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A Silvery Metal Called Pewter



People have been doing things for ages with the gray-hued silvery metal called "pewter." An alloy composed principally of tin, it is the oldest composite metal known. It is so old, indeed, that nobody knows when or where it originated. Although pewter is a base metal, lacking the glamour and intrinsic value of the precious metals, old pewter pieces have by reason of their sturdy character and quiet, unpretentious simplicity cast a spell over the modern collector.

It probably never occurred to the early craftsman in the metal, working to meet the demands of his time, that the simple functional articles which he cast and hammered and polished would come to be regarded as things of artistic merit and find honored places in public and private collections. Striving to produce household utensils and other things which in size and form were best suited to serve the purpose for which they were intended, the pewterer endeavored at the same time to maintain a well-balanced relationship between line and proportion. That he succeeded is shown by many surviving pieces which bear favorable comparison with the best work of the silversmiths.

New England was the center of the pewter trade in America during the period when the ware was in common use everywhere. It was extremely popular and highly esteemed. John Hancock loved it; he abhorred the clatter of china dishes. A person who owned a "garnish" of pewter, as a collection of flatware was called, was proud of it. A garnish consisted of thirty-six pieces, a dozen each of three different sizes of tableware, namely, twelve chargers or large plates, twelve shallow basins or dishes, and twelve small plates. Kept bright and shining, these usually stood on edge along the rear of the dresser shelves, where they formed a background for other pewter designed for table use, such as tankards, mugs, and beakers, and for the rows of pewter porringers hanging by their handles from hooks along the front of the shelves.

Besides these articles, many other table accessories were made of pewter, including teapots and coffeepots, sugar bowls and creamers, pepper and mustard pots, salts, jugs, pitchers, spoons, and ladles. A prodigious number of pewter candlesticks, candle molds, and tinder boxes were made and sold and later many whale-oil and camphine lamps. Inkwells and trays were produced in quantity, as were also such items of personal adornment as buckles for shoes and hats and all sizes of buttons. Barbers' basins with a section cut out of the rim for compassing a man's neck and shaving mugs were also part of the output of the pewter shops. An amazing number of things were made from the metal.

Yet in spite of the extensive use to which it was put, relatively little old pewter is now extant. It is unusual to meet with it in any quantity or variety outside museums and private collections. The reason so much perished was because pewter is not a very durable metal. If placed near the fire it melts in a short time, and prolonged exposure to dampness and cold causes it to disintegrate. It bends and dents easily and constant cleaning wears it out. Tinkers used to do a thriving business going about the countryside repairing damaged pewter and recasting spoons. Furthermore, during the Revolution a great deal of pewter was melted down and cast into bullets for the Continental Army, patriotic housewives sacrificing their best pieces and using woodenware instead.

It was at this time that a pewter dish filled with succotash was the cause of a British general having an experience which he probably never forgot. In Lebanon, Connecticut, nearly opposite the mansion of Governor Trumbull-Brother Jonathan, as Washington called him -stood the old tavern kept during the Revolution by Captain Alden. It was famous as the house where General Prescott, the tyrannical British officer in command of the enemy occupation forces in Rhode Island, stopped to dine. In the summer of 1777, Colonel William Barton of the patriot army boldly kidnaped the general near Newport and it was when the prisoner was on his way under guard to Washington's camp in New Jersey that he paused at Lebanon. While General Prescott was seated at the table, Mrs. Alden brought him some succotash of her own making in a pewter dish. But the general was unappreciative. Evidently unaccustomed to such food, he looked at it and was furious.

"What?" he cried indignantly. "Do you treat me with the food of hogs?"

And seizing the dish he strewed the contents on the floor and flung the pewter container in the midst of the mess. Nonplussed by the officer's conduct, Mrs. Alden retreated hastily from the room and told her husband, who entered immediately with a horsewhip and gave the general a sound thrashing.

