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Pewter-Making in the Nineteenth Century
ONE OF THE first indications of easier living in the American colonies was the use of pewter for household items. It was the first step up from the wooden trencher for table use and from the wrought iron candlestick which served to light the hardworking pioneer to his night's rest.
By the eighteenth century, pewter was taken for granted by all except the very rich or very poor. The latter still had to do with bare necessities; the rich were able to provide the growing number of silversmiths with a good living. While pewterers had to serve apprenticeships just as silversmiths, the training was about half as long. Pewter, being a soft alloy, was much easier to work.
Since pewter took the place of the more costly silverware for the man of moderate means, it followed the same style patterns and was made in the same forms. Pewterers, like silversmiths, marked their wares. In England they were subject to guild regulations which involved quality and touch marks. American pewterers were bound by none of these rules legally, but by tradition and habit each craftsman adopted individual touch marks which he impressed on a finished piece in an inconspicuous place-the bottom of a tankard, plate, or teapot, or on the underside of a lid. It might be a name, two or more initials, or a series of marks in the English manner with the maker's initials.
The eighteenth century was the age of pewter, as far as quality and variety of pieces were concerned. Comparatively few of the large number of pieces made during this period have survived. Pewter being a perishable alloy, articles made of it were easily ruined by close contact with heat and by hard daily use. Yet, except for cooking utensils, practically every sort of household and personal accessory was made in pewter.
It was used for all kinds of tableware, candlesticks, whale-oil lamps, snuff boxes, inkwells and sanders, desk boxes, pocket flasks, buttons, buckles, spectacle cases, and miniature frames. The makers of these articles ranged from accomplished craftsmen to the lowly traveling tinker who went from house to house with his spoon mold, and was glad to convert broken bits of the alloy into a dozen spoons for a few pennies and a night's lodging.
The desk boxs made by Henry Will, a New York pewterer who worked at his trade from 1765 to 1793. The box, made for holding pens, ink, and sander, has the maker's touch mark on the raised lid of one of the compartments-a crowned rose below four square reserves of an animal's head, a female figure, a lion rampant, and the initials "H. W." Henry Will evidently had other business interests besides pewter. In 1770 he advertised the sale of a glue house, adding, "For further particulars, inquire of Henry Will, Pewterer, who makes, sells, and exchanges all sorts of Pewter Ware." In 1776, he advertised his removal to Albany to carry on his pewtering business there. His kinsman, Colonel William Will of Philadelphia, who is rredited with making the ink well used at the signing of the Declaration of Indenendence, kent an inn to bolster his income. Either the craft was not profitable enough or the thrifty workers believed in more than one calling.
The finest American tankards were made about 1720 and continued in favor until about 1840. Some of them had the domed top, others were made with a flat top. There were also tankards without covers, usually known as mugs. They were for ale and similar beverages and were common in both private homes and taverns. Their designs were similar to those used by the silversmiths of the period.
Since pewterers marked their wares, it is possible to date surviving examples of their work today. The five tankards in the illustration were made between 1750 and 1800 and represent the work of such eighteenth-century craftsmen as William Will of Philadelphia, David Melville of Newport, and John Will, Frederick and John Bassett, all of New York.