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Early American Pewter
( Article orginally published October 1945 )
Until this summer the finest collection of early American pewter was the beautiful collection at the Metropolitan Museum. Today that galaxy has a rival in the proud galaxy of pewter treasures now to be found at the art museum of Brooklyn. Brooklyn already owned a number of unusual pewter pieces and was hoping to build up a distinguished variety across the years ahead. Suddenly the opportunity came to purchase the renowned Poole collection, the best private collection in existence. By acquiring in a single day all the prizes which had taken John W. Poole nearly a lifetime to gather, Brooklyn had only to combine them with its previous possessions and in one leap rise to the front rank of pewter owners.
Immediately thereafter the Brooklyn Museum began to plan a pewter exhibition. That exhibition is now in full swing and will continue on view till November 4th. Because of wartime conditions still prevailing, less than a third of the whole assemblage can be shown just now but even that portion is so remarkable that the Pewter Collector Club of America will meet at the Museum (Oct. 22nd) in order to have a look at it. Meanwhile, arrangements are under way to construct a permanent pewter room in which to display the collection in its entirety. This room will be in the American Wing next to the gallery of American silver and close to the wonderful series of early American rooms for which the Brooklyn Museum is nationally famous.
Pewter is one of the most alluring realms among American antiques because it is so intimately bound up with the everyday life of our forefathers. In the first place it was what you might call a finely democratic article.It was made for people who could not afford much silver or who did not want to use their silver all the time. It happened not to be as elegant as silver in color or texture but it had about it an air of distinction and a certain substantial solidity that reflected the comfortable character of the people who used it in their homes.
You can picture the quaint old eighteenth century houses that were provided with it: the pleasantly furnished living room brightened at evening time by someone walking in with the small pewter lamps that burned whale oil or camphine and were hung on wall brackets or placed in pewter saucers, the children at a side table having their supper from pewter porringers while the main table was being set with pewter plates and dishes taken from the store that lined the shelves of the open cupboard, a dresser. Elsewhere in the house there were to be seen sundry ornaments of pewter such as small round plates used as trays, occasional boxes and accessories for writing but it was in the dining room that pewter really came into its own. For table use alone the old pewterers made plates, dishes, basins, porringers, spoons, ladles, mugs, tankards, tall drinking cups called beakers, and pitchers, teapots, creamers, sugar bowls, salts and peppers.
In the story of American pewter there are many links with our colonial history. For example, the main ingredient of pewter is tin and since there were no tine mines in this country the metal had to be imported from England under a heavy tax. England at that time did not want her colonies to become manufacturers of pewter or anything else. She wanted to do all the manufacturing herself so that she could give her workmen employment, give her investors the profit of selling finished goods and at the same time keep her colonists forever dependent on the mother country. It was one of those shortsighted, selfish policies that could lead to nothing but trouble and everybody knows of the explosion that occurred when a match was struck to the powder in that angry uproar known as the Boston Tea Party. The incident happened to center on the tax to be paid for a newly arrived cargo of tea but it was the endless taxes on everything else-on cargoes of tin to be made into pewter, on shipments of textiles to he made into clothing, on china, glassware, tools, iron and all the rest-which had brought the Americans to the boiling point that turned the Boston harbor rumpus into a national revolution.
Interestingly enough, one of the results of the Revolution was that shortly thereofter the use of pewter began to wane. America having won economic freedom, Americans could now manufacture whatever they pleased. So many little factories for the making of household goods promptly sprang up, so that certain kinds of goods became enticingly low-priced. China and glass became so inexpensive that you could buy sets of it for far less than pewter, the upshot being that pewter makers found they could not stand the competition. By 1800, cheaper, inferior alloys were creeping into pewter and skilled workers were going into other fields of employment. The ensuing deterioration in style and materials only made the ware less attractive. By 1825 mass production of pewter by a spinning process was introduced and, of course, that sounded the death knell of the industry as an artistic craft.
But to get back to the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. Of the pieces on view practically all are "early," that is, they date before 1800, many of them dating from before the Revolution. The Museum's Curator of Decorative Arts, John M. Graham, has arranged the display so as to show it handsomely and at the same time historically. He says:
"All the five principal American pewter making centers are represented: Boston, Rhode Island, the Connecticut Valley. New York and Pennsylvania. Each region developed definite local variations in style and design and featured a different type of ware. In Boston the early pewterers made only plates and basins, with the exception of a few quart mugs produced by Nathaniel Austin (1763-1807) of Charlestown, Mass.
"The Connecticut Valley craftsmen were largely directed by the descendants of Thomas Danforth (1727-1773), of Norwich, and their associates. They made fine ecclesiastical pewter-chalices, baptismal bowls, communion cups and patens - as well as a variety of pieces for home use, all represented in the exhibition.
"The pewter produced in New York City by Frederick Bassett (1761-1801), last of a famous family of pewterers, was designed with considerable distinction. Handsome examples on display are a flat-top tankard with a crenate lid and a rare comnjode. Another early New York maker, Henry Will (1761-1793), was a craftsman who delighted in making unusual forms. Several unique pieces by this maker are includedthe only known oval American platter, the only marked, American hot-water dish and the only marked, American writing box with cover.
"In Philadelphia, William Will (1764-1796) made the earliest American pewter teapots in two distinctive forms. Our small pear-shaped example in the Queen Anne style is unquestionably one of the oldest surviving American pewter teapots.
"Certain other pieces in the exhibition merit special attention not only because of their fine form but also because of their rarity. Among these are two flagons and a chalice by Johann Heyne (1764-1798). of Lancaster, Pa.; a pair of chalices of American design, original models, by Peter Young (1785-1795), of Albany; a plate which is the only known surviving example of the pewter work of John Carnes (1723-1763), of Boston, and a lidless tankard by Benjamin Day (fl. 1744-1757), of Newport, Rhode Island."
The half-dozen chief examples here reproduced well indicate the extent to which the exhibition emphasizes the intrinsic beauty of old American pewter and the wide variety of forms and items that were produced.