Pewter is an alloy whose main constituent is tin, mixed with varying amounts of other materials such as lead, antimony, copper or bismuth to increase hardness. Lead was seldom used after the late 18th century, by which time a typical alloy would have contained 92% tin, 6% antimony and 2% copper.
Pewter was used by the ancient Egyptians as long as 2,500 years ago and was introduced to Britain by the Romans in the second century. It has been used to make tableware, drinking vessels and decorative objects over the centuries. Pewter was also used to manufacture everything from candleholders to inkstands.
Antique collectors usually concentrate on pewter objects from the late 18th through to the early 20th centuries since pewter from earlier dates is rare and commands high prices. It was in the second half of the 18th century that pewter ware became commonplace in Britain thanks to innovations in production processes. Prior to that, it had been the preserve of wealthy households.
By the mid-19th century, pewter had largely been replaced for household use by glass and ceramics. Pubs continued to use it for longer, but they also turned to glass for serving drinks in the later 19th century. However, the end of the 19th century saw a revival in pewter as it was a material favoured by the Arts and Crafts movement which blossomed at the time.
Pewter is well-known for its patina, which is caused by oxidation over time. This patina can be bright and silver-like in new items, ranging through to a soft grey or black in older objects. The best way to look after pewter pieces is to give them a polish with a mild silver cleaner once every few months. You can also simply give them a rinse in warm water with ordinary household detergent. It’s inadvisable to remove the patina as many collectors value the natural patinated look that pewter achieves over the years.
Nineteenth-century pewter tankards can be bought relatively cheaply. Pewter pieces with identifiable makers’ marks, called ‘touches’, have increased value, as do pieces from Liberty’s Tudric range which were made during the Arts and Crafts period.