Most of the early pewter used in America came from England. With the exception of part of a spoon unearthed a few years ago at Jamestown, Virginia, with the mark on it of Joseph Copeland, who worked at Chuckatuck, Virginia, from 1675 to 1 6q 1, no piece of pewter of native origin made before 1700 is known to exist. Yet there were pewterers at work in New England soon after the establishment of the first settlements. In 16 3 5 Robert Graves was casting pewter at Salem and a few years later several others are known to have been engaged in the trade in Massachusetts. But for many years the bulk of the pewter sold in this country continued to be imported from England.

In 1720 Judge Sewall ordered from London a long list of house furnishings for his daughter, Judith, who was about to be married. Besides such items as a fine large chintz quilt, a good large warming pan, and a pair of bellows with brass noses, the list included One Duzen of large hard-mettal Pewter Plates new fashion, weighing about fourteen pounds, and One Duzen hard-mettal Pewter Porringers. The weight of the plates was mentioned because flatware was commonly sold by the pound.

The Worshipful Company of Pewterers, one of the oldest and most powerful guilds in London, was opposed to any pewter being made in America, because the market here was an important outlet for its wares. This fitted in with British colonial policy. For while England was anxious to receive supplies of certain raw materials from the New World, it aimed at protecting its home industries and did all it could to discourage manufacturing of all kinds in the colonies. It was in a strong position as far as pewter was concerned, as America was dependent on the mines of Cornwall for its supplies of tin, the basic element of pewter. It was a simple matter for the government to place a heavy duty on the metal in block, and at the same time permit it to be freely exported in the form of finished pewter ware.

But the American pewterers were undismayed. They bought up quantities of old discarded pewter and this scrap was melted down and recast. The market for used pewter became so brisk that merchants cheerfully accepted worn-out and broken pieces in exchange for merchandise.

By 1758, the industry here had grown to such an extent that the Worshipful Company, thoroughly alarmed, endeavored to stop the sale to America of the molds used for casting pewter. The Worshipful Company had no jurisdiction over American pewterers, nor was there any organization corresponding to it in this country which could insist on the high standards maintained by the Worshipful Company in London. This meant that English pewter had to compete in the American market with a cheaper grade of native metal. During the troublesome times that preceded the Revolution pewter made in England was among the things the people of Boston resolved to boycott.

For many years an enormous gilt teapot with steam issuing from its spout has hung over the entrance to a teashop in Scollay Square in Boston. The capacity of the pot is painted on its side-227 GALLONS, 2 QUARTS, 1 PINT, 3 GILLS. When the shop first opened at another location on the square there was a guessing contest as to how much it held. A much earlier giant Boston teakettle was that of Henry Shrimpton, the wealthy colonial merchant, who had one on top of his house. He was a prosperous pewterer who made and sold quantities of pewter ware to the colonists. It was an ancient and honorable calling to which Shrimpton was proud to belong. So when he retired from business he had the mammoth teapot placed on his roof to indicate the line of trade in which he had made a fortune.

A person wishing to set up shop as a pewterer required little equipment, but it was expensive, especially the molds. Pewter was cast in the desired form and then finished with hand tools. After the casting had been removed from the mold it was trimmed, surface defects were remedied, and the rough piece filed smooth. It was then polished on a lathe. Small articles were cast in one piece, large articles in two or more pieces which were soldered together. It sounds as if it were a simple enough process, but it took a good deal of knowledge and skill to make all but the simplest things, and apprentices to the pewter trade served seven years.

Pewter is an easy metal to work. Composed principally of tin, copper, antimony, and bismuth, with occasionally an admixture of lead, it melts at from 400 to Soo degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the mixture used, as against 183o degrees for silver. No set formula for making the alloy has ever been universally followed. In this country the purpose for which an article was made governed the composition of the metal. In the early days a good deal of lead was used, but even then it was recognized that the less lead the better the pewter and the best grade contained none. Owing to the danger of lead poisoning the amount which could be used was strictly regulated by the Worshipful Company, and the best English and American craftsmen followed more or less closely the formulas and rules established at Pewterers' Hall. Articles not designed for eating or drinking, such as candle molds and candlesticks, often had a high lead content. The dullness and heaviness of many old pieces is attributable to the presence of a large percentage of lead in the alloy.

