What You Always Wanted To Know About Pewter
But Were Afraid To Ask

By Don Herr
Click on any image to enlarge it.

Pewter is an alloy whose principal element is tin. Copper, lead, bismuth, zinc, and antimony added in varying amounts give the admixture its variable weight and hardness. As a rule, the larger the proportion of tin, the better quality of the pewter.

It was used in the home as well in the church. It was the common table ware of Colonial America in the 18th century and was used well into the 19th century. Nearly every conceivable form was made of pewter. Plates, basins, serving dishes, mugs, tankards, spoons, ladles, porringers, sugar bowls, tea pots, coffee pots, funnels, nursing bottles, measures, and even commodes and bedpans were used in the home. Graceful flagons, chalices, and patens were used in the church.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Fourteen molds were needed to produce the various parts needed to assemble this flagon.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Drum-shaped teapot made by William Will, Philadelphia. Worked 1764-98.

How was it made?

Most pewter objects were made by casting the melted alloy into molds, which were made of stone, clay and sand but most frequently of bronze, brass, and bell metal. The products of the molds were then trimmed, spun on a lathe, and soldered together to make the finished piece.  In the 19th century, drop presses powered by water and steam, were developed to stamp sheets of metal into forms. Powerful lathes spun thin sheets onto a pattern, taking the design of that pattern.

What is Britannia?

Britannia metal is a term for an alloy that is harder, thinner, and lighter in weight than pewter of an earlier time. It can be made into sheets for mass production.

What is flatware?

Plates, dishes, and basins, collectively know as flatware, were made in one mold.

What is hollowware?

Vessels such as flagons, tankards, mugs, chalices, beakers, and tea and coffeepots are called hollowware. They require multiple molds and the finished parts were soldered together to make the resultant form. The flagon illustrated in Figure 1 required fourteen molds soldered together to make the completed form. 

Figure 3

Figure 3.  The high band on the body of this quart mug by William Kirby, w.1760-93, is frequently found on pewter mugs made by New York City pewterers.

How old is pewter?

Pewter has been in use for several thousand years. The Egyptians, Greeks, and the Chinese were proficient in the art of making pewter. Roman pewter has been excavated in Britain, suggesting a pewter industry of reasonable size in the third and fourth centuries.

Are there regional differences?

Yes. Drum-shaped teapots made in the 18th century were popular in Philadelphia. (Figure 2). New York pewterers often used a high fillet as a decorative band to the bodies of mugs (Figure 3).

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 4, 5. Engraving is frequently found on pewter made in Beverly, Massachusetts. This coffeepot, made of sheet metal, was made by Israel Trask. It has an eagle in a shield engraved on its body.

Was pewter ever engraved?

Beverly, Massachusetts makers tastefully engraved their attractive coffeepots (Figures 4,5).

The Boardmans of Hartford, Connecticut decorated coffeepots, creamers and sugar bowls with matching engraving (Figures 6,7). 

Figure 6  Figure 7

Figure 6, 7. The Boardmans of Hartford, Connecticut
engraved coffeepots, creamers, and sugar bowls.

Figure 8

Figure 8. English teapots were made for export to the American market. John Langford, London, w. 1719-57 made this diminutive teapot having a wooden handle and finial.

What about English pewter?

British pewterers in London and the environs shipped tremendous amounts of pewter to Colonial ports such as Philadelphia, Boston and New York. And great quantities have survived. A few forms were made for export such as the John Langford teapot. (Figure 8).    

Figure 9

Figure 9. Candlestick holder, probably New England. c.1830.

Figure 10

Figure 10. The “flowered handle” porringer was a popular design used by Rhode Island pewterers such as Samuel Hamlin Jr of Providence. w. 1801-56

Figure 11

Figure 11. Mark of Samuel Hamlin Jr of Providence Rhode Island.

Figure 12

Figure 12. Tankard by John Will, New York City. w. 1752-74. In America, the “acanthus leaf” design on the handle was used only by the Will family of pewterers.  

What should I collect?

Collect whatever pleases you. Some folks collect lighting such as candlestick holders (Figure 9) and lamps. Others collect forms such as porringers (Figures 10,11), mugs, tankards (Figure 12), and various sizes of basins and plates. Regional collectors might focus on Boston, Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia or southern pewter.  

Can I get lead poisoning from pewter?

NO! The amount of lead in pewter is negligible

But I want to use it.

You can. Just don't put it in the dishwasher. It's melting point is 400-500 degrees F. Candlesticks enhance the table setting. Basins can be used to contain fruit, decorations and the like. Mugs, tankards, plates, dishes and chargers can be used on the table. Just don't scratch them with utensils. Enjoy the soft sheen of pewter on your mantle or in a cupboard.

Where can I buy pewter?

As in any collecting field, read books, handle pewter, and learn as much as you can and become a knowledgeable collector. Attend antiques shows and auctions. And above all, buy from a reputable dealer. Preferably one that specializes and handles a lot of pewter and use their expertise and knowledge to avoid buying fakes and spurious pieces.   

Is there a collectors club?

Yes. The Pewter Collectors' Club of America is composed of over 400 individuals and institutions. Membership offers the opportunity to learn about pewter, its manufacture, makers, and marks. American, British, and continental pewter are included. Dues are $60.00 annually and include the Bulletin, a semiannual scholarly, well-illustrated publication and semiannual newsletters that include information about regional meetings, auction prices and current news both here and abroad. Link: pewtercollectorsclub.org. Now on Facebook.