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Antique Pewter

Updated on March 9, 2011

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Pewter is a generic term for a variety of alloys, of which tin forms the predominating component. The ordinary pewter is tin alloyed with lead, in the proportion of four parts to one. Specimens of the old Roman pewter left in England at the time of the Roman occupation of that country show a variance in composition ranging from 99 per cent tin to 1 per cent lead, for the richest, to 46 per cent tin and 53 per cent lead, with a little copper. Generally, however, the proportions were either 71.5 per cent tin to 27.8 per cent lead or 78.2 per cent tin to 21.7 per cent lead.

Specimens of early English pewter show a composition of 112 parts tin to 26 parts copper, with no lead, for what is called "fine pewter". Another formula is 84 parts tin, 7 parts antimony and 4 parts copper. A lower quality has 56 parts tin, 8 parts lead, 6 parts copper and 2 parts zinc. The harder alloys were used ior articles subject to the greatest strains in their use, as in bowls and dishes. For mugs and tankards a somewhat softer alloy was prepared; that is one containing more lead in proportion to the tin.

As early as 1348 the guild of pewterers in Great Britain were allowed to make a set of rules by which all pewterers were governed, and these rules were enforced on the trade by law; the intent being to prevent a debasement of the metal by so large a proportion of lead as to render it liable to poison any acid food standing in it for a time.

In the manufacture of pewter three processes were employed. The metal was cast, spun on a lathe, or hammered. Molds were generally of gun metal or brass, and on account of the large expense of making them were passed about from shop to shop, each paying a proportion for their use. The decline of pewter followed upon the cheap production of pottery and china ware on the one hand, and of the activity of the silversmiths on the other. The pewterers for a time imitated the designs of the silversmiths, but the metal was not suited to this work, and lost a large part of its artistic value in consequence.

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