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Early American Pewter - Britannia

Posted by Hampshire Pewter on 2/17/2015

Early American pewter is noted for its simplicity of style. The difficulty and expense of obtaining molds resulted in a slower stylistic evolution than that of silver which did not require molds for its manufacture, though the general design trends in silver were eventually reflected in pewter. Because pewter was a far softer metal, a thicker construction was often used as a means of increasing durability. Further, pewter's basically utilitarian nature discouraged excessive ornamentation.

Near the end of the eighteenth century a new type of pewter called britannia was introduced from England. Harder than regular pewter, britannia was an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony but was without any lead. It was easier and faster to manufacture, for it could either be more thinly cast or it could be stamped or spun from sheets of the rolled metal. This also meant that the style could respond to the dictates of fashion as quickly as silver. In fact, britannia came to resemble silver, especially in brilliance and shape, more than it resembled traditional pewter, with the notable exception of price. It was exceedingly popular until about 1850 when the process of electroplating was introduced whereby a thin coating of silver could be applied to cover the britannia or other metal. Over the next twenty years britannia makers and pewterers either gradually shifted to the manufacture of silver plate or went out of business. This was due to the competition from the ever-increasing popularity of porcelain and other pottery wares as well as the finally overwhelming competition from silver plate.

Considering the amount of American pewter which once existed, alarmingly little has survived to the present. The former advantage that damaged or worn pewter could be melted down and recast has robbed us of a complete view of the development of pewter in America. Also, during the War for Independence many donated their pewter to be cast into musket balls.  But the special allure of pewter was recognized even as its popularity declined. In 1839 an old pewter beaker was the first recorded object given to the New Hampshire Historical Society. And today we continue to collect and honor works of this soft-luster metal which played such an important role in the early history of this country