Thomas Dale Company BlogWe get asked many questions about pewter over the years, so we decided to present this blog to address those questions.
Pewter has been a part of civilized man for over 560 years now, making it a mainstay in the American life style since day we first colonized here. At the Thomas Dale Company, pewter is the passion that drives our business, be it spun or cast, each piece is inevitably hand made in one form or another, just as it was since its inception. Older and modern pieces, each style of collecting has a broad support base, because of its unique facet in time, history and beauty. Pewter has quickly become preferred over silver because of its beauty, low maintenance and cost. It is a solid alloy not a plating, so its beauty is more than skin deep.
Our store receives many questions about pewter, so we have opened this blog up to address many the questions asked and discover your passion for pewter.
My passion for pewter began with a single tankard. I owned it at a time of great turmoil in my life, my mid-twenties. There was something special, comforting and grounding, about this simple piece that drew me to it, and to mean so much to me. As my son Erik came into his mid-twenties, I thought of my life at his age and what my pewter tankard meant to me.
I had long since lost my pewter tankard and went searching for one for my son. I noticed pewter's presence was sorely missing from the market place.
I was at a cross road in my career and could think of no better passion to re-kindle and fill my life with than pewter.
To wake up every day and see such beauty, and share it with the others is a blessing.
The Heart of Our Passion of Pewter The Pewtersmith
Lost to many but not to some.
As many a hand touches a piece of pewter one feels its smooth cool surface and weight.
As many an eye takes in the beauty of its form and lose themselves as they gaze deep into its reflective lustre.
There and in its content, its worth may end for many, but begin for others.
As my hand touches a piece of pewter, I feel a thousand hands, touch back.
Hear so many thoughts as hours spent and into each piece pride had went.
My mind sees what my eyes miss, the labour and journey of a thousand lives, whose knowledge lay in the hands that made this sole piece.
The countless many to be made, for royalty and common, and yet not one more important than the other, why?
Each was held to the standard of pride; of all that had been, to those who are.
Under each master craftsman nary a piece of pewter escapes, the eye, touch or pride.
Pride that gives honour back to the thousands of masters that guide this master’s hand through every piece, their pride lay as the hands of a brother softly on the master's tired shoulders, in support of every piece; they peer over the shoulder and smile.
As it becomes a family heirloom around which generational traditions grow, stories are told and food consumed.
An honoured vehicle for sacrament through many faiths.
That is where the true worth of each product of pewter lies.
Tom Eichhorn – 10/7/2011
History of American Pewter
Pewter is an alloy composed mainly of tin with various amounts of lead, copper, zinc, antimony, and bismuth.
Several early civilizations, the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, are known to have used this soft metal. In England, pewter regulations were passed as early as 1348 in London for quality standards, working conditions, and selling restrictions. This was followed in 1473 by Edward IVs grant of a royal charter to the 'Minister of Pewterers' to supervise and control the trade throughout the Realm.
The history of pewter in America goes back to the early colonial period. Though pewter was then considered to be somewhat of a luxury item, it had made its appearance in Jamestown, Virginia by 1610, and in the New England area by the 1630s as newly arrived colonists brought pewter with them from their native England. At least five pewter smiths were active in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by 1640. These pewterers had trained in England under the strict auspices of The Worshipful Company of Pewterers, a powerful guild which so stringently regulated all aspects of the manufacture of pewter that English pewter was regarded as the finest made
England's mercantile policy was to export only finished pewter products to her colonies, to tax un-worked pewter and to prohibit the export of pure tin, the main ingredient in pewter. Thus, colonial pewter smiths were restricted to repair work or were forced to buy up worn pewter vessels at fifty to seventy per cent of their original cost and to melt them and cast them as new items. In daily use, pewter in eighteenth century America is estimated to have lasted only ten years due to its low melting point and the ease with which it was dented. However, the demand for pewter was always great and colonial pewter smiths could sell their wares more cheaply than imported English pewter.
While the very poor used wooden utensils, most colonials who could afford it used pewter; and it came to be regarded as almost a symbol of gentility. Though pewter vessels cost only about one-tenth the price of silver, they were still fairly expensive since the cost of a dish or tankard equaled or exceeded what a skilled craftsman earned in a day. A study of English export records by Robert W. Symonds revealed that by 1720 "the value of pewter imports from England began to exceed the combined totals of the value of silver objects, furniture, upholstery wares, including bedding, curtains, carpets, hangings, and upholstered furniture ." More than 300 tons of English pewter were shipped to the American colonies annually in the 1760's.
