It was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that pewter
attained the height of its popularity, though its general employment for
household purposes continued throughout the eighteenth and early
During the sixteenth century the artistic quality of pewter ware was
greatly improved. In 1567 an act of James VI of Scotland divided it
into two grades, the best to be marked with a crown and hammer and the
second quality with the maker's name. Few, if any, pieces so marked are
now in existence. All sorts of plates and mugs were made. The trade was
prosperous in England and had sprung up in Scotland. France and Germany
were decorating their ware. Perhaps sixteenth-century pieces would now
be more common if most of the church plate had not been destroyed in
England and Scotland during the Reformation.
In the seventeenth century pewter was again used in churches in the
form of communion services. All sorts of things began to be made in
pewter, f rorn toys to fireplace ornaments. Pewter spoons and even forks
were added to the common household utensils.
The skill and activity of English silversmiths served to keep down
the value of pewter, but it was china, which became popular in the
seventeenth century, that really superseded pewter, and during the
eighteenth century the pewter companies declined and lost control of the trade.
Then came better and much cheaper glassware, with improved processes of
manufacture, and more and more china, until pewter came to be
considered out of date and was driven from the table. For other purposes
Britannia ware, block tin, German silver, and nickel plate came into use, and
before the nineteenth century was far advanced pewter became
The history of the manufacture of pewter in England is practically
the story of the London Guild, or Worshipful Company of Pewterers. This
history is more or less interesting, if you like bloodless history, but
it has comparatively .little bearing on the subject of modern
collecting. For many years this guild controlled and protected all the making
and selling of pewter in England. It was started about 1348 and was
granted a charter by Edward IV in 1473. I believe some form of the
organization is still kept up, but it has been insignificant for eighty years or
This London company was at one time very powerful and did much to
maintain the quality of the ware and to encourage skilful craftsmanship.
It also made an attempt to compel and record marks, which, if it had
been successful, would have made it as easy to tell the exact date of
manufacture of a piece of pewter as of a piece of old silverware. Every
piece should have borne the "touch" or trade-mark of the maker, but the
rule was not enforced.
Marking for purity began in 1474, and probably many private touches
were registered at the Pewterers' Hall, but these, with many valuable
records, were destroyed in the great London fire of 1666. Five plates of
these touch-marks, dating from 1650, have been preserved. These include
1200 separate touches, but of these only forty-one give the maker's
name and the date, and any attempt to classify them here would be
confusing. In fact, so few pieces now in existence bear any of these
touch-marks that it is hardly worth while making a close study of them. If,
however, you have a touch-marked specimen, you will find William Redman's
"Handbook of Information, etc.," a reliable book of reference.
Occasionally a rose, usually with a crown, is found stamped in the
pewter. This was the regulation London Guild quality mark. The
touch-mark was the trade-mark of the maker. This was usually his name alone, or
with some device like a flower or an animal. The earliest ones were
small initials. The last touch on the plates at Pewterers' Hall is dated
There were other guilds in England, the most important being at
York. In Scotland, too, the craft thrived, and the guild at Edinburgh at
one time enjoyed a fame second only to that of the London company. The
Incorporation of Hammermen of Edinburgh was formed in 1483, and included
the pewterers. Their touch-plates have all been lost, and a great deal
of the Scotch pewter bears no marks, anyway. The general hall-mark was
a thistle and a crown, while the local mark of a three-towered castle
on a rock is sometimes found. Other local marks also exist, like
Glasgow's tree, fish, bird, and bell.
Pewter was brought into America with the earlier settlers, and in
the seventeenth century not a few English pewterers came to this country
to find employment. They settled chiefly in Plymouth Colony, in Boston,
and in Salem. Pewter was also made and sold in New York. It became
common in the eighteenth century. Much of the American-made pewter bears
the name of the maker.
In New England it became customary for families to melt down and
recast their pewter spoons. Sometimes one mold belonged to a
English, Continental, and American-made pewter is all to be found in
this country, as our ancestors used both imported and domestic ware.
Sixteenthcentury pewter exists for the most part only in museum
collections, and seventeenth-century specimens are very rare. The pieces to be
found in American collections belong to the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries, and it is the ware of this period which will presently
be described. Within the limits of this period it is not easy to
determine the exact age of a piece of pewter, chiefly owing to the absence of
intelligible marks. Of course, where a touchmark is found which
corresponds to one on the London plates, a date can approximately be given.
Occasionally a date appears on the piece itself.
The best guide is the form of the specimen, since the forms changed
and styles developed. It takes study, of course, to master this side of
the subjectstudy of actual collections as well as somewhat tedious
books. In general, the simpler a piece is, both in its general lines and in
ornament, the older it is, and there are a very few rough-and-ready
rules that may be followed. In the larger plates and platters, for
example, we find broader rims and thicker metal, in the older pieces. Scotch
plates are deeper than English plates, as a rule. In the latter part of
the seventeenth century all platters and plates were nearly flat and
had wide edges. Earlier plates and salvers sometimes stood on feet.
Pewter in the form of silverware followed the contemporary style, and as the
silver is hall-marked, the date of the pewter can sometimes be
determined by comparison. This is especially true of the church ware. In
general, the English ware was always simple in form, in comparison with the
Almost every conceivable domestic utensil wasmade in pewter. There
were pots, jugs, tankards, flagons, measures, cream-jugs, pitchers,
porringers, plates, platters, spoons, forks, salt-cellars, pepper-shakers,
mustard-pots, lamps, candlesticks, candle-molds, teapots, sugar-bowls,
'tobacco-jars, tea-caddies, crucifixes, knee and shoe buckles,
coffee-urns, hot-water dishes, snuff-boxes, money-boxes, inkstands, eggcups,
watch-cases, buttons, bleeding-cups, goblets, mugs, bowls, basins, ladles
for soup, toddy, or gravy, and dozens of other things. Plates,
platters, flagons, mugs, and the dishes of common use are the forms commonly to
be met with today.
Stoneware jugs are sometimes found with pewter lids. In England and
Italy, but seldom here, pewter garden ornaments are occasionally to be
foundfigures, vases, and urns. The Adam brothers are known to have
designed some beautiful pewter urns. Ewers and basins were made in this
country a hundred years ago, but are now rare. Spoons are not common, and
forks even less so; the metal was too soft for these purposes.
Sometimes very attractive bowls with "ears" are found. Tasters were
small bowls with one handle, while bleeding-cups were also small bowls,
about an inch and a half across, with one handle and with graduated
Ecclesiastical pewter now extant consists chiefly of alms-dishes,
communion services, and collection plates. They are rare in this country,
and are found chiefly in Scotland.
Many different shapes of candlesticks are to be found in the
changing fashions of different periods. Whale-oil lamps are not uncommon.
Usually two wicks were used, which were pricked up and snuffed when the
light burned dim. Whale-oil was procurable about 1712. Small round wicks
were used at first; flat wicks came in about 1763. So some idea can be
gained of the age of a lamp. Chimneys were not used until later, though
sometimes a sort of bull's-eye was used to concentrate the light.
Salt-cellars and pepper-boxes are not as common as might be
supposed. The same is true of pewter tea-pots; they melted too easily if hung
over the fire.