Pewter History in Brief
Pewter history is relatively recent compared to other metals or alloys such as gold, silver and bronze. In fact there was a 'Bronze Age' but no one's heard of a 'Pewter Age'! By the way, bronze is an alloy related to pewter. It is mostly copper with a little bit of tin, while pewter is the other way around. Need to know what pewter is before looking at it's history? Then click here!
The appearance of pewter was first recorded in Europe in the 11th century. It was used mostly for religious purposes and could only be afforded by the wealthy and priests. However over the next few hundred years, the use of pewter became more common with folks from the lower social classes. By the 18th century, the use of pewter tableware and drinkware reached it's peak.
Pewterware's popularity decreased soon after as people shifted to using the cheaper and lighter glass or porcelain wares. The wealthy no longer considered the use of pewter to reflect their social status since it had become more affordable to the masses. This was caused partly by the emergence of Britannia metal and the Industrial Revolution which made large scale production a reality with a corresponding fall in prices. The change in the English society's drinking preference to tea was also believed to have contributed to the decline.
In 1348, 'The Worshipful Company of Pewterers' was established in England as a guild to control the work of pewterers. In 1474, they were granted the first charter by King Edward IV to regulate the pewter industry. With this authority, the guild had the right of search all over England to ensure the quality of pewterware was maintained at a high level and to seize those which did not conform to their standard. Unfortunately this was said to have led to abuses of power. Pewterers not well-liked by the guild would find themselves in trouble more often. However, the existence of such a regulating body also made English pewter to be regarded as the finest available.
The guilds' influence decreased during the low years of the 18th and 19th centuries as many pewterers went out of business following the decline in the popularity of pewterware. However they are currently undergoing a revival as people's interest in pewter is rekindled.
In America, pewter history dates back to the colonial period when they were brought in from England. By the early 1600s pewter could already be found and it was regarded as something for the upper society due to its relatively high price.
It is interesting to note that during the colonial period, pewterers could only cast new items by melting old ones. This was due to the English ban on the export of tin. Without tin there is no pewter. Additionally, only finished pewterware could be exported to the colonies and unworked pewter for export would be slapped with a hefty tax. This meant that pewterers in America could only do repair work apart from re-melting old items. But this also made their products cheaper than those brought in from England.
The decline in pewter popularity in America mirrored that of England's. Britannia metal appeared towards the late 18th century and became very popular due to its more silvery appearance and its ease of manufacturing compared to lead-containing pewter. But the change in people's taste to silverware and the emergence of the cheaper porcelain wares marked the start of the demise of the American pewter industry.
As in England now, and in other parts of the world, American's interest in pewter is increasing again.
There are some books out there on pewter history if you wish to learn more, and especially if you have an antique bent. Quite a number of these books are pretty old and out of print. I've listed a few below:
1. An Introduction to British Pewter, David Moulson and Alex Neish, Brewin Books, 1997, ISBN 1 85858 102 8
2. Pewter of the Western World, 1600-1850, Peter Hornsby, Schiffer, 1983, ISBN 0 916838 83 8
3. Pewter In America; Its Makers and Their Marks, Ledly I. Laughlin, Barre Publishers, Barre, Massachusetts, 1981, ISBN 0 517 350637 (three volumes)
4. The Pewter Collector, H. J. L. J. Masse, Kessinger Publishing, 2004, ISBN-10: 1417915382, ISBN-13: 978-1417915385
5. Pewter Wares from Sheffield, Jack L. Scott, Antiquary Pr; 1st Edition (November 1980), ISBN-10: 0937864005, ISBN-13: 978-0937864005
Happy reading and researching pewter history!
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