed discussion of these American marks would take too long here, but, briefly, with few exceptions they all include the pewterer's name or initials. Many also have a trade-mark-like decorative device, the most used being an eagle, either spread or poised in flight, or an adaptation from the coat of arms of the state where the maker worked. Some others consist of a straight band of four squarish touches that resemble English hallmarks. Usually the first square bears the maker's initials.
Just to add variety, some craftsmen, like David Melvil of Newport, Rhode Island (1755-1793), impressed some of their pieces with two different marks, both their own. In general, simple name touches, like "R. Dunham," in an oblong frame, are those of men who worked in the "coffeepot" era. Another group of American pewter sometimes seen in dealer's shops is that with two marks, neither of them that of a known maker.
I have owned a plate for at least twenty-five years that has a rose and crown device not too distinctly impressed, and as its other mark the word "LQNDON" in what printers call "all capitals, bold face." I have seen others like it in dealers' shops. Nobody is certain what these plates are. I am inclined to class them as done by American craftsmen who practiced a little chicanery when they marked them. As I see it, they purposely omitted their own mark and used the rose and crown or other device characteristic of a number of English pewterers, together with the word LONDON slightly misspelled to give the impression that pewter so marked was of the superior imported kind rather than a home product. Preference for things imported from England as against those of domestic make is no new thing, and if my deductions are correct, this pewter plate proves that our native craftsmen sometimes used a trick or two to cope with this preference.
A large amount of nineteenth-century English pewter, sold in the United States for some years before 1850, bore the mark of Dixon of Birmingham, who did fine work and produced a large number of tea and coffee services, which were, in much demand for the American market. Englishmade pewter of this type was the chief competitor of that made by our American pewterers.
Most English pewter was marked, and this was controlled by the London Company of Pewterers or its provincial equivalent in such important pewter-making towns as Bristol, Exeter, York or Birmingham. There was, however, a considerable quantity by country pewterers which was never marked at all, Much of the pewter imported by colonial Americans is now thought to have been this unmarked kind. In fact, marking of pewter was not as standardized in England as was that of silver, probably because of pewter's lesser value. Most common of the English pewter marks is a large device of rose and crown, with the maker's name or initials lettered in the border. Also, there frequently are a series of small punches that look like hallmarks on silver but do not include a date letter.
Nearly six hundred craftsmen who made pewter in England between 1700 and 1847 are known, and their marks are given in Old Pewter, Its Makers and Marks in England, Scotland and Ireland, by Howard Herschel Cotterell. Most of the English pewter available to collectors is of later eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century production. Earlier pieces are very rare, although items dating back to 1500 or before are found occasionally.
Pewter made in France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and other Continental countries also bears makers' marks. Study of them is a specialty of its own. Books on such pewter can be found in reference libraries of the larger museums, but are usually in French or German.
There is one kind of pewter, American or European, that the collector should leave alone. It is antique and genuine, but diseased. It is called "sick pewter" and some collectors will not have a piece so affected anywhere near their other pewter, because of fear of contamination. This fear, I think, is not based on fact, since pewter, being inorganic, is not subject to contagion. just what are the causes of sick pewter is not known, but the result is obvious to anyone who has tried to remedy such a piece. Somehow, by corrosion or otherwise, oxidation of the alloy is not just on the surface; it has penetrated so deeply that it cannot be removed. Treat it with acid or lye long enough to remove all oxidation, and there is no pewter left. This condition may be likened to an incurable metallic cancer.
I have seen both collectors and dealers try all their secret tricks on pieces of this sort with never a successful result. I have been told also that efforts to melt sick pewter and cast spoons of it will not work. So the best advice I can give is never knowingly to buy a piece where oxidation has gone that far. But if, unwittingly, you should acquire such a piece, do not waste time or material trying to effect a cure. No matter how hard you work, a dull, leadlike gray color persists. You never attain a surface that can be polished, and sometimes the piece falls apart in your hands as you work on it.
