Old Pewter Part 1

THE almost complete disappearance of from the field of household utensils for apewter space of fifty years or more, and then the attempt to revive it recently for use in country houses, forms an interesting page in the history of antiques. It brings to the front again a set of articles which were graceful in shape and delightful in colour; and which, in addition, were not so valuable as to tempt the cupidity of the burglar.

It is not possible, in the limited space here given to go very deeply into the ancient history of pewter. It was used by the Romans during their occupancy of England; and some of their old seals have been found within the past few years in certain places in England, and melted up by tinkers for solder, a desecration which it is marvellous no one attempted to stop. In fact the presence of mines of tin and of lead are held responsible for bringing to the shores of Britain the Phoenician o trader, and had much to do with the Roman occu pation of this island. For use at home the Romans transported vast quantities of tin from Cornwall, and France got her share as well as Holland. China, Japan, Italy, Holland, Germany, France, and Eng land were all workers in this metal, and the Oriental" treatment of it" was extremely ornamental. In the Old Pewter Book it has been possible to show examples

I of these works, but in this chapter shall confine myself chiefly to pieces made in England and a few made on the Continent.

The composition of English pewter contained differ ent proportions of tin and other metals, the use for which the object was intended governing the amount of lead used. For instance, the highest quality of "Plate Pewter " contained no lead at all, but 1 parts of tin, 8 of antimoiry, and 4 of copper. On the other hand, " Ley Metal," the cheapest and commonest kind, contained 80 % of tin and 20 % of lead. All the other qualities, and there were many, lay between these two extremes. Common pewter, or " Trifle," from which small objects and toys were made, contained 82 % of tin and 18 % of antimony. The metal used for salts and ewers was composed of 90 % of tin and 10 % of lead.

Tin alone is not so durable or ductile as lead; and when the two metals are combined they will not shrink so greatly as either taken by itself. This shrinking is a quality which has to be considered when the article to be made has to be cast in a mould. The fusibility of pewter made it of great use to goldsmiths in taking the casts of medals or other small articles which they desired their customers to approve before the final casting of the object in gold, silver, or bronze.

The best quality of early pewter was made of tin, with as much brass as it could take up, the proportion being about one to four. This quality, which was known as " fine," was used for many small and choice articles, as well as chargers and church vessels. A less fine quality, in which the proportion was also four to one, consisted of tin and lead; and in this were made candlesticks, bowls, and pots. All public house vessels, such as mugs and tankards, had a still greater amount of lead in them, and were often called " black since they tarnished so easily.

The method of making pewter has allways been the same; and upon the nature of the object depended whether it was cast, hammered, or both, and then put upon a lathe and burnished. The first things that a would-be pewterer had to acquire was a set of moulds; and these being made of gun-metal were very costly and out of the reach of many. So, very early, the pewterers came together into guilds or companies; and they owned in common sets of moulds which were loaned to the members without charge, as was the cus tom in York, England, or were rented for a small charge, as was the usage in most of the English towns. Not only was gun-metal used for moulds, but plaster- of-paris, wood, iron, and sand, even, were used.

If possible the article was cast in one piece; and this was the case with such small articles as spoons, salts, porringers, and bleeding-dishes, tasters, etc. When tankards or large ewers with bulging sides were made it became necessary to cast them in pieces, solder them together, and then finish them off; but in such pieces the joints are nearly allways visible. Handles of all descriptions were generally soldered on. though in the case of small " eared " dishes, as the porringers were called, it was forbidden by the rules of the guild to solder them on; and those aaIio were detected in this practice were fined and reprimanded.

Not many tools were needed in this trade, and none of them were intricate or very costly. After the moulds, in order of importance came the lathe, the motive power of which was a boy or man known as a " turn-wheel," while the parts of the lathe were a head-stock, tail- stock, and simple mandrel." " The Worshipful Com pany of Pewterers in England go back as far as 1348 in their records. The French had societies even earlier, since in 1295 Lyons was famous for the quality and character of her pewter ware; and by 1300 there were many famous men at work in Paris avIio furnished royalty with their necessary kitchen equipment. In England there was less precious metal and more pewter even among the high and mighty in the land. In both countries the pewter workmen were divided into classes which were known as "" made pots and vessels for liquids, Hollow-ware men, aaIio

"Sad-ware " men, aa-Iio made plates and chargers (large platters), and "Triflers," aa-Iio made the little objects like salts, medals, beggars' tokens, and toys. Plates and saucers, to be up to the regulations of the guild, were to be hammered, and you will find the mallet marks on the under side.

The demand for pewter vessels, which crowded out those of wood and born, and which in their turn have been displaced by pottery and porcelain, grew apace. As early as 1474 the marking of pewter to show it was up to the proper standard of purity began, and that which was tested and found below this was marked with a broad, arrow, and consigned to the melting-pot, in which it had to be united with new metal and recast.

All the great prelates had prodigious stores of pewter, jugs, basins, tankards, measures, candlesticks, mugs, and salts. The table pewter came in what were known as " and which consisted of " 12 platters, 12 dishes, 12 saucers; and fashion, or else with broad or narrow brims and bought by the pound, which is now valued at sevenpence or peradventure at This is what Harrison wrote in 1557, concerning what was found on the tables of the middle classes. As may be inferred, pewter uten sils were pretty well distributed Over the kingdom where, a century before, they had been confined to the houses of the wealthy. Mam- regulations as to the exact size and weight of the vessels were"

Company," also framed by the Wor shipful and those that offended were heavily fined, in some cases being debarred from the prh-ileges of the company. The " touch-mark," as it was called, was another method used to keep up the high quality of pewter; and in 1564 the rose and crown bad become so well known and important a mark that the following rule was framed regarding it.

Also it is agreed that euery one of the saide felowship that makith any warre shall set his owne marke thereon. And that no man shall geue for his proper marck or touch, the Rose and crown wt lettrs or otherwise, but only to whome it is geuen by the felowship. Nor that no man of the saide Craft shall geue one anothers marck nother wth lettrs nor otherwise, but euery one to geue a sondry marck such one as shalbe alowed by the maister and wardens for the tyme beinge vpon payne of for- faite and paye for euery tyme offendinge to the Crafte's box xiijs. iiijd."

The pewterers tried hard to keep all the business in their Own hands and prevent the sale of goods by hawkers. Any member who sold ware to pedlars or hawkers was to be fined five pounds, a large sum in those days; and in one or two cases where a member of the guild was detected in this business his shop was closed, and he was not allowed to open it again. No other merchants were allowed to sell pewter ware in their shops, and even the goldsmiths were enjoined from having it. When silver vessels became more com mon the Pewterers Company petitioned the king to prevent this, and to make all taverns and ordinaries, at least, use pewter vessels only.

One great branch of the business was the putting of lids on pottery jugs; and in 1552 it was agreed that every week the jugs so lidded should be brought in for inspection, and the mark of the pewterer should be put on the inside of the lid. Later this rule was altered, and it was set down that the maker's mark should be set on the outside of the lid, together with the guild mark. Apparently the maker did not have the privilege of marking his Own pots, for in 1553 it was ordered by the masters and wardens of the company that John Curtys should have " ffor markyng of every dosyn of stone potte whosesoever brought them to marck one ffarthing."

Table of contents


The Collector's Manual by N. Hudson Moore, Amy Richards. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906.

© Furniture Ferret 2023