Colonial American Pewter: The Danforth Family

Few names associated with American pewter carry the clout, rooted in long tradition, of the Danforths of Connecticut. From the middle of the 18th century and for a hundred years the Danforth family produced many of the finest pewter flatware and tankards produced in America. Even today, after a lengthy break in the chain, there is a Danforth making pewter in New England.

The first of the family to, quite literally, place his mark on American Pewter was Thomas Danforth I. His first work appeared around 1733. He and his wife produced two sons, both of whom became pewterers.

The elder of the two, Thomas II, remained in the town of his birth, Middletown Ct, while his brother John moved to Norwich. Two master pewter makers in the same town would find it a little difficult to make ends meet and it was common in those days for apprentices to move away to another town after completing their education. Both siblings would themselves produce another generation of pewterers.

Thomas II and his wife Martha were the kind of people on whom dynasties are founded. They found the time and strength to raise seven children to maturity and operate a successful business. There were five sons and one daughter. All of boys became pewter crafters and sister Sarah’s children were taken into the family trade.

Perhaps the most exceptional of Thomas and Martha’s children was Joseph, born August 17, 1758. Despite being the second son Joseph was named executor of his father’s estate and inherited one half of his father’s valuable pewter moulds. He was sadly short lived and died December 17, 1788 but left an amazing amount of work. His plates and basins are the centerpieces to a number of exceptional collections.

In classic Danforth form Joseph fathered six children in the nine years between his marriage to Sarah King and his death. On March 14, 1782 Sarah gave birth to a set of twins. One of the two died soon after birth but the other, named Joseph Jr., lived and was eventually sent to live with his uncle William, yet another pewter making son of Thomas II, as an apprentice. Both Joseph Danforth have left numerous examples of beautiful colonial pewter.

Edward Danforth, the third son of the prolific Thomas and Martha Danforth made extremely fine pewter and was well known throughout New England. He was born on March 20, 1765 in Middletown Connecticut. He apprenticed with his father until Thomas passed away and then joined his older brother Joseph. When Joseph died he entered the business on his own.

The fifth son of Thomas and Martha was named William. At one time it was widely believed that this son had been a carpenter and not a pewterer but researchers eventually proved that he indeed followed the family trade. The evidence that convinced posterity of William’s profession was that he held the office of sealer of weights in the town of Middleton. A position always held by metal workers and not carpenters. Also, an inventory of his possessions at the time of his death included pewter making tools and no carpentry tools.

William married Huldah Scovil and the pair produced another six children but only one was to become a pewter maker. Josiah Danforth was born on July 18, 1803 and would be, for many years, the last Danforth to make pewter. Josiah left the trade when he sold his shop and merchandise to a pair of men in 1837 and turned to the manufacture of trusses.

The youngest son of the prolific Thomas II was named Samuel. He probably apprenticed with one of his brothers but it is impossible to know which one. Samuel may have been the most financially successful of the Danforth clan. When he died his estate was valued at over $11,000, a fortune at the time.

It is pleasing to report that the family has returned to the manufacture of pewter. After skipping five generations a direct descendent of William, named Fred Danforth has once again placed the Danforth name on New England made pewter.

Somewhere along the way the clan left Connecticut but didn’t wander far. Fred Danforth operates a workshop and store in Middlebury, Vermont as well as selling his wares online. It is curious how close the name of Middlebury is to the old family seat in Middleton, Connecticut.

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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