Although sometimes discounted as 'poor man's silver', pewter has its own fine qualities, and well-crafted pieces
attract a wide range of collectors.
Pewter is an alloy of tin mixed with other metals, usually lead or antimony, to make it harder. It is basically silver-grey, though different ingredients give different colour effects, and has been made in Britain since Roman times.
Until about 1500, it was used mainly for church pieces and for domestic wares, particularly plates and tankards, in households wealthy enough to afford metal but not rich enough for silver and gold. The
industry was very much on the local level, with goods being cast, moulded and lathe-turned by individual craftsmen in small workshops.
From 1500 until the 18th century, pewter was the favoured material for plates and dishes and a wide range of domestic wares, including mugs, jugs, spoons, tankards, teapots, tobacco jars,
ink wells and candlesticks. Toys, medical wares, buttons and even money were also cast from pewter, and it was a poor household indeed that had no pewter.
The commonest pieces of old pewter found today are 18th-century, mainly serving dishes and plates. Earlier pieces were melted down when they became worn or damaged; most pewterers operated a 'part-exchange' policy on new goods. Much 18th century pewter was produced in Bewdley, Worcestershire, where factory manufacture had taken over from the old cottage industry.
Pewter was particularly popular in taverns, as it was much cheaper and more curable than glass, and the tavern trade kept the craft alive through into the 19th century, when pottery and brass began to take over for domestic wares. Pewter tankards come ir several forms; some are pot-bellied, some straight-sided and some, made from 1830 on, have concave sides. Tulip shapes were popular from around 1820 to 1870. Tankards with hinged lids are particularly sought after today.
Pewter had a revival around the turn of the century. Its malleability made it ideal for the sinuous, flowing curves of art nouveau, and its craft image appealed to aficionados of Arts and Crafts. Tudric pewter, decorated with Celtic motifs and made in Birmingham for Liberty's of London, is particularly collectable. Every piece carries a pattern number, and some of them, especially those designed by Archibald Knox and Rex Silver, can fetch very high prices today.
Reproductions of earlier pieces became common in the 1920s, as part of the fashion for all things Tudor and Jacobean. Indeed, traditional pewter goods are still made today, although new manufacturing methods are often used and modern pewter never contains more than a trace of lead.
Several new uses have been found for it, including costume jewellery, sporting
trophies and figurines.
TYPES OF PEWTER
The best old tableware was made of an alloy containing copper, bismuth, antimony and no lead. It was known as hard or plate pewter, as opposed to lay pewter (tin and 15-20 per cent lead) and trifle pewter (tin and perhaps 4 per cent lead). Lay pewter was never used in wares made for eating and drinking.
Britannia metal is similar in composition to fine pewter. The only difference is in the novel way it was used. In the late 18th century, in Sheffield pewter began to be
cold rolled in sheets, rather than cast. Pieces were then formed with dies and hammers, and soldered together.
Britannia metal was commonly used for tea and coffee pots, as well as for most of the pieces previously cast by pewterers. Much of it was made in Sheffield and Birmingham. Clean, highly polished Britannia metal looks very much like silver, but needs regular attention or it oxidizes and loses its sheen. Victorian Britannia metal pieces were often electroplated with silver, and stamped EPBM.
From the Middle Ages to the 1820s, the use of pewter was strictly controlled by the Worshipful Company of Pewterers in London. There were regulations about the permitted size, weight and even price of various common objects, and pewterers had to register a mark with the Company and put it on all their work. Books of these marks are indispensable to serious collectors.
The maker's mark, known as a touch mark, was always stamped on, never engraved. Very early touch marks were small, perhaps just a set of initials, and usually appeared on the handle of a mug, or on the rim of a plate. Later, marks got larger, and migrated to the base of a piece.
Quality marks appear on some pieces. Hard metal was marked with an X, and some pieces were stamped 'Superfine'. A rose and crown mark was another guarantee of quality.
Capacity marks were required by law on drinking vessels from the 1820s. These commonly range from a quarter pint to a quart, though larger sizes (for measuring deliveries) and smaller ones (for spirits) are also found. These marks carried a device indicating the location and sometimes the year the piece was tested. From 1877 these marks were standardized to show a crown, the initials of the king or queen, and a town number.
A letter X, with or without a crown, indicates that a piece is made of fine,
lead free plate pewter; as does a 'Superfine' stamp.
Early excise marks, stamped on measuring jugs, had the monarch's initial and a town mark. In the 1870s, a town number was added.