UNTIL recently it might have been said that pewter appealed to a
smaller class of collectors than either old furniture, china, or
silverware. It is not altogether easy to obtain, and there are many who consider
it not worth the trouble, and not without some reason. It is not
intrinsically valuable, being a cheap alloy of base metals; and its beauty is
rather that of some quaint, sweet-faced,, gray-haired old lady in a
lace cap, than of a blooming ballroom belle. Some people don't care for
old ladies-some do.And there is the whole story in a nutshell, applying
to nearly all forms of antiques.
Lately, however, the number of pewter-collectors has greatly
increased, and the shops are now being continually searched for good
specimens. People have been learning how interesting old pewter isand how cheap.
It is one of the few classes of antiques that do not demand a large
outlay from their admirers; old pewter is within reach of the average
To appreciate truly the real charm of old pewter requires a
peculiarly subtle taste that cannot be explained to the Philistine any more
than a preference for Wagner preludes and Limburger cheese.
If the "look" and "feel" and atmosphere of old pewter really do
awaken a feeling of delight within you, it may be worth while looking a
little into the matter of collecting it, what it really is, the history of
it, and its approximate value today.
In the first place, pewter is worth collecting because it is
comparatively rare. It was cheap and .therefore was once common, but it was
also destructible. Much of it simply wore out. Hundreds of pounds were
melted up for bullets in the stern old days of '76. Piles of it went to
the junkman when it became old and unpopular, or was fhrown out as
worthless. Consequently, in spite of its low intrinsic value, it is
sometimes salable to-day at a good figure.
Historically, it is hugely interesting. Glassware and silverware,
china and furniture, are being made today, in some instances, better than
ever before. But pewter belongs strictly to a bygone day.
odd years ago, when the invention of cheap silver and nickel plates,
white metal, etc., made the competition too hot, the manufacture
of,pewter for actual domestic use was practically abandoned. It now lives for
the collector alone.
To be sure, the collecting of pewter is not without its drawbacks,
and should not be hastily entered into. It is not easily classified, and
such classification as has been given it is largely artificial. It was
always a modest metal, and there are no magic names like Chippendale
and Wedgwood connected with its manufacture. But the charm is there for
many of us. Not even Lowestoft is more fragrant with the breath of the
old Colonial days.
Furthermore, while there is no such perfect system of hall-marks and
date-letters on pewter as that which makes the study of old silverware
so absorbing to a certain class of collectors, most pewter bears some
mark that can be classified, though the softness of the metal and much
cleaning have too often rendered the marks indistinct. This is one of
the features, however, that make pewter interesting. It is not so much a
matter of guesswork as is old glassware; the approximate date of
manufacture can be determined from the marks.
What is pewter? Perhaps that is the first question to answer, if not
the most interesting. What is it, and how was it made?
Not to go into chemistry or musty records and statistics, it is
perhaps sufficient to say that pewter was made chiefly of tin and lead, in
varying proportions, with traces sometimes of iron, copper, or zinc,
and occasionally bismuth or antimony to lower the melting-point. In the
later days of pewter less lead and more copper were used as a rule. At
different times and in different localities, the authorities in power
established various requirements of ingredients to keep up the quality of
the manufactured articles.
In its natural state, pewter has, in color, a dark, subdued tone,
half-way between that of lead and silver. It is soft and restful to the
eye and smooth to the touch. It possesses a sheen peculiar to itself,
without the dead look of lead or the crude, hard whiteness of tin. While
it wears out more quickly than a harder metal, it is naturally lasting,
and though it darkens and dulls easily, it oxidizes but little.
For trenchers, chargers, platters, and the larger plates, the metal
was cast in flat pieces and rolled into sheets and then hammered into
shape, sometimes over a wooden form. This process gave rigidity and
compactness to the alloy and smoothness and hardness to the surface.
Smaller plates and dishes were usually cast in form. These flat pieces were
Hollow-ware, and practically all other pewter, was cast in molds.
These were usually of gun-metal, though plaster of Paris, wood, iron, and
sand molds were also occasionally used. As gun-metal was expensive,
several pewterers were accustomed to own molds in common. This served to
strengthen the guilds in the large cities.
The molds were coated inside with fine pumicepowder and resin, or
white of egg and red ochre. The molten metal was poured in and allowed to
cool. When it was taken out, the surface was dull and dirty-looking,
and several methods were employed for improving it. Sadware, such as
spoons and small plates, which were cast in one piece, was hammered and
burnished by hand.
With the hollow-ware the process was more elaborate. Porringers and
simple cups were sometimes cast whole, but pieces with bulging, sides,
molded rims or bases, handles, lids, noses, etc., were cast in two or
more parts which were subsequently soldered together. The article was
then usually turned, scraped, and burnished on a lathe.
While much of the best pewter was not decorated, excellent work was
done by some pewterers in additional ornament. This decoration was of
three kinds: stamping or "joggled" work, engraving, and embossed or
repousse work. Engraving was not as common in England as has been supposed,
and some of the engraving belongs to a later date than the casting.
Fine lines were cut with a sharp tool. Deep engraving was not often
possible. The "joggled" work was done by tapping a rough chisel and rocking
it from side to side.The Dutch were especially skilful in this. Genuine
repousse work is usually Dutch or German.
Most of the books and chapters that have been written on old pewter
devote the lion's share of their space to the history of its
manufacture. Beginning with-the harmless statement that pewter was wrought in
China nearly two thousand years ago and was possibly used by the
Phenicians and early Hebrews, they are in full cry by the time they reach the
ancient Romans and cover every subsequent century down to the present
time. The story of the Pewterers' Company in London they tell in detail
and quote more or less exciting passages from old wills and in ventories.
I question whether all this is of vital importance to the modern
collector; and I am therefore moved to apologize for the brief historical
data that I shall give, simply to aid the collector to determine the age
and origin of his specimens.
First, a word as' to the countries from which our old pewter comes.
Chinese and Japanese pewter is to be found only in museums and large
collections. English pewter goes back to the tenth century, but few
pieces now existing antedate the seventeenth century. As early as the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries pewter was produced in quantities in
France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, and a very little in Italy and
Spain. French ware of the sixteenth century was very elaborate, and
pieces are occasionally to be found. It deteriorated after 1750 During the
seventeenth century Dutch and German pewter was the best. Paris and
Lyons were the pewter centers of France, Nuremberg and Augsburg of Germany,
and Ghent was the source of much Flemish pewter.British and American
pewter will be considered more in detail later.
At first pewter in England and other European countries was made for
ecclesiastical purposes, and later for domestic use. From the twelfth
to the fifteenth centuries it grew slowly but steadily in importance all
over northern Europe, though as late as the fourteenth century domestic
pewter was used only by the nobility and higher clergy.
The exact time when pewter became popular for table and kitchen use
is uncertain, but sometime in the fifteenth century it supplanted