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Jumbo Pewter Plates

The first generation of American colonists lived in rude shelters and ate from wooden trenchers. But they didn't remain in that state any longer than they could help. Their trust in Divine Providence, hard work, and good busi ness sense soon brought prosperity to a considerable number. Living conditions improved and home comforts multiplied.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, importations from the mother country included sizable amounts of pewter dishes for table use. This alloy of tin, copper, and antimony was relatively cheap, its value being only six-pence the pound as against silver at twenty-five shillings per ounce, troy weight. A man of means could well afford a good quantity of pewter for household use.

That practically no pewter dating back to the seventeenth century has survived is not surprising since it was put to general use, much as glass and earthenware are today. Because of the softness of the alloy, eight to ten years was about the span of an article's usefulness. Then it was taken to the local pewterer to be melted down and made into a new form.

Probably the first pewterers in America were simply repairers and importers. But by the start of the eighteenth century, a fair number were established whose wares could compare successfully with English importations. These men followed the styles of their brethren across the water and even marked their wares in similar manner. Plates, of course, were among the important table furnishings and varied from the six and eight-inch size for individual use to the salvers of twelve to twenty-seven inches in diameter. The latter were serving dishes, were fairly expensive, and evidently received better care since quite a few are still in existence.

The salver was made in Philadelphia by an early pewterer named Simon Edgell. He worked there between 1713 and 1742, was English, and followed the tradition of his native land in his manner of working and in marking his wares. His touch mark was that of a bird with three pellets beneath and his name spelled in capital letters in an oblong below. Sometimes the name "Philadelphia" also appears. Pewter plates were cast in a disc-like mold and then hammered into shape by the craftsman on a polished steel stake similar to that used by silversmiths. The upper side was then polished with sand and brick dust against a buffing wheel which erased the hammer marks, at least on the small plates. But the marks are still apt to show on the larger plates, as on the Edgell salver.

Importations of British-made pewter continued to compete with that made by native craftsmen and some of the latter apparently sought to remedy this by deceptive marking.Using a rose-and-crown touch mark, a device used in both England and America by various pewterers. It bears no maker's name but has "LQNDON" in an oblong. The unknown pewterer could claim this as his mark, and if the unwary happened to read it "LONDON," it was no concern of his.

A seventeenth-century pewter salver is most desirable. Such pieces are quite rare but they do show up occasionally. Some years ago I found a twentyfour-inch one in the shop of a New England antiques repairer. It was black with age and neglect and it took much prolonged and patient cleaning to bring back its soft sheen and discover the touch mark on the under side. It proved to be the work of Sir John Fryers who was Master of the London Pewterers Company in 1694.

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