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Notes on Pewter : SHOPPING FOR ANTIQUES : Pewter's Rise

September 18, 1988|SAM BURCHELL

FOR CENTURIES, PEWTER has been considered the poor man's silver. It was made by the Chinese 2,000 years ago, by the Romans in Britain and throughout Europe from the Middle Ages until the last half of the 18th Century.

An alloy consisting mainly of tin with small amounts of lead or copper or both (in the 18th Century, antimony was added for hardness and brilliance), pewter has a low melting point and can be cast in plaster, stone or bronze molds. Over the years pewter has been put to many uses. Ecclesiastical pewter, for example, was in great demand in England and elsewhere after church and cathedral construction began in the 10th Century. Candlesticks, alms dishes, christening bowls, baptism fonts and communion cups were made regularly.

For three centuries, pewter was also the common kitchenware and tableware of the yeoman, the merchant and the middle class: basins, plates, pear-shaped teapots, coffeepots and porringers. Medical pewter made in the 18th and early 19th centuries includes bleeding bowls, bottles, syringes, inhalers and such special instruments as "Mr. Gibson's Physic Spoon" (1825), for the forcible administration of distasteful medicine. The metal, too, was used in taverns and pubs (even now) for flagons and tankards, wine cups and baluster measures. Specimens of antique English and American pewter are much sought after, because they represent the successful blending of functional and decorative design with metal of high quality.

Continental pewter, on the other hand, was more elaborate and often had a higher lead content. Take the typical German piece: a tureen with spiral fluted sides topped by a pomegranate finial. English craftsmen were subject to strict regulations by the Worshipful Guild of Pewterers, and the Americans followed suit. Both used a fine alloy of tin, copper and antimony. Spare in ornamentation and following neo-classical designs, 18th-Century American pewter today is almost as expensive as silver.

Antique pewter can be found at Roberta Gauthey Antiques in Laguna Beach, Lewis & Bertha Shingler in South Pasadena, Admiral Benbow in Laguna Beach, Connoisseur in San Diego, Beau Sejour Antiques in West Los Angeles, Claude Hubert in Santa Monica, and Antique World Mall in Sherman Oaks.

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