When I was a kid, our flatware was made of silver, that prince of metals that my parents insisted we use, but that always gave certain dishes a sharp, unpleasant taste. Before dinner I’d inspect each spoon, fork and knife, switching mine for a less tarnished one. When it was finally time to eat, I’d drag my teeth over the metal, hoping this would minimize the acrid flavor from the metal. And when I stared into a delicious bowl of soup, the dreaded silver spoon in hand, I wanted to be a poor man.
Despite generations of heirloom silver sets, eating is when pewter most shines. Non-reactive, tarnish-free, and taste-less, it was used by the ancient Egyptians, prized by the Romans, and may have given Caesar cause to invade Britain, a land rich in the metals essential to its production. King Edward is said to have had over 300 dishes of the stuff — not a single one made of silver.
Ironically, tin (the main constituent of pewter) is considered “poor,” a term referring to the metals that sit in the corner of the periodic table that are soft and quick to melt. It is also considered by some to be “the poor man’s silver.” In truth, Tin is what gives pewter many of its beneficial attributes, making it a great alternative to silverware or earthenware. For this reason, pewter has also been called “the rich man’s ceramic.”
Though this most valuable metal alloy has been used since ancient times, it took craftsmen centuries to get it right. Toughening up tin without compromising its food-worthiness required a pinch of this and a little of that. (I imagine cloaked men milling around a boiling cauldron of tin, pouring contents from unmarked packages until just right.) “This” and “that” happened to be copper, antimony, bismuth, and — in the days before people knew better — lead. A high tin content meant a light alloy with a brighter finish but less strength. Considering it was more pleasant to sip ale out of a light shiny tankard than a dull one as heavy as pig-iron, craftsman continued searching for the perfect balance of strength and luster. The line for safe, high quality pewter was finally drawn at the 92% tin mark.
Those who could get their pewter to shine without having it crumple eventually formed craft guilds, strict organizations that acted as both educational institutions and regulatory agencies. Nuremburg, London, Limoges and Montpellier became important centers of pewter making as guilds in these cities carefully guarded their secrets. They trained apprentices and journeymen, allowing only the best to acquire the title of “master craftsman.” The rise to master, however, was tightly controlled — no one earned the title without the right letters, stamps and experience. The finished product was closely scrutinized, and only those that adhered to strict guild requirements received their own touchmarks, those embossed stamps which distinguished one craftsman’s work from another.
Just as apprenticeship was the equivalent to a college education, a touchmark was a craftsman’s brand. It also created a sense of accountability; if a piece wasn’t up to snuff, the buyer knew exactly where and who to complain to. Touchmarks also became marks of distinction. The crowned X, for example, indicated a high level of craftsmanship, while the date and initials of the reigning monarch proved it had passed inspection.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the demand for quality pewter increased dramatically, and guilds reached their height of production. Bright-eyed apprentices trained from four to six years, carving molds, pouring molten metals, and learning decorative techniques, while journeymen spread knowledge imparted by their village masters. For several generations guilds continued to supply taverns and homes alike with fine tableware. Consumers drank heartily from pewter mugs, poured thick gravy from pewter ladles over food served on pewter platters, and sipped soup from pewter bowls.
Inevitably, the industry was undermined by the very forces that regulated it. Innovation was stifled by the guild itself; the comfort of being in the bosom of a protected industry engendered laziness. Many craft guilds — including pewterers — lost the respect of the public as concern for quality fell dramatically. So irritating was this royalty-appointed system that revolutionaries the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Karl Marx immortalized their names debunking it.
Soon many protected craft trades, including the pewter trade, gave way to modern industrialized mechanization, electroplating, and the transition to porcelain and steel tableware. Faster production processes ultimately pushed the pewter industry into a specialty items category.
Today, it’s much easier to find a ceramic bowl than a pewter one in your local store, but the metal maintains a strong following among collectors. In more recent years, the gentleman’s flask has regained appreciation, and a lovely pewter plate is still a classy gift. Pewter pieces — once the durable and practical workhorse of the dinner table — may now just be tucked away for special occasions, but it’s still as strong, shiny and “taste-less” as ever.