What is Pewter?

The pewter beer pot is to many the most recognizable symbol of American household antiques. It is difficult to picture several of the founding fathers without one in their hand. Of course, pewter has been used to make a great deal more than colonial era drinking vessels. The dull gray but strangely compelling metal was popular in the manufacture of countless plates, candlesticks, and even snuffboxes.

While trends in antiques collecting change, some items come into fashion while others fade, American colonial pewter continues to capture the hearts of collectors and the pocket book of investors. If visits to and sales from online auction sites means anything pewter remains of marked interest to collectors.

I know of a charming 17th century pewter-measuring cup that sold on Ebay antique auctions recently for nearly $1,000. The measuring cup was a perfect representation of my favorite type of pewter collectible. One that proves that function can be an integral part of form. It was a wonderful example of the combined sturdy functionalism and artful detail that make antique kitchenware so attractive.

Pewter’s nearly universal application and durability means that there are a lot of surviving pieces. The plentiful supply of antique pewter pieces keeps the prices relatively low and thus an excellent starting point for the novice collector. Another way that pewter is a good choice when just beginning to collect is that it is easily cleaned and once polished will keep its shine for a long time. With pewter antiques the new collector can begin acquiring beautiful pieces while learning their way around the antique world while keeping their financial risks small.

But what is pewter?

Pewter is an alloy made by mixing copper with tin. In what is sometimes called “fine pewter” the ratio of tin to copper is 13 parts copper to 56 parts of tin. Which approaches the maximum amount of copper absorbable by tin. However, fine pewter is relatively rare and the exact mixture will matter little to the collector.

All the forms of pewter discussed below are hard, white in color, are easily burnished and retain their polish despite frequent use and handling.

Nearly all pewter contains antimony as well. There are types of pewter particularly popular in the making of decorative plates and tea sets that contain little or no copper but a high level of antimony. Antimony creates very hard alloys that are noted for their clear sound. Antimony is a common material in the making of bells. Pewter that contains a good deal of antimony has been called “bell pewter” or Pemberton’s alloy.

In some cases brass, another alloy is used in place of copper. Some purists refuse to call this material pewter at all and refer to it as “kettle brass” while looking down their noses. Snobbery aside, pewter made with brass is durable and has a unique charm. It was used to make less expensive items intended for daily use such as saltcellars and snuffboxes.

In ancient times it was common to make pewter using a mixture containing lead but overtime this practice faded away for obvious reasons. However, throughout the history of pewter utensils there have been dishonest craftsman who substituted cheaper lead for antimony when making plates, drinking vessels, and other items that would lead inevitably to lead poisoning. Nineteenth century England had very stiff penalties for craftsman caught hiding lead in their pewter.

Britannia pewter is an example of the British resentment of lead poisoning. It is excellent quality pewter with the high standards of containing no lead at all. The effects of the various mixes of tin, copper, and antimony in Britannia Pewter is a study all in itself and best left to another article.

Posted on July 17, 2012

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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