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( Originally Published 1963 )
Pewter was more generally used than silver or brass in American households from Colonial days until about 1850. Yet enthusiastic collectors, who became legion during the 1950's, consider pieces made between 1810 and 1860 excellent finds. At that, there are hardly enough to go around and many collectors are satisfied with European-made pewter.
In Europe and England, pewter had been made for centuries when America was being settled. Yet here pewter became more popular than in any other country. American housewives evidently liked it and used it whether or not they could afford silver.
Pewter is duller, darker, and softer than silver. When new or after polishing, pewter has its own special luster. Unlike silver, which is a precious metal, pewter is an alloy made of several metals. Tin is the chief constituent, and other ingredients may be copper, bismuth, antimony, and lead in varying proportions.
Because pewter is so much softer than silver and brass, it can be bent, dented, and scratched easily. It also corrodes and develops tiny pockmarks. It melts if it is placed directly over heat. One reason early pieces are so scarce is that worn and badly scarred pewter was melted down and gleaming new things made from the old.
Britannia resembles pewter so closely that one can be mistaken for the other. It also is an alloy of tin, chiefly with some antimony and copper. Britannia was considered an improvement over pewter, not only because it was brighter in appearance (still not as gleaming as silver), but also because it did not bend as easily and was more durable.
The name britannia was natural since this alloy was originated in England. Its introduction to the United States was so successful that, after 1825, britannia for the most part replaced pewter.
Both pewter and britannia were in great demand for all sorts of household articles. Mugs, tankards and a variety of drinking vessels, measuring cups, pitchers, creamers and sugar bowls, plates and bowls of all sizes, salt and pepper shakers, and open salts were most common. Not uncommon were buttons and buckles, door latches, and picture frames.
Tankards were a notable output of the many pewterers who earned their living in New York City. These drinking vessels varied in the design of the cover, handle, terminal of the handle, and thumbpiece according to whether they were made by Frederick Bassett, William Kirby, Cornelius Bradford, Peter Young, or other pewterers whose names are still known. Frederick Bassett produced the largest tankards (31/2 pints) ever made in this country before the Revolution. One is displayed in the pewter collection at the Brooklyn Museum. A dolphin terminal on a handle was made only in New York City. So important was the New York Pewterers' Society that it marched in the parade celebrating the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788.
Porringers were popular for a variety of purposes until about 1850, which was much longer than this article remained in favor in Europe. The handle is likely to be a clue to where a porringer was made. Pierced or openwork handles were popular in New England, especially Rhode Island and Connecticut. The more handsome "flowered" handle, which was scrolled, was skillfully turned out by pewterers in New York. The Pennsylvania Germans favored a solid handle formed like a tab, whereas craftsmen in Newport, Rhode Island, for a time at least, turned out porringers with solid pear-shaped handles.
Small pear-shaped pewter teapots, which were made by Thomas Danforth Boardman and his brother Sherman Boardman in Hartford, Connecticut, in the early nineteenth century, are as prized by collectors as the teapots made by William Will in Philadelphia in the previous century. It would be unusual to find a complete tea set, but they were made. There are nineteenth-century coffeepots to be found, too, made to some extent wherever pewterers worked.
Candlesticks and chambersticks were as handsome as those made of silver. Chandeliers and sconces also were made of pewter, as were some of the earliest oil-burning lamps. Pewter also was considered sufficiently decorative to be used for inkstands.
Other pieces of pewter and Britannia followed the shape, size, and general styling of comparable silverware. Styles for candlesticks, teapots, and the like not only changed more slowly in America than in England but also were simplified here. American pewter, for example, was less likely to be engraved or otherwise decorated than English and European pieces.
Spoons were made in all sizes and for all purposes. There were cooking spoons and ladles, teaspoons, and small salt spoons. Sugar scoops are a delightful find and eminently usable.
Plates, spoons, and other tableware were made in one piece. "Teapots, tankards, measures, porringers, mustard pots, and other items that had to be cast in two or more pieces and soldered together became known as holloware, as were similar pieces in silver.
In this country it was not essential that pewter be marked by the maker, as it was in England. However, makers' marks were general here. Early pewterers copied various symbols common in England for hallmarks, but after the Revolution the eagle in various poses was adopted. Both the pewterer and, often, the place where he worked can be identified by the marks he used. Instead of identification, some pieces have a quality mark on the underside to indicate the grade of the metal alloy. Holloware made closer to 1850 often has the word "Britannia" or the initial B stamped on the underside in addition to the firm or maker's name and a number.
Some of the companies that first made pewter and britannia went on to make plated and sterling silver. The Meri-den Britannia Co. or Meriden B. Company of Meriden, Connecticut, made plated silver between 185? and 1898. Reed and Barton, a firm that still produces both sterling and plated silver, also made britannia ware during the nineteenth century.
A certain amount of pewter is still being made, although not for general household use. Authentic reproductions of eighteenth-century pieces also can be purchased.
The best way to identify genuinely old pewter is by its surface. The piece may look smooth but will feel rough when it is touched because it is bound to have become scratched from daily use. The surface also will be slightly uneven, since pewter is soft.
Unlike silver, pewter and britannia did not gain a patina with use and age. Although any that is found today undoubtedly will have been made no earlier than 1825 and perhaps as late as the 1860's, it certainly will have no luster and probably will be darkened. Some pitting and corrosion are as inevitable as dents. Such signs of use are as helpful as a maker's mark in authenticating age. When pewter and britannia were purchased a century and more ago, they were clear and burnished. There's no reason why pieces shouldn't be cleaned carefully to restore some of the original gleam.
Reaction to pewter is always definite. A person either likes it a lot or wouldn't have it in the house. This attitude seems to be as true of old as it is of modern pieces. Fortunately, enough people are interested in pewter to collect it. Thus any piece, however blackened and dented, will find a buyer. Because of collectors' interest during the 1950's, prices have been rather higher than might be expected.
Antique porringers sell for between $25 and $100, depending on condition, workmanship, type of handle, and the maker. A porringer that can be identified positively as having been made by the Boardmans in Hartford will be worth at least $50. Unmarked and unidentifiable ones, even with a crown handle, will be worth only about $25.
Teapots average between $30 and $75, depending on size, maker, and condition. An unmarked plate may sell for only $10, but marked ones may go as high as $50-an 8-inch Boardman plate should sell for $35 to $40; a plate by Bassett, who worked earlier, for $40 to $50. Bowls will bring higher prices.
Teaspoons can be valued at $3 to $4 each, tablespoons at $5 to $6. Small boxes for snuff are worth $10 or more, and even buttons may bring a dollar or more.