Don Herr chuckled when asked whether local antique pewter treasures are still to be found. “It’s incredible the things I find out there,” he says. Herr, author of Pewter in Pennsylvania German Churches, visited “many little country churches” around Lancaster and was stunned by the ecclesiastical pewter there. “They had no idea what they had,” Herr says of one church. “There was a $150,00 piece of pewter sitting near a glass window. I told the minister what it was worth, and he said, ‘Bless you.””
Had it been silver, the minister might have locked it up long ago. Forever silver’s second fiddle, pewter nonetheless can now command “huge amounts of money,” according to Linda Kane of Freeman’s Auctioneers. The record price for pewter, $248,000 in September 2007, was paid for an engraved communion flagon made by William Will in 1795, for a church in Penns Township, Northumberland County, Pa. Winterthur has a chalice that once accompanied the flagon.
In America, the division between household and church pewter “is indeed an arbitrary one,” according to Ledlie Laughlin in Pewter in America, as vessels made for the home were often contributed to churches for communion services. In wealthier parishes communion services were made of silver.
Pewter is an alloy composed principally of tin, with varying amounts of copper, lead, bismuth, and antimony. It was used in Egypt as early as 1300 B.C. By the 17th century, both England and the Netherlands had access to large quantities of tin and both passed the threshold of wealth required for pewter to be affordable to the majority, says Kenneth Barkin in European Pewter in Everyday Life, adding, “a plate would have cost an unskilled laborer a day’s wages around 1700.”
“In (colonial) Philadelphia,” Jack Lindsey says in Worldly Goods, “pewter was used alongside silver for everyday use in wealthier households and was probably the “best” ware in middle-range households, while simpler turned “treen” (wooden) or earthenware vessels were used in poorer households.” However, Americans didn’t have access to a large quantity of tin. According to Lindsey, in 1697 nearly 50 tons of imported pewter arrived in the colonies, an amount that increased steadily. In A History of American Pewter, Charles Montgomery says that around 1720 the value of pewter imports from England began to exceed the combined totals of the value of silver objects, furniture, and upholstery wares. The English prohibited the export of pure tin to the colonies, and taxed unworked pewter for export. As a result, American merchants could import British pewter cheaply and American pewterers melted old pewter to make new vessels.
“Pewter is a soft metal,” Laughlin says. “Finished common flatware was never valued at more than twice the value of old pewter.” Wealthy colonial Philadelphians like James Logan had a “pewter press” full of English pewter despite the presence of several fine early Philadelphia pewterers, including Simon Edgell, in the region as early as 1713. After 1750, local choices grew in quality as immigrant pewterers came to Pennsylvania. Items made by two German immigrants, William Will and Johann Heyne, now hold the top two positions in auction records.
Herr describes William Will, who settled in Philadelphia, as “one of those innovative people who created new forms from the molds that he had. He ingeniously used a measure, pint mug, quart tankard, basin, sugar bowl body, chalice body, and teapot hinge to produce the ambitious flagon forms….” Unlike silversmiths who hammered their work into shape, pewterers were limited by the availability of molds. Laughlin says of Will, “No other has left a more impressive evidence of ability….”
Of Johann Heyne, who settled in Lancaster, Herr says, “Most of the surviving pewter made by Heyne was for ecclesiastical use. His splendid flagons, with their strongly Germanic elements of cherub’s head feet and body combined with a cast hollow English handle, are remarkable examples of cultural assimilation of styles.”
In Chester County, 18th-century probate inventories show pewter in a large percentage of households. Chester County Historical Society’s booklet, Measure, Mug, and a Lot of Pewter Plates: Pewter in the DE Valley includes simple country pewter made by farmers, spinners, carpenters, and clockmakers who owned a mold or two. “It is not uncommon to find a spoon or button mold included in an 18th-century probate inventory, indicating that the owner could recast small objects for his own household use and for his neighbors,” the booklet says. Simple “tab-handled porringers,” made by Simon and Samuel Pennock, Elisha Kirk, and Robert Porter were “pretty much a Pennsylvania thing” according to Herr.
Elisha Kirk’s “touch-mark” says “ELISHA KIRK. YORKTOWN.” “One of the most satisfying things about pewter is that most of it is marked so you can place it with a maker or a town,” Kane says. Marks changed over time according to Pewter in American Life, and some makers had over half a dozen marks throughout the years.
Tea and coffee consumption (which favored porcelain and pottery) and the invention of plated silver were chief reasons for pewter’s decline in the 19th century. As Barkin says, “Pewter had fit comfortably into a world of elm-joint stools, oak coffers, yew-wood chairs, and strong, dark ale.”
But collectors remain enthusiastic. In May 2009, a Brandywine River Museum exhibit will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Pewter Collector’s Club of America. Collectors can also celebrate a $100,000 jump in the auction record for pewter during 2007.