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( Originally Published 1940 )
Pewter is an alloy of copper and tin. It is of considerable antiquity as a metal, probably having been discovered at about the same time as bronze, for the two metals are approximately the reverse in components. A good grade of bronze can be made from 90% copper and 10% tin, while an excellent grade of pewter can be made from 90% tin and 10% copper.
Although the major element of pewter is always tin it is sometimes alloyed with antimony and bismuth in addition to copper. Cheaper and more malleable varieties contain lead, and the formulae for pewter are nearly as numerous as pewterers.
Pewter ware, since antiquity, has developed its forms in direct imitation of pottery, bronze, wood, etc., having no special or distinctive forms of its own.
Pewter is cast, beaten, engraved, raised, turned, and planished. The latter method is that of hammering lightly to a smooth contour over a rounded surface. In mediaeval times it was always cast in smooth, perfectly finished, expensive brass molds. During the Renaissance, sand molds were used which involved a lengthy finishing process to smooth the pitted surface. During Colonial times both brass and sand molds were used, in addition to the more common mold of iron.
Perhaps no other popular substance in craft history has ever performed such a sudden and complete disappearance. The third quarter of the 19th century abolished pewter almost as an eraser wipes clean a slate. Cheap silverplate and the easy production of the false china, technically called "boneware," were responsible.
In its hey-day, pewter was a commodity of the middle class, for the very poor continued to use wood and the very rich used silver. But even for the upper middle class it was a symbol of elegance, and it was only well along in the 19th century that it fell to the lowly position of being regarded as "kitchen ware."
Prior to 1750 the records give us the names of about 18 American pewterers. These men were located in the great commercial centers, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem. Actually no really authentic piece of American pewter has been found which may be attributed to this period.
The earliest lists of household possessions, and of things which Colonial governors suggested new arrivals should bring with them, do not mention pewter. Later lists begin to mention pewter objects and it was probably at about this time that the active making of pewter began in America. The manufactures of this period consisted largely of salt cellars, spoons, trenchers, platters, tankards, and porringers.
To those who study pewter, the period from 1750 to 1825 is known as the "eight inch plate era." Simple, well-made, undecorated plates of that diameter made up one of the major outputs of American pewterers at this time.
Some ninety or more pewterers are registered as of this period. Of these, twenty-four were in New York City; sixteen in Philadelphia; ten in Boston; six each in Baltimore, Mary land and Taunton, Massachusetts. Hartford, Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island had four apiece. There were others in Bucks County and Germantown, Pennsylvania; Newport, Rhode Island; and New London, Norwich, Waterbury, and Rocky Hill, Connecticut.
There were no "great" pewterers. It was not only a humble craft but also one in which existed little possibility for innovation. A few names frequently mentioned in the "eight inch plate era" are William Will, of Philadelphia; Henry Will, of New York City; William Elsworth, "Pewterer and Coroner," of New York City; Frederick and Francis Bassett of the same place, and most especially, the Danforths of Connecticut. If any deserve the accolade of "great American pewterers," it is the Danforths. There were ten of them, in all, engaged in the making of pewter from before the American Revolution up until 1836.
The twilight of pewter, 1825 to 1 845, is known as the "Coffeepot era." The robust tankard and trencher were no more. Pewter had begun to imitate its expensive neighbor, silver. Pewter does not lend itself well to ornateness or delicacy of any kind. It is at its best in terms of solidity and simplicity. The simple pewter tankard is probably the most beautiful of all its forms.
In this final period, among other fancy articles including teapots and picture-frames, the big production of pewterers was the coffee-pot. A few men achieved a not unworthy rank through the wisdom of retaining in these more complex objects, the old ideals of simplicity, directness, and a decent respect for their material. Well conceived coffee-pots by such men as Israel Trask, (1825-1842), R. Dunham, and Henry Graves, of about the same time, deserve to take their places among the host of other vital American craft creations.
Little can be said of the American aspects of pewter, even as regards the usual quality of added simplicity. The pewterers of England and the Netherlands had long been distinguished throughout the world for their strict simplicity and avoidance of decorated surfaces. After the adoption of the nation shield, in 1789, many pewterers used various forms of the eagle as a part of their trade-mark.