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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Pewter On The Dresser
(Part 2 Of 3)



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 nineteenth centuries.

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served to keep down the value of pewter, but it was china, which became popular in the seventeenth century, that really superseded pewter, and during the eighteenth century the pewter companies declined and lost control of the trade.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cheaper glassware, with improved processes of manufacture, and more and more china, until pewter came to be considered out of date and was driven from the table.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 obsolete.

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 more.

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 1824.

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 community.

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 Continental pewter.

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 rings inside.

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.


[Continue To Part 3 Of Article]




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