Because of its low melting point pewter could be cast in almost any kind of mold-clay, stone, wood, iron, brass, gun-metal, bronze, etc. But plaster was good for only one casting, and sand molds did not last long. When sand was used it was often moistened with stale beer or ale. The New England Indians were quick to master the art of making the bright pewter buttons they liked, carving molds for this purpose in soapstone. It is related that in one town a family which had a spoon mold used to lend it to the neighbors, with the result that all the spoons in that vicinage bore the same initial. Although small brass molds have been used successfully, bronze has proved the best material for permanent molds. These were very expensive and were handed down from father to son.

The high cost of the molds restricted the variety of pieces that could be turned out and hence less diversity of shape is to be found in pewter than in silver. Nor was the casting method so well adapted to surface ornamentation. But the pewterers often succeeded in giving pieces as graceful lines and pleasing proportions as the silversmiths.

Many of the forms which pewter took in New England were traditionally English, but the native craftsmen were not content to follow these patterns closely, and developed distinctive designs of their own. Take porringers, for example. They were popular in this country for some time after the European pewterers stopped making them. The market for them continued, indeed, until the last few decades of the pewter era, which ended in i85o. The basic types followed here were the solid-handled continental type and the openwork English type. From these two types different patterns were evolved. This was done with notable success by the pewterers of Newport and Providence, whose work was so distinctive that collectors now speak of the Rhode Island handle.

The Boston pewterers seem to have specialized largely in flatware. They made well-finished plates of highgrade pewter which are distinguishable as a rule by their shallowness and narrow edges. They made other forms of pewter, too, but there is a paucity of identifiable specimens. Quart mugs by Nathaniel Austin of Charlestown, whose principal work was done in the eighteenth century, and by George Richardson of Boston, who was active in the nineteenth, have been spotted, but nothing else.

The third great pewter region of New England was the Connecticut Valley. All kinds of pewter ware was made here, chiefly by the Danf orth dynasty of pewterers, who go back to Thomas Danforth of Norwich. A dozen or more of his descendants were in the business, the family carrying on for more than a century. Old Thomas Danforth 0703-I786) is one of the best known colonial pewterers. His work is highly esteemed by collectors. He came from England and on landing at Boston went directly to Taunton. After tarrying there for a while, he moved to Norwich, Connecticut, where he worked until his retirement in i773, following a sucessful career during which he trained a number of apprentices in the art of making pewter.

Of his descendants, the Boardman brothers of Hartford were the most prolific producers of pewter. Their mother was Sarah Danf orth, a granddaughter of the original Thomas. Thomas Danforth Boardman was born in Litchfield January 21, 1784, and died September r o, 1873. His brother Sherman Boardman was born in Litchfield July r o, 1787, and died March Zo, 1861. About 1804 Thomas Danforth Boardman began the manufacture of pewter on Main Street in Hartford and continued the business with his brother for almost half a century. The Boardmans and other Connecticut Valley pewterers were skillful and versatile, as the many different examples of their work which have survived attest. The ecclesiastical pewter which they made is considered particularly fine.

Many town and country Churches in New England which could not afford silver Communion services used pewter sets. Complete sets could be bought, but more often than not they were assembled piece by piece, either by gift or purchase, as is shown by the presence in the same set of vessels bearing the marks of different makers. While some pewter was made expressly for ecclesiastical purposes, such as flagons, chalices, and beakers, many sets were composed entirely of domestic pieces. A complete Communion service did not consist of any specific number of pieces, but varied more or less according to the size of the congregation. The wine was poured from a flagon or tankard, and a set usually included a pair or several pairs of goblet-shaped chalices, which take high rank for beauty of form among examples of American-made pewter; a number of beakers or simple drinking cups, and several patens. Pewter baptismal bowls and collection plates were also used by the New England Churches.

Old records disclose that when the Church in Hanover, Massachusetts, purchased a pewter Communion service in 1728, the three tankards cost ten shillings apiece, the five beakers six shillings and a sixpence each, and the two platters five shillings apiece. When a Church acquired a silver service it sometimes gave its old pewter set to some less wealthy congregation, which was perhaps using wooden vessels.

