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A Peek At Antique Pewter
We stood in the dim farmhouse cellar, fragrant with the odor of Blue Pearmaines, Northern Spies, and hardy Baldwins, waiting in their barrels to be eaten with popcorn and molasses candy on crisp winter evenings or to be made into juicy, flaky pies. Can after can of huckleberries, raspberries, blackberries, pears, cherries, and plums, "raised on the place," filled the tiers of shelves. Ripe cucumber pickles, mustard pickles, and piccalilli filled the stone crocks. I was peering in to see! Lifting one of the covers, I held it up.
"Upon my word, a pewter platter!" I gasped. The mistress of the farmhouse peered over her spectacles at the blackened object in my hand.
"Why, yes, I know it. There used to be a lot of 'em around the house. Some I've given away-but they make good covers for crocks, if you happen to break one."
"You wouldn't, I couldn't have this one!" I ventured.
"Have it? Why, yes, I guess so if you'll get me a cover for my crock."
"One! A million!" I recklessly promised. I pictured the platter, cleaned and shining, joining the pewter candlesticks, marked with the name of R. Dunham, and given me by a friend who knew that I prized them, my great grandmother's plate from which I had scraped a bunch of cherries painted by some vandal's hand, the teapot, unearthed in the attic of a house in the Connecticut Valley, and the porringer that cost but eighty cents at a country auction.
My enthusiasm waned a little when I spent hours trying to clean the platter. I thought sadly of the colonial youngsters whose weekly duty it was to scour the household pewter with "cat-o-nine-tails." Poor dears! But when the platter was finally presentable, my heart was filled with the same pride, I am sure, as that of the New England housewives when they beheld the rows of pewter dishes gleaming from the shelves of scrubbed dressers in their huge kitchens.
When the hardy pioneers built their homes along the Atlantic sea-board, pewter "garnishes" consisting of twelve plates, twelve dishes, and twelve saucers were cherished by housemothers.
Alice Morse Earle says, "A set of pewter platters or chargers and dishes made what was called a garnish of pewter, and were a source of great pride to every colonial housewife, and much time and labor were devoted to polishing them until they shone like silver. Dingy pewter was fairly accounted a disgrace. The most accomplished Virginia gentleman of his day gave as a positive rule, in 1728, that Pewter Bright was the sign of a good housekeeper."
When Judge Sewell of Boston, the persecutor of witches, outfitted his fashionable daughter, Judith, for her "setting-out," he included with the dressings for the bed, the fine large Chintz Quilt, the true Looking Glass of Black Walnut Frame, the Black Walnut Chairs, the Brass Candlesticks and Chafing-Dishes, the small Glass Salt Cellars of White Glass and other household necessities. "One Duzen of large hard metal Pewter Plates new fashion, weighing about fourteen pounds" and "One Dozen hard metal Pewter Porringers."
Porringers were highly prized, and were bequeathed in nearly all the colonial wills. Not only plates and porringers were made of pewter, but urns, candlesticks, ewers, hot-water meal-warmers, tea-pots, "tappit-hens," or jugs, shaped like cream bottles with lids and handles like syrup jugs, flagons, lamps, coffee-pots, and spoons were fashioned from the popular material. Pewter spoons, by the way, are a real find for the collector. Pewter is so soft, you see, that an article as delicately fashioned and so much in use as a spoon was not at all durable.
Many valuable pieces of pewter were lost during the War of the Revolution. Patriotic women gave quantities of their cherished "table furnishings" to the causeto be melted into bullets to help retain American independence.
A pewter dish figures in a story connected with the tyrant, General Prescott, whom the American colonists both feared and hated. He was finally captured by Colonel Barton of the patriot army and taken to Washington's headquarters in New Jersey. On his journey he was allowed to dine at a tavern in Lebanon, Connecticut, and the innkeeper's wife served him with a dish of succotash.
Prescott picked up the pewter dish containing the succotash and threw it upon the floor.
"What! do you treat me with the food of hogs?" he cried. The tavern mistress gave one look at her cherished pewter and the food upon the floor, then left the room. When she returned, her husband, a horsewhip in his hand, followed and gave the violent Prescott a punishment that he never forgot.
In a period when every New England farmer counted a barrel of rum as part of the supplies of his cellar, when cider was as free as water, and punches were served at all merry-makings, the tankard and the beaker were part of the household outfittings and were commonly made of pewter. When the great whaling-industry became one of the epics of American national life and the sperm of the great sea-animal was found suitable for lighting purposes, pewter entered the ranks as a material for lamps.
Of the many pieces of early American pewter, none is more rare-with possibly the exception of the lidded tankard-than the six-inch pewter "sawcer," as it was called. Mugs of both quart and pint sizes, if they bear the marks of the earlier makers, are greatly sought by collectors.
No serious student of the history of early American pewter will fail to study the authentic book on the subject by Mr. J. B. Kerfoot. He has called the period between 1750 and 1825 the "Eight-inch plate period," and the makers of that time "the eight-inch plate men." The book is so large that you may fail to see this particular paragraph which I find so intriguing. May I quote it?
"We find that plates are the basis and background of our whole china notion. Serving plates, soup plates, dessert plates, bread and butter plates take these away and nothing remains of a set of china except the frills.