As did silversmiths, many pewter smiths identified their works by stamping their pewter with a mark called a touchmark or simply a touch. While English touch designs, such as the rampant lion, were popular before the War for Independence, afterwards the patriotic American eagle was often substituted. After about 1825 the originality of the decorative touches declined radically to simply the pewter manufacturer's name in a rectangular frame. The collector of American pewter is presented with a multitude of problems in identification, for not all touchmarks have yet been linked to a specific pewter smith. Numerous touchmarks have been rendered illegible through wear, and many pieces were never marked in the first place since it was never required by law.
Pewter was marked not only by its makers but also often by its owners. Owners would stamp or engrave their initials on their more important pieces of pewter and this would serve as identification should the pieces be borrowed or stolen. Important families even went so far as to have family crests or coats of arms engraved on pewter when they purchased it.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries American pewter was made by casting the molten metal in molds which were usually made of brass or bronze. Molds were very expensive and immigrating pewter smiths often brought their molds with them from England and Germany. However molds were produced in America as well. These would then be passed down from generation to generation of pewter smiths.
One tankard required five separate molds, one each for the body, bottom, handle, cover, and thumb piece. Showing great ingenuity, pewter smiths often used one mold for a variety of purposes.
Early American pewter is noted for its simplicity of style. The difficulty and expense of obtaining molds resulted in a slower stylistic evolution than that of silver which did not require molds for its manufacture, though the general design trends in silver were eventually reflected in pewter. Because pewter was a far softer metal, a thicker construction was often used as a means of increasing durability. Further, pewter's basically utilitarian nature discouraged excessive ornamentation.
Near the end of the eighteenth century a new type of pewter called, Britannia was introduced from England. Harder than regular pewter, Britannia was an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony but was without any lead. It was easier and faster to manufacture, for it could either be more thinly cast or it could be stamped or spun from sheets of the rolled metal. This also meant that the style could respond to the dictates of fashion as quickly as silver. In fact, Britannia came to resemble silver, especially in brilliance and shape, more than it resembled traditional pewter, with the notable exception of price. It was exceedingly popular until about 1850 when the process of electroplating was introduced whereby a thin coating of silver could be applied to cover the Britannia or other metal. Over the next twenty years Britannia makers and pewter smiths either gradually shifted to the manufacture of silver plate or went out of business. This was due to the competition from the ever-increasing popularity of porcelain and other pottery wares as well as the finally overwhelming competition from silver plate.
Considering the amount of American pewter which once existed, alarmingly little has survived to the present. The former advantage that damaged or worn pewter could be melted down and recast has robbed us of a complete view of the development of pewter in America. Also, during the War for Independence many donated their pewter to be cast into musket balls. But the special allure of pewter was recognized even as its popularity declined. In 1839 an old pewter beaker was the first recorded object given to the New Hampshire Historical Society. And today we continue to collect and honor works of this soft-luster metal which played such an important role in the early history of this country.
Adapted from the exhibition catalog, American Pewter (c. 1730 - c. 1870) in the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Melvyn D. Wolf. 1973, The Flint Institute of Arts, Flint Michigan.
The Pewter Collectors' Club of America, Inc
Fisk and Freeman
The Pewter Myth (explained by Pat & Tom Hooper of ASL Pewter)
Pewter smiths started bringing their work to a high polished finish in 1635. This served several purposes. First, pewter was sometimes called “poor man’s silver” and the polished finish reflected that moniker. Second, the polished finish was an instantly recognizable sign for any potential customer that the alloy used was free of lead or other impurities, since such lesser alloys would not hold a polish. Finally, the high shine demonstrated that the work was done by the master smith rather than by an apprentice or journeyman, whose work would have a satin or rubbed finish, which can hide flaws.
No self respecting pewter smith would have let anything with a dark finish out of the shop! The only reasons for pewter to be dark today are that the finish has been intentionally applied, the piece has lead in the alloy, or that the piece was cared for improperly and has become etched. We at ASL Pewter are proud to offer historically accurate designs in the correct polished finish. An antique finish is available on most pieces for those who prefer a more primitive look.
Lead in Pewter
We get asked quite often is there lead in your pewter, the simple answer is no and yes.
