( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE is a charm about old pewter that is well-nigh irresistible to the collector of antiques, its odd shapes, mellow tints, and, above all, its rarity, luring one in its pursuit. In the days when it was in general use, — after the decline in favor of the wooden trencher, — it was but little valued, and our forbears quaffed their foaming, home-made ale from pewter tankards, and ate their meals from pewter dishes with little thought of the prominence this ware would one day attain, or the prices it would command. To-day pewter represents a lost art, and the tankards and plates and chargers which our ancestors used so carelessly are now pursued with untiring energy, and, if secured, are treasured as prizes of priceless worth.
Intrinsically, the metal is of little value, being nothing more than an alloy of tin and lead, with sometimes a sprinkling of copper, antimony, or bismuth, but historically it is hugely interesting.
Like many other old-time features, records of its early history are scanty, affording but little knowledge of its origin, though proving beyond a doubt that it was in use in very early times. When it was first used in China and Japan, — those countries to which we are forced to turn for the origin of so many of the old industries, — it is impossible to ascertain, but it is certain that pewter ware was made in China two thousand years ago, and there are today specimens of Japanese pewter in England, known to be all of eleven hundred years old, these latter pieces being very like some shown in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Some old chroniclers claim that the ware was used by the Phoenicians and early Hebrews, and all agree that it was manufactured, in certain forms, in ancient Rome. Proof positive of this fact was gleaned some years ago, when quantities of old pewter seals of all shapes and sizes were discovered in the county of Westmoreland, in England, where they had evidently been left by the Roman legions centuries before. It is indeed deplorable that, owing to their making excellent solder, all these seals should have been destroyed by enterprising tinkers in the neighborhood.
As early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, pewter was produced in quantities in France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, and a very little in Italy and Spain. The year 1550 marked the period of the most showy development in the first-named country, of which Francis Briot was the most celebrated worker. His most noted productions were a flagon and salver, with figures, emblems, marks, and strapwork. These exquisite pieces were cast in sections, joined together, and then finished in the most careful manner, in delicate relief. Briot was followed by Gasper Enderlein, Swiss, and by the year 1600 the Nuremberg workers entered the field with richly wrought plates and platters. France continued to hold high rank in pewter manufacture until 1750, after which time the quality of her output considerably deteriorated.
In the sixteenth century the trade sprang up in Scotland, many excellent pieces of the ware being produced here, and during the seventeenth century Dutch and German pewter came to the fore, being considered, during this period, the best made. Nuremberg and Ausberg were the centers of the industry in Germany, while in Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow appear to have been the chief trade centers. The ware made in Spain never seems to have attained any great degree of perfection, and records of its progress in this country are extremely scarce. Barcelona seems to have been the center of the industry, but just when or where the craft had its inception, research has been unable to disclose. Certain it is that no trace of any corporation or guild has been found prior to the fifteenth century.
English pewter dates back as far as the tenth century, though few pieces are now in existence that antedate the seventeenth century. Here, as in other European countries, the ware was at first made solely for ecclesiastical purposes, its manufacture for household use not becoming popular until many years later. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, the ware gradually grew in importance through northern Europe, though domestic pewter was used only by the clergy and nobility up to the fourteenth century. Just when it became popular for table and kitchen use is not definitely known, though it is certain that it sup-planted wooden ware some time in the fifteenth century.
Pewter reached the height of its popularity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though its use for household purposes continued throughout the eighteenth and the first part of the nineteenth centuries. In the sixteenth century the artistic quality of the ware was greatly improved, for by an act of James VI the ware was divided into two grades, the best to be marked with a crown and hammer, and the second with the maker's name. Specimens of this century are to-day extremely scarce, those few examples that do remain being for the most part found in museums or in old English castles, where they have remained in the same family from generation to generation. No doubt, specimens would have been more plentiful had not the greater part of the church plate in England and Scotland been destroyed during the Reformation.
After 1780 pewter was but little used among the wealthy classes, except in their kitchens and servants' quarters, where it held sway for a considerable length of time. In fact, in some of the larger establishments, it continued to be used regularly until within the last thirty-five years, and even now it is used in the servants' hall in two or three of the large old country houses. It lingered longest in the taverns and inns, and in the London chop-houses, being used in the last named until they were forced out of business through the introduction of coffee palace and tea rooms.
English pewter differs materially from that made in other countries, the workmen employing designs characterized by a sturdiness and sedate dignity that raised the ware above that made in other lands. Almost every conceivable domestic utensil was made of pewter as well as garden ornaments, and it is interesting to note, in connection with the latter, that several urns were designed by the brothers Adam.
The history of pewter making in England might almost be said to be that of the London Guild or Worshipful Company of Pewterers, so closely is the ware allied with it. For a long time this company or guild controlled the manufacture and sale of the ware in England, and during the days of its greatest influence it did much to improve the quality. At one time it attempted to make general the employment and recording or marks, but the rule was not enforced, and an excellent opportunity of insuring the exact date of manufacture of a certain piece was thus lost.
Several private touch marks were registered at Pewterers Hall, but these, together with important records that the company had compiled, were destroyed in the great London fire of 1666. Very few pieces now in existence bear any of these touch marks, though occasionally a piece will be found that shows the regulation London Guild quality mark, a rose with a crown. The touch mark was the mark of the maker. This was generally his name alone, though sometimes his name was combined with some device, like an animal or flower.