Brass and copper are closely related metals from which useful and highly decorative accessories were made as household gear. Those of brass, in addition to furniture hardware already commented upon, were chiefly related to heating and lighting the home. There were the brass andirons and fenders, the fireplace tools with their decorative brass handles, the warming pans with which the chill of beds in those ill-heated early homes was remedied, and a considerable assortment of candlesticks. There were also open kettles, coated with block tin on the inside and equipped with swinging bails of wrought iron, which were used for cooking in the big open fireplaces.
Of these brasses, andirons and candlesticks appeal most to collectors. In only a few instances are andirons found with matching sets of fireplace tools (tongs, shovel and poker). Even rarer are those with a matching brass fender.
Practically all antique American brass andirons available today date after 1785. Rare and desirable are those made between that date and 1820. Desirable but more numerous are examples produced between 1820 and 1840 or 1850. It was during this latter period that most andirons of the knobby baluster design were made. Designs of those made earlier were classic columns, a series of spheres in graduated sizes, large spheres surmounting baluster-shaped columns, and spherical shapes terminating in steeple finials.
Among the rare marked examples are andirons by Paul Revere, which date after he turned from silversmithing to casting bells and cannon. They are generally marked "P. Revere and Sons." John Molyneaux and a brass founder named David, both of Boston, made and marked steeple-top andirons. Also Henry Noyes of Bangor, Maine, marked his distinctive andirons of the low ball-finial design, and Richard Whittingham of New York produced very fine large andirons of classic column design with urn-shaped finials. His incised mark read "R.Whittingham N.York."
Antique brass andirons can be quickly identified if one knows what to look for, and where. First, the hollow decorative front posts were cast in halves and then put together by braising before being turned smooth on a lathe. If one will breath on the polished brass posts, two silver-like lines can be seen on opposite sides. Some have maintained that these brass halves were put together with a silver solder, but this interesting conjecture is not borne out by fact. The braising compound consisted of brass filings mixed with a fluxing agent, such as borax. Braising was done at a high heat, during which more of the copper than of the zinc was consumed-hence the silver color that marks the braised joints.
If the andirons are so tarnished that the "silver hair line" cannot be seen, unscrew one of the uprights. By looking at the rough interior you can see where the two parts were joined. Second, you will note that the threads of the wroughtiron vertical rod that hold these brass parts in position are hand-cut with a file, and that the rods themselves still bear the irregular sledge marks of their hand-forging on a blacksmith's anvil.
This same test can be used to identify andirons of a later date. Here the interior surface will be smooth. The iron rod also is smooth and has a machine-cut thread, and the tip of the brass finial is a separate part forming a small nut that, when tightened, holds the sections beneath firm. Andirons so constructed date from about 1870, when brass spinning of circular shapes had replaced "half-casting." With such andirons, machinemade iron rods about three-eighths of an inch in diameter were fastened to the legs by machine-cut bolts instead of being hammered fast when red-hot.
Even later are brass andirons of the so-called Russian brass-shop period. These date after 1910. Workmanship of the brass parts is crude and sloppy; the horizontals on which the wood rests are generally of cast iron, instead of the stronger and more durable wrought iron. Such andirons were made largely by immigrants who had fled Russia because of the wide-spread pogroms which were part of the general unrest in that country after the Russian-Japanese War.
Fireplace tools with cast-brass handles are judged by their iron parts. The arms of tongs, shaft and shovel blades, and poker rods were hand-forged. Consequently, marks of hammer blows and a certain roughness can be observed. Less desirable, though very well made, are those fireplace tools produced between 1860 and 1890 of machine-made iron stock. Smoothness of parts dates them, but the handcraft aim of making things that would last has carried over sufficiently so that they are not out of place among other antiques. Not as much can be said of modern fireplace tools.
Along with brass andirons, some American-made pairs are found with a definite reddish color. These are of bell metal, a slightly different alloy than brass, which was compounded of seventy parts of copper to thirty of zinc. Bell metal was composed of eighty parts copper to twenty of tin. This difference in formula and the larger proportion of copper accounts for the reddish tone.
