Pewter Offers Warmth and Tradition
Many collectors enjoy the warm patina and traditional appeal of pewter and in my mind it’s a good antique for Father’s Day. Why? Well, I associate pewter with men with muskets and large beer mugs!
Pewter is an alloy, made of tin, copper, lead and other metals. It was often preferred in the colonial lifestyle because it was cheaper than silver. However, it’s been around since the Middle Ages.
Pewter is perhaps most commonly pictured in the shape of tankards, mugs and simple dishware. There are certain broad eras of pewter design. According to Kovels’ American Antiques reference book, the 8-inch-plate era refers to the years 1750-1825 when undecorated 8-inch plates were made. Next is the coffeepot era, 1825-1850, when pewter was shaped into the common pieces made in silver.
American pewter began to be made about 1640. Our early ancestors copied the popular designs in England and therefore, Early American pewter is often identical to English of the same era. Generally, any American pewter dating to pre-1870s is considered rare. It seems that lots of Early American pewter was melted down during the Revolution for bullets, making pre-Revolutionary American pewter scarce indeed.
Pewter marks are referred to as touchmarks and identify if the item is English, American or Continental. Some marks include thistle, indicating Scottish pewter; fleur-de-lis or an angel with the word Paris, indicating French; St. Michael and the dragon or a Gothic B meaning Brussels.
Marks can be found on the back of antique pewter so beware of pieces that appear old, yet have a mark on the front rather than the back. There are books that detail the variety of old marks for the careful collector.
Pewter teapots were popular in years gone by and many of the oldest ones have wooden handles. Flagons, which are antique pitchers that look like a coffeepot, were used to pour wine or liquor and these can be found in pewter dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.
The coffeepot, too, has an interesting shape change over the years as it transformed from small to large, from round to pear-shape and then to the inverted pear, according to Kovels. The lighthouse coffeepot in pewter is the most famous design found in 19th century ware.
Another popular type of pewter collected by antique lovers is sadware. This heavy type of pewter was shaped into pieces like plates and trenchers (board for serving meat) from a single sheet of metal.
Traditionally, there are three grades of pewter: fine, for eating ware, with 96-99 percent tin, and 1-4 percent copper; trifle, also for eating and drinking utensils but duller in appearance, with 92 percent tin, 1-6 percent copper, and up to 4 percent lead; and lay or ley metal, not for eating or drinking utensils, which could contain up to 15 percent lead.
To test your pewter for lead content, Kovels’ suggests that you rub it on a white sheet of paper. The resulting mark clues you in to how much lead is in the pewter: If the mark is heavy and dark, there’s lots of lead; if it’s lighter, there’s more tin in the mix and if it’s silvery, then it’s the better quality pewter. Modern pewter mixes the tin with copper, antimony, and/or bismuth as opposed to lead.
Pewter was the chief tableware until the making and popularity of china grew, in the 19th century. Sometimes pewter hollowware is found in antique collections. This ware refers to items, like candlesticks, turned on a metal lathe.
Other antique pewter items include buttons, buckles and writing equipment. Since pewter is a soft metal, the one thing you won’t find is tools.
Today pewter is handcrafted by artists around the country and is shaped into artwork or antique replica designs.
Antique pewter though, is available at fine antiques shops and antique sales and as usual, it’s best to buy from a reliable dealer until you know the intricacies of this popular collectible.
For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing in care of this newspaper, Sunday News-Register, 1500 Main St., Wheeling, W.Va. 26003.