Pewter plates, bowls, chargers, tankards, measures, oil lamps, candlesticks, teapots, and so forth, add a unique mellow glow to any home, enhancing antiques collections and also usable in so many ways. Antique pewter - that is, pewter made in the 1700s and early 1800s - is very collectible and plentiful in the marketplace today, often at incredibly low prices.
I'm not talking about rare American-made pewter pieces - those are for the serious collector, and are very expensive. The pewter referred to in this Blog is the pewter that you can find at flea markets and antique shows, and maybe on eBay - often unmarked, and usually English or Continental in origin.
The form and function of English pewter is what most mimics the pewter used by our early settlers, largely because most of their pewter was imported from England, but also because American makers tended to repeat the forms used by English makers.
Pewter is an ancient alloy - dating from the Bronze age. It is mostly tin, with the addition of another metal - copper, antimony or lead. It is impossible to know what that other metal added is without professional testing, so it's best to avoid using pewter for food - you don't want to get lead poisoning! Also, don't put it in the dishwasher - it could melt.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Become familiar with the form of 18th and 19th century English pewter. English pieces are rarely ornate - usually quite plain and functional. Don't even bother looking for American marks - if you find them, they will either be extremely expensive, or they are fakes.
Many pieces of pewter have no maker's mark. When you do see a mark, it is often possible to identify the maker and the approximate date when the piece was made.
Some pieces, especially plates and chargers, are engraved with the owner's initials. That adds interest to the piece.
Because pewter is a soft alloy, it can melt. Look for pieces that have a minimum of damage, although a few dings and dents can add to their charm.
Pewter will polish up to quite a shine, but I prefer the mellow glow of pewter that has not been shined.
Look for the early pieces. Pewter was widely used in this country in the 1700s and 1800s. In about 1840, a metal called Britannia replaced much of the pewter that was being made. Britannia was often used as a base for silver plate. Most Britannia pieces were machine made. Hand made, earlier pieces are preferable from a collector's perspective.
There was a pewter revival in the 1920s and many types of pewter pieces were manufactured. If it says "Genuine Pewter" or "Pewter" - it isn't old. An antique piece of pewter will never say "pewter" on it.
Avoid buying pieces that look like they have plating or a coating on them over a base metal. These are probably Britannia. Old pewter will never have a peeling coat.
HOW TO USE PEWTER IN YOUR HOME:
Pewter looks particularly good in candle light. Use pewter candlesticks as you would any candlestick. Different sizes and shapes look great together.
Put plants and flowers in pewter tankards, measures, cups or bowls.
Use bowls and plates to hold fruit - real or stone fruit.
Hang the tankards
Or just display it for its beauty.
You can find plates and chargers for $30-$100, measures and tankards from $30, candlesticks from about $50, depending on their size and condition, porringers will be more. Look for wear, a maker's mark, and the shapes you will become familiar with as you hunt. Don't buy reproductions if you can find the real thing - they will probably cost you as much or more than a good old piece.
Let pewter warm you heart and your home!
For more information, see:
" English Pewter Touchmarks" by Radway Jackson, Wallace Homestead Book Co, 1970
" National Types of Old Pewter" by Cotterell, Riff and Vetter, Weathervane Books.
" British Pewter and Britannia Metal" by Christopher Peal, Peebles Press, 1971
"American Pewter" by J.B. Kerfoot, Bonanza Books.