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Britannia Ware English
FOR MANY YEARS our corner cupboard has held a decorative old pewter teapot with incised decoration and acanthus-leaf feet. On the bottom is the stamp "1669." Of course we knew that it wasn't the date, but Mother always said, "That is an old pewter teapot that I got from your father's family in Scotland." She also had a pewter pitcher which came from the same relatives, and it is marked "James Dixon & Sons 4868P1/Z" on its base. These pieces seemed of different weight and harder and even of a slightly different color and had more sheen than some of the pewter plates which we had, but it was many years before we found out that they were Britannia and not pewter proper.
Now, Britannia ware not only has a different appearance from pewter but it is made by a different process. Pewter is cast and Britannia is spun. The chemical make-up of Britannia has little variance from that of pewter. In fact, it is a superfine grade of pewter, and the name Britannia was invented to dramatize and revive the declining public demand for pewter. But the process of rolling the pewter into sheets and the stamping and spinning required less skill of the craftsman and thus less handwork. Also the spinning process changed the metal, making it harder, thinner, and lighter in weight. With the introduction of mass production in about 1825, the shapes became poorer in design and less individual.
Britannia can usually be identified by the small catalogue numbers which are stamped on it. Also much of it is stamped with the maker's name. The shapes of the Britannia period differ from the old pewter shapes. The tall coffeepot, the pigeon-breasted teapot, the water pitcher, and the whaleoil lamp are typical of the period. Edges are sharp and lines of structure broken. Handles terminate in blunt stubs soldered flush against the body. Forms were simple at first but with Victorian times fluting and decoration such as molded gadroon borders, acanthus-leaf feet, spout decorations, and even etched designs became common, and the shapes were distorted with concave and convex bulges. Some tea sets were octagonal. Black wooden handles and finials were usually hand carved, and bottles for the popular caster frames of the 1830s were usually made at Sandwich and the New England Glass Co.
Britannia was first made in England in about 1780 by Nathaniel Gower and James Vickers and after 1804 by James Dixon & Sons. Dixon was the best-known maker. Dixon made no pewter, but only Britannia, and thus anything marked Dixon is Britannia. Other English makers were Wolstenholme, I. Vickers, Ashberry, Broadhead & Akin. Any piece of pewter marked Sheffield is probably Britannia, as is a piece with the mark "Colsmans Improved Compost," and of course the small numbers which accompany the name of the maker are catalogue numbers.
A great deal of English Britannia was exported to America, especially that made by James Dixon & Sons, and this was for sale by New York merchants as early as 1821: "Britannia teapots-J. B. Skillman." The fol lowing enlarged advertisement appeared in the New York Conmercial Advertiser for June 12, 1822: "Britannia Teapots-The subscriber has just received and has for sale at auction prices a good assortment of Britannia Teapots with sugar Basins and cream Ewers to match-J. B. Skillman." Several other New York merchants advertised Britannia ware in the year 1823: "Britannia Ware-Table and teaspoons, Tea & Coffee pots, tea sets, Flaggons, Cups, Platters and Plates of Church service.-Pelletreau & Upson" (New York Connnercial Advertiser May 6, 1823). In September the same firm ran the following advertisement: "Britannia Ware-Tea Sets, Coffee pots, plain and engraved." In December18, 1823, the well-known merchant E. Irving inserted the following advertisement: "Britannia & Brass goods. Best double mounted Britannia Tea Pots, q., 5, & 8 gills-Extra quality & in sets."
As late as 1840 "Dixon's Victoria Patterns" were for sale in New York and Dixon's Britannia continued to serve as models for Britannia ware made by American pewterers.
Pewter collectors have scorned Britannia, and it is alluded to with a feeling of contempt because of its generally poor craftsmanship and shapes, which have no individuality but were the same at all factories. However, a few early American pewterers made fine Britannia, and any articles made by them have gladly been accepted by the most discriminating collectors even though they side-step calling them Britannia. At first so little Britannia was made that it passed for pewter, and it was not until about 1825 that American Britannia was manufactured in any quantity, so that this date really marks the beginning of its popularity.