Candlesticks of brass and sometimes of bell metal were, as early as the middle of the seventeenth century, part of the household equipment of American families who could afford them. Practically all of those used during our colonial period were imported from England. Brass founding was discouraged on this side of the Atlantic in an effort to make as much business as possible for the workers of Birmingham, England. These colonial candlesticks varied somewhat, but in general they were baluster-shaped, with ample bases and large saucerlike elements beneath the candleholders to catch the wax drippings. Sticks of this sort are rare indeed today and are seldom seen outside of museums or extensive private collections.
Most of the candlesticks found in antique shops are of early nineteenth-century production. Usually they are modified baluster shapes, with square or octagon bases. They are of fairly thin cast metal, turned smooth on lathes, but with the interior retaining the roughness of sand casting. Inserted in the hollow interior of such a stick is a slender iron rod with button-like ends. This was used to eject the stub end of a candle from its socket. Sometimes this ejector arrangement is broken or missing. Such candlesticks, though not as desirable as those which are complete, should not be rejected because of this.
Other antique candlesticks, chiefly for bedroom use, were made of sheet brass, with ample dishlike bases and curved handles. They were in square and circular shapes. Large ones are often used today for ash trays. Old sticks of this sort were of thicker sheet metal, and their ringlike handles were riveted to the dish-shaped bases on the underside. They should not be confused with another type of bedroom candlestick, usually smaller sized, which was made of cast brass about 1880, or with still later ones of light-gauge sheet metal, made after 1910 and sold when new by art and gift shops.
The Russian brass shops, which were originally located along Allen Street in the heart of New York's East Side, have made and sold a quantity of brass candlesticks and candelabras, but in designs that never more than approximate the antique and are often totally different. Most of them are solid metal, and where one part screws into another the threads are machine-cut. Also made in these shops were seven-branch candlesticks, originally intended for religious use in Jewish households. Today they are found far afield, as are the cast-brass candlesticks with saucer base and with a small bell hung in a yoke beneath the candle socket. These are modern, and so different in appearance from antique candlesticks that only the most unobservant would confuse them.
Antique brass open kettles, used for fireplace cooking, were beaten from sheet metal, had a heavy rolled rim and two brackets riveted on the outside to which a wrought-iron semi-circular bail was attached, and the interiors were coated with block tin to keep the brass from discoloring food cooked in them. Usually some of the hammer marks can still be seen, showing how such kettles were beaten and shaped. Occasionally one sees a warming pan of brass or copper, with long handle of wood or wrought iron, though such pieces are mostly not found outside museums, because some twenty or thirty years ago there was a vogue for converting the lids into sconcelike electric-lighting fixtures. Consequently, warming pans in undamaged condition are scarce.
Teakettles and various sizes of open kettles were apt to be made of copper. Old teakettles can be readily recognized by the dovetail joints that show where the sheet of metal was lapped on the sides and where the bottom was joined to the sides. The graceful curve of the spout, often swanlike and materially larger where it was soldered to the kettle than at the pouring end, is another characteristic of one of these squat, bulbous copper teakettles. Some were made with wrought-iron handles; others with a flat strip of copper curved into a decorative shape; and still others with hollow copper handles, either with or without a nicely ring-turned wooden center.
Those of American origin should not be confused with the more elaborately shaped ones of European or Near East provenance. Although the latter range from simple cylinders to squat, bulbous bodies with long upward flaring necks, all are so unlike the teakettles of American make or those produced in England and exported here when new that the collector should find it easy to distinguish them.
Copper teakettles made watertight by a folded seam instead of by a dovetailed or braised one are not old enough to rank as antiques, although they may look worn. They were only partially handmade and date from about 1875, or the beginning of factory production of such utensils. This is particularly true of teakettles in which the rim of the bottom is pinched onto the lower edge of the sides.
In addition to preserving kettles of from two quarts to five gallons, a wide variety of basins, pans and muglike measures were also made of copper. The antique ones can usually be recognized by their dovetailed or braised seams, simple handles, either of copper or iron, and their utilitarian shapes. Today these antique receptacles are used by collectors as fruit bowls and flower containers.