Pewter is an alloy made from tin, the fourth-most precious metal after platinum, gold and silver. Its other components, needed to give it strength and durability, have varied over its long history. Most pewter today contains no more than 10 per cent copper and antimony, according to ColonialSense.com, and no longer contains lead, once a common additive, because of its toxicity.
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A flask discovered in Abydos, Egypt, and dated between 1580 and 1350 B.C., is the earliest piece of pewter on record, writes designer craftsman Tom Neil. Early Romans also used pewter. During the 11th and 13th centuries, churches across Europe used pewter, but it came into domestic use in England in the 14th century. By this time, London regulations set the standards of workmanship and the quality of pewter manufacture.
The early 17th century saw the arrival of the first settlers to America from England, and they brought their pewterware with them. The lamps, candlesticks and all kinds of tableware--seen as a mark of prosperity--set those that owned them above those who could only afford wooden utensils, reports ColonialSense.com.
A ban on the export of tin and a heavy tax on the export of finished pewter from England gave the colonists little option but to buy imported pewter goods. In spite of this restriction, American pewterers still made a good living from repairing damaged pieces or melting them down to remould new items, according to the Pewter Collectors' Club of America website.
From the mid-19th century, the introduction of porcelain and china tableware forced pewter into decline. By the turn of the 20th century, however, writes Gregory LeFever in the December 2007 issue of "Early American Life" magazine, an interest of a different kind emerged, that of "pewtercraft" promoted by the Arts and Crafts Movement. Pewterware remains popular today, whether mass-produced and handcrafted by artisans using traditional methods to create reproduction pieces.
The Colonial practice of recasting pewter meant the loss of many of the earlier pieces. The American Revolution (1775-1782) further depleted the supply, as people gave their pewter to be cast into musket balls. Lack of identification also factors into the scarcity issue. Stamping "touchmarks" on all their pieces was compulsory for pewterers in England, but no such regulation existed in America. Thus, many items found today appear unmarked and not traceable to specific makers, making what remains from that period very scarce, according to PewterCollectorsClub.org.
Because of its scarcity, historians and collectors highly value American antique pewter. The simple utensils used in 17th and 18th century Colonial homes generate greatest demand. ColonialSense. com says antique spoons attract particularly high prices--as much as £130 if from the 17th century. In 2008, a coffee pot made by a well-known 18th-century American pewterer named William Will sold at auction for £204,750, reports AntiquesAndTheArts.com.
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