The oddest pieces of ecclesiastical pewter are the Communion tokens or checks. These small oblong disks, about an inch or an inch and a half long, were used when joint Communion services were held by a number of congregations. Church societies without a settled minister, or during the absence of their regular pastor, would combine with a society having an ordained minister to commemorate the Lord's Supper. Sometimes hundreds of communicants from several parishes would assemble in one church for this purpose. To make certain that no unworthy person should partake of the sacrament, the deacons gave checks to the members of their congregations in good standing, who had to present them before they were allowed to take Communion.

In New Hampshire, the Presbyterian Churches around Londonderry followed the old Scotch custom and met twice a year for joint Communion services in the Londonderry church. Tokens were used at these convocations as late as the year 183o. The checks were stamped with the letters "L.D.," but what they stood for is not known, though it has been suggested that it may have been "Lord's Day" or "Londonderry."

The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of the hilltop town of Pelham, Massachusetts, had what was perhaps a unique system of tokens. During the month the deacons gave checks to "deserving" persons and withheld them from those they deemed unworthy. On Communion Sunday only those holding tokens were permitted to receive the sacrament. This system, which gave the deacons the practical power of excommunication, was installed late in the eighteenth century by the notorious ministerial imposter Stephen Burroughs, whose later crimes included counterfeiting. The pewter checks used were marked "P.P.," which it is supposed stood for "Pelham Presbyterian."

To the collectors of old pewter the maker's mark, or "touch," is of primary importance. The American pewter trade, although under no compulsion to do so, followed the English system of marking much of its output. A knowledge of these marks often enables one to tell when, where, and by whom a piece was made, as there are lists of pewterers giving the period and place where each worked. Steel dies were used by the pewterers to impress their marks on their output, a piece being struck after it had been removed from the mold and cooled. Small dies were used for small articles, large dies for large pieces. The marks, which appear in relief, take a variety of forms, some makers using their names, others their initials, and some just a symbol; but the usual practice was to use the name or initials in a distinctive design, often in combination with a symbol. Some pewterers used a series of small hallmarks in imitation of the silversmiths, though silversmiths were sometimes also pewterers. Paul Revere worked in both metals.

Before the Revolution the British lion and the figure of Britannia were popular American marks, as was also the rose and crown, which was used by both English and French pewterers. A tiny crown above an "X" was employed in Great Britain and in this country to indicate pewter of a superior quality. Sometimes the X was used without the crown. After the Revolution some Massachusetts and Rhode Island pewterers adopted their State seals for trade-marks, but the eagle was the most popular of all, and was widely adopted. There are collectors who specialize in pewter marked with the national emblem.

But a good deal of American pewter was not marked at all and this was also true of some English pewter that found its way to this country. The marks on other pieces have in some instances been worn away, and many marked examples cannot now be identified, because the name, initials, or symbol of the maker is unknown. From time to time, however, the identity of a hitherto unknown craftsman is established by deliberate research or happy accident and his name is added to the roster of American pewterers. It is discoveries of this kind which make pewter collecting so fascinating. Some of the best examples of American pewter are still mystery pieces, and more such are likely to turn up. The last word on pewter will probably not be written for some time.

It is the dream of most collectors to discover an authentic piece of native pewter made in the seventeenth century, but the chances of making such a find are so dim that the quest is usually only incidental to the pursuit of other pieces. The collector may be attracted by certain forms of pewter and specialize in porringers, tankards, or whale-oil lamps. Again, his chief interest may be in pewter made in a particular region or during a certain period. Or perhaps his main concern is the work of a single craftsman. Collecting pewter can take many forms.

Competition finally killed the pewter trade. The accidental discovery of Sheffield plate in the eighteenth century had done the pewterers no good and cheap china and glassware did even more harm. As these last caught the popular fancy, people gradually became contemptuous of pewter. It looked for a while as if the development of the silvery-white metal called in the trade "Britannia ware" would save the situation. Britannia is in reality nothing but a super grade of pewter made of tin, copper, and antimony. When first introduced about i 80o it was cast in molds, but to meet the popular demand for it the cheaper method of spinning and stamping it was adopted, and elaborate designs were used in imitation of the silversmiths. The discovery of electroplating in the nineteenth century marked the end.