Wednesday, June 21, 2017

British Pewter: Around The World From 80 Countries

The last object –the Corvallis College bell-- was made of cast steel.  This mug, also from England, is made of a different metal, pewter.  

Pewter is an alloy of mostly tin with some other metal to harden it.  Originally, producers used lead, but after becoming aware of its health dangers, they switched to an alloy of tin, antimony, and copper. This combination of metals was in use as long ago as the Bronze Age, with the earliest known piece dated at 1450 BCE. This doesn't seem to surprising as both bronze and pewter use the same two metals but in different proportions: bronze is copper with a bit of tin added while pewter is mostly tin with a bit of copper added. 

Britain's large tin deposits are in the Cornwall area. By the 1300s the English were using this tin to make pewter. To regulate the trade, a guild of pewterers was established in 1348. Production expanded and the use of pewter objects -- plates, cups, bowls, teapots, candlesticks, and spoons -- spread from the church and homes of the wealthy to middle-class families. Many taverns used mugs like this or covered tankards; merchants also used pewter measuring cups when selling bulk products. To protect consumers, in 1836, the British government required that pewterers mark the item's capacity; this mug is stamped 1 pint.  An official weights and measures inspector would check that this was correct and stamp a verification mark on the side.  The “GR 485” and “ER 485” stamps on this mug are examples of this practice and, as best as I can tell, indicate that the inspection was made in Wisbech, St. Peter Town, in the county of Cambridgeshire in 1835 or later. 

Pewter has a low melting point and is easily cast using molds.  Because the molds were expensive to make, many pewter objects featured the same basic body with other pieces such as handles or spouts soldered on later. Pewter can also be shaped by hammering. Because pewter is relatively soft metal and can be easily dented, scratched or corroded, craftsmen known as tinkers specialized in repairing or refashioning pewter ware.

As the technology for producing ceramics improved, china plates and cups gradually replaced pewter ware. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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