Scotland boasted a guild at Edinburgh that at one time enjoyed a fame second only to that of the celebrated London Company. Touch plates of the pewterers that were registered here are no longer in existence, and, indeed, much of the pewter made in this country bears no mark at all. The usual hallmark was a thistle and a crown, though there were several local marks that were frequently used, which are sometimes found on Scotch pieces.
France, too, had its guilds, but they were abolished by Turgot on the ground that the free right to labor was a sacred privilege of humanity. Gradually the influence of all the guilds was less keenly felt, and in time the majority were abolished. After this the quality and use of pewter steadily declined, and with the coming into favor of china and other ware, pewter grew to be considered old-fashioned, and its use was discontinued during the first years of the nineteenth century.
The old-time metal played a prominent part in the first colonial households in America, it being in many cases the only available ware, but after a time, as the population and strength of the young colonies increased, it had to give way, as in England, to the introduction and steadily increasing popularity of china. During the seventeenth century several English pewterers came to America to find employment, settling principally in Boston, Salem, and Plymouth County, and during the eighteenth century the manufacture of the ware here became quite common. It is interesting to note that the greater part of the American-made pieces bear the name of the maker.
English and Continental pewter was also extensively used here, and, in consequence, American collections of the present include specimens from these countries. Most of the pieces now preserved belong to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, though there are some few pieces which are of earlier manufacture.
The value of pewter, like all other antiques, varies, and a piece is really worth what one can obtain for it. In England, the highest prices are paid for sixteenth-century pewter, while in our own country the product of the eighteenth century is that most sought after, and the best prices are paid for pieces of this period. Ecclesiastical pewter is rare here, and therefore is valuable, but it does not hold such high favor in the collector's regard as do the simple pieces that once graced the quaint dressers in colonial homes.
The fad for pewter has been productive of much imitation ware. This is especially true of certain types which are particularly popular, and, indeed, were it not for this demand, it would hardly pay to imitate the old metal, even at the prices now paid for the same. It costs considerable to make up spurious bits that are almost entirely like the old-time pieces, in composition, and, besides, they must be put through several processes to make them look old. Consequently, it is safe to assume that at the present time the number of imitation pieces on the market is comparatively small, and in this country there are really few pieces that are entirely counterfeit. To be sure, plain pieces of the genuine metal are sometimes ornamented to increase their value, but lately collectors seem to regard plain pieces with the greatest favor, and this form of counterfeiting will no doubt soon disappear.
Today, in America, there is one manufacturer,and perhaps more, who is reviving some of the original forms and producing pewter reproductions which are being put on the market as such. For the modern colonial dining-room these are especially attractive, serving in every particular the purpose of decoration, but to the collector they are of no interest.
America boasts of several fine collections of this ware, especially in the New England states, where the chief ports for the trade were located. The Bigelow collection at Boston includes, besides plates and platters, rare bits of odd design, many of them characterized by markings. One such piece is a hot-water receptacle, showing a shield decoration on which are marked the initials "H. H. D." and the date "1796." The lid is ornamented with two lines and the initials "R. G." Several quaint lamps are other prized possessions in this collection, some of them made about 1712, and most of them of American manufacture. One of them, the smallest of the group, is marked "N. Y. Molineux." Tankards of the "tappit hen" type are also preserved here, though they are not precisely the same shape as the measures of Scotch make which went by that name ; other pieces included in the collection are cream jugs, milk pitchers, spoons, forks, a water urn, and several odd tankards.
Equally as interesting is the Caliga collection at Salem. Here are to be seen quantities of this rare old ware, worked up into almost every conceivable device, and several of the pieces are numbered among the choicest in the country. A squatty little teapot with wooden handle is among the most interesting specimens, and its history is in keeping with its quaintness. It was secured by Mr. Caliga in a little German town during his residence abroad, and soon after it came into his possession, it was much sought after by a collector, who offered a large sum of money for its acquirement. Mr. Caliga refused to part with it, and later he learned that it was indeed a very rare piece, being a part of a set which the collector was endeavoring to obtain for the Duke of Baden, who owned one of the three pieces, the would-be purchaser having the second. This teapot has for a hallmark an angel ; a quaint sugar bowl of like design, also in this collection, shows a crown and bird.
An odd pewter lamp, known as a Jewish or Seven Days' lamp, is included in this collection, the receptacle for oil being in the lower portion.
There are two large pewter plates, also, one of which has the royal coat of arms in the center, and is surrounded by the whorl pattern. These plates measure about twenty inches across, and one has the hallmark of three angels on the back.
Perhaps the rarest bit of pewter in existence to-day is that owned by a Massachusetts lady. It is of Japanese manufacture, and is a family heirloom, through generations back. It first came into possession of the owner's ancestors in 1450; even at that date it had a history, and, indeed, its battered sides speak eloquently and forcibly of a past. It is said to have been the possession of a French nobleman, who, for some cause or other, was compelled to flee from his native land, and who sought refuge in England, where he met and married an English girl. The precious bit remained with his descendants until the year above mentioned, when the last of his race, dying without issue, bequeathed the old relic to his dearest friend, of whom its present owner is a direct descendant.
But whatever its type and origin, the old ware is always interesting. To be sure, even at its best it is plain, relying on its form for its pleasing appearance, but no other metal better repays its owner for the care expended upon it. No doubt it costs an effort or two to keep it bright and shining, but who does not feel repaid for the time and energy expended, when the slow gleams of silver-like hue that gradually appear on the surface greet one in appreciation, like the smile of an old friend !