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Working with Pewter

A Colonial Symbol of Prosperity




OverviewHow to Make a Pewter Spoon MoldVideos 

Working with Pewter - 18th Century Pewter Shop
18th Century Pewter Shop
In Colonial America,
pewter was a staple of everday living. A collection of polished pewter, used and proudly displayed, symbolized prosperity to the wives of the artisans and shopkeepers. The eighteenth-century housewife kept her pewter polished. The gentry ate from silver and imported china; the very poor made out with wooden trenchers and pottery mugs. This lasted about 1825, when the white ware of American potters invaded simple dining rooms and banished pewter to the kitchens.

English pewters organized themselves as early as 1348, and in 1473 King Edward IV chartered them as the "Mistery of Pewterers" later called "The Worshipful Company of Pewterers." The Worshipful Company managed to keep the Americans short of tin, leaving them to rework old metal which they sometimes stretched by adding a little lead or copper. Old inventories of pewter shops list quantities of scrap pewter but never any pure tin bars.

Working with Pewter - Assembled set of 17th Century spoons with various Touchmarks.
Assembled set of 17th Century spoons with various Touchmarks.
The Worshipful Company specified metal qualities, inspected workmanship, and destroyed bad work. Members' pewter was identified by the guild's "Rose and Crown" which was often stamped illegally in America. The work done by early pewtersmiths was identified with a signature that was known as a Touchmark or "trade mark" which identified the artisan, the quality of his work, and location of his shop. Today's artisan also identifies his work with his name or initials. Touchmarks that were used before the American Revolution showed the influence of the Worshipful Company in England. After the American Revolution the American Eagle was used along with the pewterer's name in a line form, with some in a rectangular frame. By 1825 the Touchmark was simplified with the pewterer's name in the line form, with some in a rectangular frame.

Working with Pewter - Joseph Copeland pewter spoon unearthed at Jamestown Virginia is the oldest dated piece of American pewter in existence
Joseph Copeland pewter spoon unearthed at Jamestown Virginia is the oldest dated piece of American pewter in existence
Working with Pewter - Knives, forks, and spoons unearthed at Jamestown
Knives, forks, and spoons unearthed at Jamestown
The history of pewter in America had its beginning in the early colonial period. Pewter made its appearance in Jamestown, Virginia by 1610. Few early seventeenth century pieces exist. However, in an excavation in Jamestown produced a 1675 handle of a spoon signed with the name Joseph Copeland who worked in Jamestown and Chuckatuck from 1675-1691. The spoon is now on display at the Jamestown Museum.

Pewter arrived in the New England area by the 1630s as newly arrived colonists brought pewter with them from their native England. In 1635, Richard Graves opened the first American pewter store in Salem Massachusetts. He supplied homes, taverns, and churches in the colonies with ladles, mugs, plates, bowls, and spoons. Although he was presented at a Quarterly Court on february 28, 1642-1643 for "opression in his trade of pewtering," he was acquitted of the charge. Along with Richard Graves, there were four other pewterers that were active in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by 1640.

Working with Pewter - American pewter plates, Bolles Collection
American pewter plates, Bolles Collection
These pewterers were trained in England by The Worshipful Company of Pewterers. In Colonial America with the population growth, there was a high demand for pewter. American Pewterers lived frustrated lives because the demand for their product was huge. They were relegated to melting down old pewter to recast it or to repairing broken pieces, one of the main reasons why American pewter is more rare than the English pewter. The value of pewter ware brought into this country between 1720 and 1767 was greater than that of all silver, tinware, and furniture imported in the same years. British pewterers exported large quantities to the colonies with only a brief intermission following the years of conflict. Three hundred tons of pewter were shipped annually to American in 1760s. English export pewter refers to pewter shipped to America from the late 17th Century through the first quarter of the 19th Century. There were a few forms that were made for the American market. They included sugar bowls, drum shaped teapots, pear shaped teapots and creamers.

When pewter was first manufactured, it was an alloy composed primarily of tin with some copper and lead added for strength. Around the time of the revolution, pewter metal was being replaced with Britannia metal in a deliberate attempt to imitate silver. Brittannia which is based on tin, copper, and Antimony but no lead was a harder based tin. James Taudin, a noted French pewterer introduced Antimony in 1650 to harden his pewter and increase its shine. Spoons have always been cast in molds, so the manufacture of spoons was not changed after the introduction of Britannia, but the improved hardness of the metal enabled lighter cross sections and newer styles. The manufacturing of other items changed from casting in molds to spinning of Britannia metal sheet on lathes, a much higher production method. Currently most modern pewter is composed of 92% tin, 7.75% Antimony, and .25% copper.

Working with Pewter - American flagons, Bolles Collection
American flagons, Bolles Collection
In Colonial America, artisans made pewter articles by either casting the liquid pewter into molds which were usually made of brass or bronze, by turning on a lathe, or by hammering a flat pieces such as large dishes, trenchers, or chargers into shape. All pewter prior too 1800 was cast in molds.. Molds were expensive and immigrating pewterers brought their molds with them from England and Germany. Molds were often produced in America too. Spoon molds were made as late as 1807. Pewter has a low melting point of 231.88°C (449.38°F ) and a high boiling point of 2625°C (4757°F).

Today, pewter makers fashion pewter in much the same way as the colonists did. Pewter is poured into molds in the same manner as the colonial pewterers did. Modern casting molds are often made from plaster-of-paris or silicone rubber rather than brass or bronze. Another method discovered by an American pewterer, William Porter of Taunton, Massachusetts, was spinning sheets of Britannia on a fast turning lathe. A patent was granted to him in 1834 for the metal forming technique in which sheets of pewter are formed into hollow vessels by mounting the sheets on a chuck and shaping them on a lathe. This technique continues to be used today.

Working with Pewter - Record price paid for a William Will coffee pot of $315,000 at Northeast Auctions in August 2008
Record price paid for a William Will coffee pot of $315,000 at Northeast Auctions in August 2008
In general, American pewter is more valuable than English pewter because it is more rare. American plates at Black Angus in Adamstown, Pennsylvania were on sale between $200-400 while English plates were listed at $10-30.The top lot price for pewter was paid at Freeman's Auction in September 2007 of $248,000 for an engraved communion flagon made by William Will in 1795 for a church in Penn's Township, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Winterthur has a chalice that once accompanied the flagon. Then on September 1, 2008 a William Will coffee pot established a new record price at Northeast Auctions and sold for $315,000.
Some of the pewter antique spoons on the market can run as high as $200, especially the spoons from the 17th Century. Colonial Sense knows that you don't have to spends hundreds of dollars just for that one antique spoon. Why not make your own mold and create that one of a kind colonial spoon. Then you only need a sample of one spoon to form the mold.

Source: Text by Bryan Wright

Related Links:

RotoMetals, Inc.
Nathan Trotter & Co.

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