Early pewter, as explained above, did contain lead. Older pewter with higher lead content are heavier, tarnish faster, and oxidation gives them a darker silver-grey color or grayish-black patina.
People became aware of the dangers of lead in items that were to be used for food and drink in about the 1920's.
Founded in 1958 the APG (American Pewter Guild) lobbied congress to create a regulation that any pewter item used for food or drink must be lead free.
They were successful and this regulation came to pass in the 1960's. Some of the Guild's founding members were Boardman, Danforth, Stieff and Woodbury Pewter. Pieces were often marked - ATC (Antimony, Tin and Copper), signifying no lead content.
Here at Thomas Dale Co., all the manufacturers we buy from sell only lead free pewter.
I find it funny that this "lead stigma" falls on Pewter, which has been lead free for quite some time, and yet "leaded" crystal such as Baccarat, Mikasa, Orrefors and Waterford seem to be above it all. As do many ceramic dishes, both old and new.
Care for Pewter
The care of pewter is simple, use it, hand wash it in soapy water with a cloth or sponge, rinse and towel dry by hand. If you live by the sea, atmospheric salts can dull pewter's luster or in a smoggy environment, wash it as described above 2 or 3 times a year. So enjoy you pewter, simply use and wash it.
Never wash pewter in an automatic dishwasher (the temperature and detergent will ruin the finish).
Never expose pewter to a direct flame or heated surface (tin, the main portion of pewter, melts at 231.88 C & 449.38 F)
Never wrap pewter directly in paper (brown paper stains, newspaper may bleed, paper will scratch) when moving or storing in the attic, instead wrap the pieces in thin sheets foam or in acid-free tissue and then enclose it in polyethylene bags, then you can wrap the enclosed pieces with paper.
Never scrub with a brush or metal object..
Never store acidic liquids or liquors in pewter, instead use for immediate use, (that day), then wash, rinse and dry (storing may etch the surface).
Never allow your candles to burn into the pewter candle cup of your candlesticks or candelabras.
The beauty of pewter is, it is virtually maintenance free. Simply using on a monthly basis and washing is all that is needed.
The surface of pewter will develop a patina over many years.
Many owners love the patina, as do many collectors and do nothing more than hand wash and towel dry.
An Antiqued Finish is done to make modern pewter resemble age old pewter and has a grayed, brownish or blackened finish. This is achieved by applying either heat or chemicals to the pewter surface. Do not use a cleaner or #0000 steel wool on these pieces as it removes the antiqued finish surface.
Cleaning Satin Finish
Pewter with a Satin Finish has a grain from being buffed with a cloth wheel. Using #0000 steel wool and going lightly with the grain of the pewter will take out most mars and some light scratches.
Cleaning Bright Finish
Pewter with a Bright Finish can be polished using either Mish's polish or Sunshine Polishing Cloths. Scratches and scuffs, however, must be polished by a professional. Contact the manufacturer of your pewter, to see if they can rebuff your bright finish.
Value of older pieces
Thomas Dale Company is constantly asked to give a value to the worth of some pewter pieces people have. Unfortunately we are not qualified appraisers. There are many sites directly addressing those issues or search engines that give many clues as to manufacturer, date of the piece and worth.
If you can find the manufacturer, from either the touch mark or the name on the bottom of the piece, try such member sites as:
eBay - sign on, search for items in advanced search with the completed box checked
Worthopedia - lists items that have sold in stores and auctions
or search engines such as Google other general search engines , may help identify and its maker also.
Types of Pewter Pieces
There are two basic types of pewter, spun (such as plates by Boardman, Salisbury or Woodbury) and cast pieces (such as plates by ASL, every thing by Eagle Pewter or SKS Artina). Spun pieces are hand spun on lathes. Cast pewter pieces are generally heavier than spun pieces, as molds need room for the pewter to flow into. Cast pieces have the ability for a pewter smith to create intricate scenes with fine detail.
We get asked by many people who inherited pewter or wish to sell it, if Thomas Dale Co. would be interested in buying their pewter piece. At this point we only buy only new product and directly from the manufacturers.
If you have pieces to sell do some homework and find what the pieces are worth (see Value of older pieces).
Then either sell them on eBay, Craig's list or see if your local antique store or auction house may sell them for you. If you are not familiar with eBay, there are companies that specialize in selling your pieces on eBay for a percent of the sale.