Treasures: Raise your tankard to poor man's silver
"When every blessed thing you hold Is made of silver, or of gold, You long for simple pewter. When you have nothing else to wear But cloth of gold and satins rare, For cloth of gold you cease to care - Up goes the price of shoddy." - The Gondoliers, Sir William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911)
FROM the 1500's to about 1900, your pint of plain was consumed not from a glass, but most usually from a tankard or mug made of pewter - a malleable alloy traditionally 85-99% tin with the remainder comprising copper, antimony and often, lead. Silver was often in the mix with better works to bring on a shine.
For this reason in the middle of the 20th century it was an essential part of an antique dealer's education to study pewter and learn the hallmarks by heart. Today it would be no more than useful to memorise antique pewter markings as so little appears on the market.
One Dublin antique dealer told me he used to export pewters to America - by the hundredweight. So if you're looking around for it on the stalls and about the shops it's worth remembering that most of it has already gone Stateside.
In the 17th and 18th centuries pewterers were producing large quantities of tankards, measures, candlesticks, beakers, inkstands, snuff boxes, plates, dishes, buckles and ornaments, and an extensive export trade was established.
Very early inventories give long lists of pewter objects in use, mostly in the kitchens, in the residences of bishops, knights and nobles. Pewter alms-dishes, flagons and other sacramental vessels were also supplied to the churches. The flagons were used for the service of wine at the Communion tables.
It is generally accepted that pewter designs followed that of silver but the reverse can also be true: sometimes the silversmiths copied the pewterers. In either case, the parallel between the designs of the two metals was very close. This is particularly noticeable in the finials, or knops, on Apostle and other types of spoons such as lion, seal, or slip-top.
One reason for the simplicity of pewter objects, besides taste, stemmed from the fact that pewter vessels were cast in gun-metal moulds and more elaborate shapes would have required much more expensive moulds. Also the softness of pewter does not allow it to be finely engraved successfully.
Tankards and wine measures have been made from pewter since the 16th century. Most of the early wine measures had thumbpieces of the ball-and-wedge type. The hammerhead thumbpieces dated from 1600-1670, the the bud-and-wedge kind was used.
After 1824, pewter tankards had to be stamped with the capacity of the vessel, and also the initials of the reigning monarch. Lidded, they came in three sizes: quart, pint and half-pint. Without lids, tankard capacities were 1 gallon, 3 quarts, 2 quarts, 3 pints, 1 quart, 1 pint, 1 penny pot and half pint.
It can be rewarding to study the sizes, weights, rim designs, borders, and shapes of pewter chargers and plates which can tell much about their origins.
Chargers (decorative plates) with wide rims were used for the service of large joints and game until the 17th century. They were round in shape and made in four sizes: great chargers, 7lb; chargers, 5lb and 3 and a quarter lb; and lesser or small hollow chargers, 2 and three quarter lb. Late in the 17th century they were called dished and were made in eight sizes: from 28in in diameter down to 10 and three quarter inches, and oval dishes were not made until the 1770s.
Pairs of marriage plates were customary presents in pewter from Elizabethan days until the 1790s. Service plates were pies and cheese, and dessert plates were known as banqueting dishes, measuring about six inches in diameter. Doublers were used for serving semi-liquid foods, known as spoon-meat, in the 17th and early 18th centuries and were deeper than the late Georgian soup plates. Saucers were deep rimless vessels about six inches in diameter and were, curiously enough, used for the service of sauces.
The colour of pewter varies according the quantity of lead used - a key factor why it would be considered unhealthy today given the latter's toxic qualities. Without lead it can approach the brightness of silver, and the addition of lead makes it blackish-grey. When pewter originally left the pewterer's shop it was burnished to a high silvery lustre which soon oxidised to a dull grey.
Sometimes pewter is confused with Britannia Metal, also called 'white metal', which was made from the late 18th century as a silver substitute. Britannia Metal is harder than pewter but has a lower melting point. The pewter craft goes back a long way. A Guild was formed by the British makers of pewter in 1348. The Pewterer's Company of London provided its members and provincial Guilds with tin from the Cornish mines to which it had certain rights.
The members of the Guilds appeared to take their responsibilities seriously and tackled the problem of the overuse of lead in a variety of pewter objects designed for eating purposes, such as plates, bowls, spoons, and drinking vessels, which frequently resulted in lead poisoning. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems, particularly with younger children who often drank beer going back through the centuries - considered safer before sanitation arrived as water was usually contaminated.
It has been shown that ingestion of lead can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. With pewter manufacture, the proportion of four parts tin to one part lead was common. This obviously had wide ranging consequences given that the common man supped his pint from pewter.
While porter, a favoured drink in Ireland and the closest relation to modern stout might not exacerbate the problem, acid reacts to make lead more toxic. Thus wine and cider drinkers were most at risk from lead poisoning through pewter.
The effects of lead ingestion from consumption vessels was highlighted in a dramatic fashion recently as scientists discovered that lead poisoning from canned food was a key element in the failure of Sir John Franklin's 1845 Arctic expedition during which key crew members were reputed to have gone mad with disastrous effect and indulged in cannibalism.
The conclusions came from the results of postmortems conducted on the perfectly preserved bodies of three of Franklin's crewmen taken from their frozen graves on Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic.
As regards quality of pewterware, London, York, Bristol and Exeter were well known for the production of pewter, while Ireland and Scotland also maintained a high reputation.
All pewter products were stamped with the maker's touch-marks from 1503. These touches, unlike silver hallmarks, do not give the date of the precise year in which a piece was made.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed Pewterers' Hall and the touch-plates were also lost. However, the system was revived in 1668 and continued until the early 19th century by which time there were five plates struck with 1,100 touches. The Scottish touch-plates from 1580-1760 contain 143 touches.
If you find a good piece of pewter ware it can range in value from €40 upwards for plain and battered tankers of the 19th Century, to €1,000 thereabouts for more ornate and crafted punchbowls or vessels in excellent condition - those from the 18th Century are notable. A good find might thus be a cause for a celebratory drink.
Just don't quaff it from pewter.