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By Melinda L. Wilson
Certified Appraiser and Consultant
Most people don't think much of pewter today, but one must remember the importance it played in every day life prior to the late 19th century. What is pewter? Pewter is an alloy comprised of mainly tin. The parts brake down to approximately 95% tin, 1% copper, 2% lead and 2% antimony or 2% antimony and 2% bismuth.
In America, the Northeast had the largest group of pewter craftsmen. Approximately 500 of theses craftsmen were known and had most probably immigrated to America from England. As the continent grew, many of them moved south to accommodate the new settlers. Most were located in the cities due to the fact of supply and demand. Since they had to meet the needs of a variety of wares, pewter was cast in a mold of brass or bronze, which was very expensive at the time. They learned how to take a mold and use parts of it to create other pieces. An example would be the body of a teapot could also be the body of the sugar bowl and creamer. By doing this, they could offer a full range of pieces without having the expense of buying separate molds.
In English cities, there were guilds that controlled the production and quality of the pewter. The American craftsmen had no guilds but marked most of their pewter pieces. The character of the marks generally follows along the English style. In England, they were required to use their names or initials on all pieces. Sometimes they went further by adding "Superfine Hard Metal". In order to compete with the English market, the American craftsmen would put their name or initials on the pieces and sometimes included the word "London" or "From Old England". After the Revolutionary War, they changed the above to "Liberty" or an American Eagle.
At the end of the 18th century, competition from the silver plated wares and ceramics began to grow because they were attractive and inexpensive and more readily available than in earlier times. Pewter makers then added more antimony to make the pewter shiny and appear to look more like silver. They called this stronger metal, Britannia. But the decline in pewter popularity grew and eventually gave way to electroplating.
How does one distinguish between "good", "better" and "best" among types of pewter? This is generally subjective and depends on the fashion of the collector. But to make it simple, there are certain criteria a collector should follow. The most important of these are proportion, clarity of outline, vigor of ornament and the success with which the ornament is integrated into the form of the object.
Today pewter is one of the hottest collectibles in the market. I continually find pieces in homes where the owner doesn't really care for the piece and has no knowledge of its origin. It's usually dirty and put up in some dark place. When I tell them to clean it up, look for the maker's mark, and then go to the library and research, they begin to take an interest. I bet you've got some sitting around as well. If things have been passed down in the family, you might want to take a closer look because you may have... "another man's treasure". Happy Hunting!