American pewter

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April, 2013 |

Pewter is effectively the mirror alloy of bronze: the lat­ter is an alloy of copper with a little tin, while pewter is the result of smelting tin with a little copper. The large tin content imparts the silver-gray color-indeed the more tin, the more silvery the appearance. Pewter has been worked from ancient times-the earliest Roman examples date from the mid-third century-and from the Middle Ages on, it was a staple of metalwork in the British Isles and Europe, and used as an attractive, sturdy, moderately affordable alternative to the various earthenwares used for plates, drinking vessels, and culinary utensils.

Regulated by the Worshipful Company of Pewterers beginning in the fifteenth century, pew­terers in England produced the alloy in three grades: "fine," a hard alloy of mostly tin with up to 2 percent copper; "trifle" or "trifling," which was "fine" with the addition of up to 4 percent lead; and "lay" or "ley," a softer, cheaper alloy incorporating up to 15 percent lead. Various other combina­tions were alloyed on the Continent. Bismuth was sometimes added to enhance workability, and in the seventeenth century antimony was introduced to replace the lead, which strength­ened the alloy further, and enabled it to take a higher polish approximating silver. This last pew­ter alloy was often called Britannia metal and was used increasingly in the nineteenth century.

From the early seventeenth century, a great deal of English pewter was exported to the American colonies, and most of our extant colonial era pieces are actually English. But though prices for old American pewter far outstrip those for eighteenth-century English pewter, many pieces remain accessible for new collectors, especially early and mid-nineteenth-century ones.

The craft and some methods

Pewter's low melting point-roughly 425 degrees Fahrenheit-is ideal for cast­ing in plaster, brass, or bronze molds. Pewterers cast a wide array of objects- tankards and flagons, tea- and coffeepots, creamers and sugar bowls, beakers and goblets and their ecclesiastical cousins, chalices. Flatwares, such as plates, chargers, and spoons, were cast or raised by hammering from a flat sheet against a shaped mold. Another method, used especially with Britannia, was spinning, in which a disk or tube of pewter was shaped by rotating it on a lathe against a shaped form.

American pewter is much scarcer than the British-made imports because the American colonies had no natural tin supplies. Indeed, most colonial pewterers earned their living by repairing worn or broken English pieces, or smelting and recasting them altogether, a fact that prompts Haddam Neck, Connecticut, dealer Wayne Hilt to quip that "pewter was the first American recyclable because so much of it was made from old imports."

Though some American and British pieces bear makers' marks, many do not. Hilt notes that it is "actually very difficult to distinguish an unmarked American piece from an unmarked British one because American molds were often British made." And to add further challenges to the identification process, "a pewterer often bequeathed his molds to his children, who left them to their children, so several generations of pewter­ers would produce identical pieces."

On American pewter, ornament is generally restrained, its appeal resting on simple lines and fine proportions. Among the greatest American pewter masters were New Yorker John Will and his two sons William and Henry. A fine example from the Will dynasty is the quart-size tankard in Figure 4, made by Henry Will, who worked in New York City and, during the Revolution, in Albany. The high quality of the metal he used gives the piece a warm lustrous appearance. Hilt is offering this superbly graceful specimen for $22,500, its fine condition only com­promised by rubbing of the touchmark. "Probably fewer than a thousand American tankards survive today," Hilt says, "hence the desirability and high price of this one."

Porringers were a standard form of Anglo-American silver and pewter, much of their ornamental appeal residing in their elaborate handles, or ears. The one in Figure 2 is by Samuel E. Hamlin, who worked in Providence, Rhode Island, from about 1801 to 1856. Unusual for the relatively small bowl, it has a vigorously pierced handle and bears Hamlin's eagle-and-anchor mark, attributes that, with its over­all fine condition, price it at $1,175.

As coffee and tea were central to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American life, tea- and coffeepots can provide anchors to any new collection. Figure 1 is a superb coffeepot by George Richardson, who worked succes­sively in Boston, Cranston, and Providence, Rhode Island, from around 1818 through at least 1845. Keenly attuned to prevail­ing fashion, he produced many styles of tea- and coffeepots. Apparently he developed this design (which Hilt refers to as "C" style because most examples are stamped with that let­ter on the bottom) in Cranston around 1839. The graceful curve of the well-proportioned spout is complemented by the substantial C-curves of the cast handle, which suggest the emerging rococo revival style developed during the reign of Louis-Philippe in France. In fine condition, it is priced at $635.

The appeal of restrained lines and planes is exempli­fied by the rare miniature panel-sided teapot in Figure 3. Dating from the mid-nineteenth century, its shape possibly inspired by old Dutch or Chinese export porcelains, the pot is unmarked; Hilt thinks it originated either in the shop of Dorchester, Massachusetts, pewterer and silversmith Roswell Gleason or in that of Leonard, Reed, and Barton in Taunton, which became Reed and Barton in 1840. Its rarity and fine condition price it at $750. "Standard size panel pots of the same era are quite common and sell for a third of this price," Hilt says.

Use and maintenance

To use or not to use old pewter is often debated because of the possible lead content in some pieces. Hilt enjoys using many of his pieces, commenting that "there's nothing like the flavor of a fine, dark, micro-brewed beer drunk from a pewter tan­kard." Nevertheless discretion is the better part of collecting valor. If you do use certain pieces, be sure to wash out any dregs of citrus, wine, vinegar, tea, or coffee as their acids can cause pitting.

Unlike silver, pewter takes a long time to tarnish, but Hilt warns that "the darkening and scaling of pewter is akin to rust on an antique car." Nonetheless, he says that cleaning or polishing is best left to professionals as commercial metal cleaners can harm the surface. If you must, hand wash your old pewter in a little soap and water, then dry thoroughly with a soft cloth. Be very careful of the black handles of tea and cof­feepots, which are often lacquered, painted, or varnished, as the surface can flake. Never place pewter vessels in the oven, on a hotplate, or near an open flame- they melt!

 

Interested in learning more? 
"The Care of Pewter" by John W. Poole (November, 1938)
"Demonstration on Pewter Making" by L.M.A. Roy (September, 1949)

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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