Pewter is an alloy of tin that has been used for many centuries. Early pewter, such as that used by the Romans was alloyed with lead, but other metals also have been used as alloys in pewter. In the 1800s tin was alloyed with antimony which made a harder metal called Britannia metal.
Pewter replaced wood for table ware and in turn pewter was replaced by pottery and china at the table. Virtually every type of everyday object has been made of pewter including plates, mugs, spoons, coins, religious objects, medical devices, candlesticks, teapots, funnels, porringers, spoons and many others.
Probably the most famous American pewterer was William Will of Philadelphia. He was a German immigrant who participated in the Revolutionary War. He made fine pewter which is rarely available and quite expensive.
Some other important names to look for in marks on American pewter are Austin, Babbott, Badger, Danforth, Boardman, Curtiss, Hamlin, Lee, Pierce, Hopper, Dunham, Capen, Gleason, among others.
Very little American pewter was produced before the Revolutionary War because England did not permit the raw materials for casting pewter to be sent to America. The blocking of tin imported to the colonies was done to support pewter manufacturing in England. Some very early American pewter was probably made by melting English pewter and the recasting it.
Very early American pewter is often identified with impressed eagle.
Pewter can be polished or left with the natural patina. It is not unusual to see European plates that have been polished on the top side and left unpolished on the bottom.
Pewter often carries maker’s marks although a great deal of pewter is not marked. There are numerous references for makers’ marks, some of which will be discussed in the references at the end of this essay.
If a pewter object is marked “pewter” it almost certainly is not antique pewter. The stamping of the word “pewter” is a modern development on newer decorative pewter.
Much pewter from the United States and Europe that was made in the 1800s is available today at reasonable prices. Frequently it will be possible to identify the maker from the marks on the pewter. Collectors sometimes refer to pewter as “The poor man’s silver”.
Although pewter is sometimes decorated by casting in the mold, hammer work, engraving, wiggleworking, and other decorations, much pewter is not decorated and is attractive due to its elegance of form.
Excellent references are available for the formation of a pewter library. For those wishing to learn more about pewter, some of these references are reviewed below.
Hornsby, P. R. G. Pewter of the Western World, 1600-1850. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. (1983). If I was going to recommend one book to have on pewter this would be it. The book provides some excellent chapters on the history, casting, decorating, etc. of pewter and then shows examples of the important forms of pewter from around the world including makers and origins.
Kerfoot, J. B. American Pewter. Bonanza Books (1934). This is probably the best known book on American pewter. There are many details on the history of American pewterers and good examples of their work and marks.
Masse, H. J. L. J. Chats on Old Pewter. T. Fisher Unwin Ltd. (1911). One of the earliest books for pewter collectors. There are many illustrations of very old pieces. This book is probably for the serious collector.
Cotterell, H. H. Old Pewter Its Makers and Marks in England Scotland and Ireland. Charles Tuttle Co. (1985). The definitive work on marks on Pewter from the British Isles. It also provides a nice background on pewter and has many illustrations of important pieces.
Cotterell, H. H., Riff, A., and Vetter R. M. National Types of Old Pewter. Weathervane Books (1972). As the title implies this is an excellent introduction to the different types of pewter found in Europe. It is very good for showing differences in pewter forms from different countries.
Stara, D. Pewter Marks of the World. Hamlin (1978). This is a good companion to the Cotterell et al. (1972) volume as it provides information on pewter marks in Europe and the Orient.
Nadolski, D. Old Household Pewterware. Holmes and Meir Publications Limited (1987). This is a translation from the German with beautiful photos (some in color) and large print for us old folks. It is organized around the uses of various pewter types.
Aichele, F. Zinn. Battenberg Verlag (1977). Some of the finest decorated pewter comes from Germany and this book illustrates this work. The book is published in the German language.
Montgomery, C. F. A History of American Pewter. This is a scholarly introduction to American pewter.
Scott, J. L. Pewter Wares from Sheffield. Antiquary Press (1980). This book provides a nice discussion of the difference between classical pewter and Britannia metal.
Laughlin, L. I. Pewter in America : Its Makers and Their Marks . American Legacy Press (1981). This three volume book is available as a single volume now. It is the definitive reference volume on American Pewter with authoritative text and good illustrations.
Donald E. McMillan, Ph.D.
McMillan and Husband