Pewter has long been a part of our history. Tin, which is the main constituent, was discovered by man sometime in the Bronze Age. It is actually closely related to bronze… bronze is an alloy made of a large portion of copper and a small portion of tin and other ingredients, while pewter is an alloy made mostly of tin with a small amount of copper. Many people don’t realize that tin actually ranks fourth as the most commonly used precious metal, outranked only by platinum, gold and silver.
In Europe, it became very popular for kitchenware, plates, and eating utensils by the Middle Ages. Nobles and rich merchants favored it in the 12th century. As it became more common, it spread to inns and taverns. By the 15th century, it was not only common for most people’s use as tableware, but was also being forged into toys and decorative items. When the dangers of lead became apparent in the 1700s, this form of alloy was replaced by Britannia metal, which is a form of pewter made from tin, antimony, and copper. Today, the alloy is made from tin combined with a variety of other constituents that add their hardening qualities to the tin. Modern types are lead-free, although one must be cautious if dealing with antique pewter.
Guilds were created to train new artisans and create standards for the production of popular items. Hammering and casting were the primary methods of creating usable pieces. Craftsmen were divided into three categories depending on their method. Sad-ware men created fine crafted items by hammering; Hollow-ware men cast pieces into molds, and Triflers worked with lesser quality alloy, creating small decorative or utilitarian pieces. Today a fourth method that is commonly used in crafting items is spinning. Spinning consists of shaping the item in a mold on a wheel, using a blunt tool.
In the latter part of the 18th century, more economical methods for mass producing pottery and glass became available, and pewter lost its popularity. It came to represent a lack in taste. Many artisans ended up losing their businesses. Today, it is growing in popularity again. Fine crafted jewelry, domestic ware and decorative items are made to high standards in the United Kingdom and the United States. More people are realizing that it is not a cheap replacement for silver… it has a distinct glow and durability all its own that has attracted admirers from around the globe.