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There is no real use nowadays for these pewter platters, bowls and tankards, for ware of other and better metal has taken their place. But in the days when interiors of Tudor and Jacobean and early Colonial style were as "modern" as overstuffed furniture is today, pewter took the place of china and silver in all but the very wealthy households. Today no ensemble of furniture in the simpler woods and forms of those times, or their modern reproductions, is complete without some pieces of this ancient ware to give the proper decorative note.
The making of pewter is one of the abandoned crafts of the world. It is not a lost art, for the formulas of its composition are well known, and good pewter can still be made. But no one would use pewter in his household now. A hundred years ago this softly gleaming gray metal was superseded by britannia metal and Sheffield plate. These in turn were displaced by lectro-plated ware, by china and by glass.
There is still a wealth of old pewter obtainable. One should, however, buy from reliable dealers, for reproductions masquerading as original old pieces may be sold to unsuspecting purchasers. These copies are sometimes made from the original molds and then adorned with the look of age and a rare maker's mark to deceive the unwary.
Almost any kind of table or kitchen ware may be discovered among old examples of pewter. The owner of a few pieces bought for the Colonial dresser or the old fireplace mantel is sometimes intrigued into trying to accumulate a whole "garnish" of pewter. This almost obsolete word denotes a set of twelve platters, twelve dishes and twelve saucers.
Pewter is a composition of tin alloyed with copper or lead. Various grades of quality were recognized in the old days, and there was a marked distinction between "fine" and "common" pewter. A popular idea that silver was one of the essential ingredients of the best pewter is erroneous. In very old pewter traces of silver may often be found; but this infinitesimal quantity was an accident. Silver is sometimes found with lead, in the natural state, and in those days the smelting of lead ore was not effective enough to eliminate all of the more precious metal.
American pewter is generally much simpler in design than that once made in Europe. Yet in almost every instance the product of these early American pewterers is fine in line and artistic in proportion. Silverware undoubtedly served as patterns for pewter at first, but later certain traditional forms in the baser metal were followed. Many of these early examples that have come down to us carry a mark, or "touch," denoting the quality and the maker. It is difficult to determine the date of a piece, however, for many pieces marked with an eagle, a popular American mark, fail to show the maker's name.
Considering the once widespread use in America, one would find a much larger number of pieces today if the Revolutionary War had not occurred. Many a bullet fired in that struggle by the Continental troops was made in patriot households by melting down pewter plates, trenchers and bowls. An ironical event of those days was the melting of the pewter statue of George III that adorned Bowling Green in New York.
Much foreign-made pewter was used in the Colonies, for pewter was a universal household metal in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Interest ing examples of Dutch, French, German and English ware may still be found. The supply of authentic old pewter is today augmented by importations of ancient plates, bowls and tankards.