An interesting vessel, which one often hears mentioned by
pewter-collectors, is the tappit-hen. This was a peculiarly shaped measure which
was made and used in Scotland. There were usually three pieces in a
set, and they ranged from one pint to three quarts in capacity. The
smallest size had no lid. The largest ones usually had a pewter cup fitting
in the neck of the measure, under the lid, for use when his lordship
called loudly for ale outside the tavern door. Tappit-hens are rare in
this country; in fact, I doubt if there are many specimens of genuine
Scotch make this side of the Atlantic.
I have tried to give an idea of what old pewter is like; now a word
about collecting it. In the first place, is it faked? That's always an
Imitations of old pewter ware have undoubtedly been made and put on
the market. In fact, the tappit-hen has been counterfeited in Scotland,
England, Belgium, and the United States, there having been a
noticeable demand for tappit-hens among collectors. The obvious moral
is, be slow to buy a tappit-hen, for genuine specimens in this country
are few. Were it not for this demand, it would hardly pay to make bogus
pieces even at the prevailing prices for an tiques. First, an alloy
must be made almost precisely like old pewter, for nothing else has the
same appearance. Then molds must be made and the pieces cast in the old
way. Then they must be "antiqued"scratched, dented, left out in the
weather, buried, or treated with acids. All this is expensive, and in the
end it doesn't pay, for such a business must be carried on in a small
way at best. Owing to the lack of reliable marks, pewter can be faked so
as to deceive the average collector, but it is safe to say that there
are few pieces in this country that are complete counterfeits.
More common is the "glorifying" of pewter. Plain pieces are
sometimes ornamented so as to increase their value. Repousse work is
occasionally added, but the usual method is chasing or engraving. I find that
collectors and dealers are always suspicious of eighteenth-century
household utensils, in the English forms, which show much decoration. Probably
this form of faking will defeat itself, as collectors are showing a
willingness to pay as much for a plain piece as for an engraved one of the
same age and equal beauty of form.
Fictitious dates are sometimes stamped on the bottoms of pewter
utensils, but this is a crude method and easily detected by those who study
the period styles. The faker usually wants to make a good sum while he
's about it, and turns the clock back at least a century. To "antique"
the honest reproductions that are on the market does not pay, for they
cost nearly as much as antique pieces.
There are one or two manufacturers in England and at least one in
the United States who have revived some of the old forms and are making
pewter reproductions and selling them as such. Such ware is charming for
decorative purposes as well as for actual use in modern Colonial
dining-rooms. Such reproductions sell for prices something like these:
flagons and tankards, $50 to $120 each; mugs, $15.00 to $30.00; candlesticks,
$15.00 to $30,00; plates, about $10; more elaborate pieces, up to $ 50
or $ 100. For the homemaker, in decorating and furnishing, these
reproductions are a great boon, though of course they have little interest
for the collector.
Now what is old pewter worth? Well, as in the case of other antiques,
prices vary, and any piece is worth about what you can get for it. In
England the greatest value is attached to sixteenth-century pewter, but
in this country the household ware of the eighteenth century is most
sought after, for we surround with a halo of national romance almost
everything pertaining to the Revolutionary period. Ecclesiastical ware is
rare in this country, and hence valuable, but the simple pieces that
adorned the Colonial dresser stand highest in the average collector's
Such pieces have a money value, but that value is hard to determine.
One writer sets the following values, for example: plates, eight to
eleven inches in diameter, $15 to $25; plates and trenchers, twelve to
sixteen inches, $30 to $60; 20-inch plates, $60 to $100. If you were to
offer your pewter plates for sale, this is probably what you could get
for them, but you are lucky if you can purchase at such low figures.
Prices in the shops run much higher, and good pieces are usually appraised
for more by their owners. A plain pewter coffee-urn is worth about $20;
especially beautiful pieces are worth more. These urns usually had a
tripod standard, made of brass, with a pierced gallery. These standards
are frequently missing, and an urn with its stand is worth nearly twice
as much as one without it.
It may be interesting to recall at this point that in 1557 pewter
ware was selling by weight, at seven or eight pence per pound.
In general, the small collector will do well to stick to the simple
British and American ware pretty closely, selecting his specimens for
their quaint beauty of form and, as a rule, preferring plain to
decorated pieces. I have no doubt that many such treasures are still stored
away in old attics in New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and
the South, waiting for loving hands to brush away the dust and restore
them to a place of honor. For, after all, that 's the only romantic way
Before closing it may be well to say a word about repairing and
caring for old pewter. Don't repair it unless you have to, and when you do,
handle it gently and with care. Do not attempt to hammer out dents, for
old pewter may be brittle. Warm the metal and press out the dents with
the round end of a broom-handle, or employ some similar method. What
harm does a dent do, anyway? Holes may be carefully soldered and
scratches may be rubbed down with very fine emery-powder.Slack blotches caused
by long oxidization may be removed with acids, or by soaking in
paraffin. If the pewter is to be displayed but not handled, it may be
protected with a thin coat of oil or vaseline.
Museum specimens are usually not cleaned at all, but I find that
most private collectors prefer to polish their pewter and display it to
the best advantage. I have made a note of several recipes for cleaning
and polishing, and offer a few of them herewith, with the probably
unnecessary advice that the simplest method be tried first.
Scrub vigorously with a hard brush and soap and hot water. Soda,
borax, or ammonia may be added to the water. Follow with silver polish or
whitening, and polish with a chamois skin or woolen cloth. This will
not remove every trace of age, but will brighten the metal up. To keep it
in goad condition repeat the process about once a month. Never scrape
the pewter with a knife or resort to emery-paper.
Pewter may be boiled in a weak solution of soda, which removes
surface stains. Oxidization spots may be carefully treated with hydrochloric
acid and the piece rinsed in a weak solution of ammonia and rubbed up
with a cloth.
An effective method is to soak the pewter for a day or two in a
solution of potash. Dissolve a piece of potash the size of a hickory-nut in
a quart of hot water, or double the amounts. Then polish with a cork,
moistened with water or oil and dipped in very fine seashore sand or
Bristol brick, and finish with chamois skin or flannel.
As a postscript, let me add an interesting fact that has been
brought to my attention. I find that certain American-made pieces, marked
"Reed & Barton, 1760," are treasured by ill-informed collectors as being
very old and rare-and bring high prices in the shops, too. As a matter
of fact these pieces were made about 1840, 1760 being the design number.
This is simply an example of a common error.