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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Pewter On The Dresser
(Part 1 Of 3)



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 purse.

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 called sadware.

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 woodenware.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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