Wood, pewter, china these three have been the successive rulers of the tableware world. Each has won its spurs as a frill material. Each has fought its way to complete command. And each, when its triumph was won and its time came to rule, has had the scepter handed to it on a dinner plate."
Pewter as pewter was known centuries before the Pilgrims set sail for the new world. It is a composition of tin combined with certain alloys, and we are told that the Romans made it when they found tin in ancient Britain. In 1074 a synod in Rouen sanctioned its use for communion-sets and holy water vessels, but the first account that we have of its use in the household was at the coronation of Edward I of England, when a pewter cauldron was used for boiling the festal meats.
Later a guild of workmen experimented with the metal and during the succeeding years the "Worshipful Company of Pewterers" strictly watched its composition, and the casting and hammering of the utensils made from it. Articles which did not meet the requirements of the Guild were condemned to be re-melted and made over.
In America, the styles and forms closely followed those made by the English craftsmen. After a time the alloys were changed, and the harder, more brilliant metal which evolved was called "Britannia." Design in the wares also underwent a transformation, changing from the simple and dignified restraint of the early colonial period to the more elaborate forms of the early republic.
In the American colonies the trade of pewterer was most important. Mrs. Earle tells us that one of Boston's richest merchants, Henry Shrimpton, made large quantities of pewter ware for the Massachusetts colonists, and that in the latter years of his life, when he became wealthy, he had a great kettle built on top of his house to indicate the source of his fortune. Paul Revere not only designed exquisite silver pieces, but fashioned articles from pewter as well. The pewterer that we can name who was working in Boston in 1654 was Thomas Bumstead.
It seems that the early American pewterers led somewhat itinerant lives, wandering over the rough roads and trails from one settlement to another, making the articles demanded by housekeepers. As the country became more settled, craftsmen established their shops in the large towns and began to work up profitable businesses.
Five American pewterers, four of Boston, are listed as working in the seventeenth century. Two of them, Henry Shrimpton and Thomas Bumstead, I have already mentioned. Others were Thomas Clarke and John Comer. The forty-two listed pewterers of the eighteenth century were mostly located in Boston, New York, Waterbury, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Hartford, Connecticut. The nineteenth century gives us nearly a hundred names well scattered over the Northern States. The search for information of our early days will doubtless divulge others.
We are told that Israel Trask of Beverly, Massachusetts, one of the greatest of the later pewterers, began the manufacture of Britannia ware. In an article, "A Massachusetts Pewterer," Mr. John Whiting Webber tells us interesting facts concerning him.
During the time of the embargoes of the period of our second war with England, a lady asked at a certain store for a teapot. Naturally, the English supply was shut off. Young Israel Trask was standing near. "Mrs. Ball," he said, "if you will give me a sack full of old teapots, I will melt them up and will make you as fine a new teapot as ever came from old England."
The lady agreed, and the old metal, melted in a kiln, cooled on iron plates, and rolled out, was fashioned into such successful new pewter teapots that later an order was given for one hundred dozen!
Thus, with true Yankee initiative, did Israel Trask begin the manufacture of his wares. Two of his brothers worked with him, and a pewter flagon designed by Oliver Trask is in the collection belonging to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
In 1831 Israel Trask erected a stone shop which is said to be still standing. Castors which had come into high favor, were a specialty of this pewterer, and a fine example can be seen in the collection of The Essex Institute at Salem, Massachusetts.
One real thrill that I had was when a woman in a small inland town told me of the pewter communion set owned by the village church. "We'd like to sell it," she said. Then asked the inevitable question, "How much do you think it is worth?"
I assured her that I was but a humble, amateur antiquarian, not a dealer, but evinced interest in the old pewter set. We talked it over, and I discovered that it was a genuine Israel Trask communion set! How will you identify an Israel Trask pewter piece, you ask. On most of his products is a small indented rectangle, reading "I Trask," while his brother's stamp is larger and contains the words, "O Trask." Collectors seek the earlier examples of Israel Trask's output, since the later pieces follow the ornate style of the times and are over decorated.
This question of the Israel Trask mark brings out an important point in collecting pewter that of the "touch marks" stamped on the pieces. Usually the "touch" consisted of the craftsman's initials, or his name enclosed in a rectangle. Sometimes a shield or eagle was used. Some of the early American pewter is unmarked, but the age can be guessed at, at least, because the pewter of that period is soft and easily bent. But it must also be remembered that the English pewterers who did not belong to the guilds failed to mark their products.
The machine-turned Britannia ware made about 1825 had a decidedly "tinny" appearance. Twenty years later, we find that this particular type was still being produced in America. An interesting advertisement is found in The Boston Almanac for 1846. Among the listed wares, including "Fine Ox Marrow, Bear's Grease, and Oils; Napkin Rings; Snuff and Tobacco Boxes; Carpet Bags; Common and Painted Slate Pencils," and numerous other sundries, appear "Britannia Tea and Coffee Pots; Lamps and Castors," as well as "Plated Britannia and G. S. Spoons."
Unearthing a bit of American pewter to add to your own collection, though the number of pieces you own may be comparatively small, will bring you a joy hard to define. It is so human, so commonplace, yet so full of romance, when we remember its close association with the homely, everyday life of our forefathers! It deserves as much study as you find time to give to it.