1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Pewter
PEWTER, a general name used to denote a number of alloys of various metals in diverse proportions, the sole common feature of which lies in the fact that tin is always the chief constituent. The etymology of the word is doubtful, but it is probably an English modification of spelter, which was adopted with more or less local alteration by the continental European nations, who at an early period were eager purchasers of the ware, becoming peauter in Dutch, peutre, peautre or piautre in French, peltro in Italian and peltre in Spanish. Roman pewter, the oldest known, which has been disinterred at various places in England and elsewhere, was composed of tin and lead alone, for the occasional traces of iron are believed to be accidental, in proportions which, though varying considerably, group themselves around two definite formulae, one containing 71.5 parts of tin to 27.8 of lead, the other 78.2 of tin to 21.7 of lead, or one libra of tin to 4½ and 3 unciae of lead respectively. On the European continent in the middle ages, some ten centuries later than the supposed date of the Roman pewter found in Britain, when we first get definite records of the composition of pewter, lead remained the chief, if not the only secondary ingredient. In 1437 the pewterers of Montpelier added 4 parts of lead to 96 of tin, when making dishes and porringers 10 parts of lead to 90 of tin for salt-cellars and ewers; those of Limoges used 4 parts of lead to 100 of tin; at Nuremberg in 1576 it was ordained that not more than 1 lb of lead should be mixed with every 10 lb of tin; in France during the 18th century a limit of 15% of lead was imposed, while at the present time 16.5% with a margin of 1.5 for errors is regarded as safe for the storage of wine and consequently legal.
In England the earliest known ordinances for the regulation of the craft were drawn up in 1348 and received the approval of the mayor and aldermen. From them we learn that for rounded vessels lead might be mixed with the tin in the proportion of 26 lb to each hundredweight, though this quantity appears to have been found excessive, since in 1351 a pewterer was punished because his alloy contained more than 16 lb to the hundredweight, unless this be a clerical error in the contemporary records of the Pewterers' Company. Articles made of this material were to be known as “vessels of tyn for ever” but the alloy soon came to be known as “ley.” Another formula, however, authorized in the same document, would appear to have been at that time an exclusively English secret, to which was presumably due the universal recognition of the superiority of the island wares which is so notable a fact in the history of pewter. It was known as “fyne peauter” and used for dishes, saucers, platters, chargers, and for all “things that they make square,” such as cruets, chrismatories, &c., which owing either to the rough usage they would be submitted to, or to the sharpness of their angles, called for greater toughness in the material. The recipe for this alloy as originally propounded was as much brass to the tin “as it wol receiuve of his nature,” but the lack of precision in this perhaps rendered it difficult to distinguish accidental variations from deliberate adulteration, and in 1474-1475 it was resolved that 26 ft of brass must be mixed with every hundredweight of tin. The penalties for infringement of the rules were severe and frequently enforced, but in spite of them alterations and improvements crept in. The chief and perhaps the earliest of these was the addition of a certain proportion of bismuth, or as it was then called “tin glass.” When this was first used is not recorded, but by 1561 it was accepted as a matter of course; in 1630 a maker “was found in fault for not sufficiently tempering his metal with tin glass”; and in 1653 it was ordered that 3 lb weight of tin glass at least must be mixed with every 1000 lb of tin. Antimony was subsequently introduced—though there is no mention of it in the records of the Pewterers' Company—sometimes alone as in tin and temper (1.6 to 150 parts) and trifle (17 parts to 83 of tin), sometimes with other metals as in hard metal (96 parts of tin, 8 of antimony and 2 of copper), a mixture very closely resembling that still used under the name of “ritannia metal,” and in plate pewter (100 parts of tin, 8 of antimony, 4 of copper and 4 of bismuth). The wares were originally fashioned in two ways, by hammering or by casting, and the workers in each were strictly differentiated, the former, who worked in fine pewter, being known as Sadware men, the latter who used “ley” as Hollow-ware men. A third class, known as Triflers, from the alloy they were limited to, probably at first only manufactured such small articles of domestic use or ornament as did not definitely fall under either of the other headings, but from an authorized list of wares, drawn up by a committee of Triflers in 1612, it is clear that the barrier between them and the Hollow-ware men had been largely broken down. Another method of working pewter which seems to have been introduced later, and never followed to any great extent, was spinning, by which the vessel was shaped in a mould on a wheel by the mere pressure of a blunt tool, the softness of the metal allowing of its flowing sufficiently for this purpose.
Pewter first appears in history in 1074, when a synod at Rouen permitted its use as a substitute for gold or silver in church vessels, a concession accepted also at Winchester two years later, again withdrawn in 1175, but once more tacitly adopted some twenty years after. The records of its domestic use commence with the caldrons employed for boiling the meat at the coronation of Edward I. in 1274, though we gather that the trade was even then flourishing in Paris and Bruges, whence during the following century it extended to Augsburg, Nuremberg, Poitiers, Mons and other continental centres. Confined at first to the more wealthy classes, we can trace as time goes on its extension lower and lower in the social scale, until at the end of the 17th century its use was almost universal. Thenceforward its vogue steadily declined. The growing cheapness of glass and chinaware and the invention of more showy metals brought upon it by degrees the fatal stigma of vulgarity, until with very few exceptions its manufacture entirely ceased.
Artistically, pewter was at its best when its makers were least conscious of the art revealed in it, thinking more of the durability and appropriateness to purpose of their wares than of their decorative qualities. Though intentionally ornamental vessels may be found earlier, it was not until the 18th century that the pewterers set themselves to slavishly copying the designs and methods of the silversmiths, whether suitable to their material or not, and thereby undoubtedly hastened their own downfall.
Of recent years pewter has taken its place among the articles sought after by collectors, and its cost has so materially and rapidly increased that the manufacture of vessels, guaranteed of course genuinely antique, bids fair to become once more a paying industry. Unfortunately the various enactments compelling each maker to stamp his ware with a definite touchmark seem at all times to have been very generally evaded or ignored, and experience alone is therefore the only safe guide to distinguishing new from old.
Bibliography.—History of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers of the City of London, by Charles Welch (London, 1902); Pewter Plate, by R. J. L. Masse (London, 1904); Scottish Pewter Ware and Pewterers, by L. Ingleby Wood (Morton, Edinburgh, n.d.); Old Pewter, by Malcolm Bell (Newnes, London, n.d.); Les Métaux dans l'antiquité et au moyen âge. L'Etain, by Germain Bapst (Paris, 1884); Dictionnaire de l'ameublement et de la décoration, by Henri Havard; Histoire du mobilier, by Albert Jacquemart (Paris, 1877); “Analysis of Roman Pewter,” by W. Gowland, Archaeologia, vol. lvi. (1898); Pewter Marks and Old Pewter Ware: Domestic and Ecclesiastical, by Christopher A. Markham (1909).