Tin has been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians and was exported in large quantities from Cornwall to ancient Rome. The ancient Egyptians thought that tin and lead were different forms of the same metal.
Lead usually occurs as the mineral galena, which also contains small amounts of silver. The ancient Romans mined galena for the silver, resulting in a superabundance of lead. They used this lead for roofs, coffins, water cisterns and plumbing.
Lead was used in the Middle Ages for architectural decoration and, particularly in England, in roofing and rainwater guttering. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lead garden statues were popular.
Tin became available to the Romans when they conquered Britain and the Iberian Peninsular. Pure tin is brittle and difficult to cast but, when alloyed with another metal, usually lead, to produce pewter, it becomes easy to work and more robust. When new, pewter is silver coloured but, with age, it dulls to a pleasant grey.
The Romans made some pewter from about the 3rd century AD. Roman pewter contained up to 60% lead.
From about the 11th century, churches which could not afford silver, used pewter as a substitute. By the 14th century, pewter was used all over Europe, except in Spain, for eating and drinking vessels for the common people. Pewter has a low melting point and cannot be used in cooking vessels.
From medieval times, the craft guilds adopted standards for pewter which had to contain over 90% tin. Copper was widely used until about 1720; and a small amount of antimony was added in France from the 16th century and in Britain from the 18th century.
Very little of this pewter survives because it was the practice everywhere to return old worn or damaged goods as part payment for new ones. In America, pewter wares were melted down to make bullets during the American Revolution.
Pewter was seen as a utilitarian metal and, so, was rarely decorated. The main exception was the lids of tankards made in Germany in Switzerland.
Because so much old pewter has been lost, it can be worth collecting – hollow ware being more sought after than flatware.
Did you know?
Pewter collectors (unlike silver collectors) use the term “flatware” to refer to plates and dishes – not knives, forks and spoons.
Pewter was largely replaced by Britannia metal and silver-plated wares in the 19th century.
Britannia metal, an alloy of tin and antimony, often with small amounts of lead, copper or bismuth, was produced from the second half of the 18th century. It is harder than pewter and may be coloured – for example, with a yellow tint if copper is added. From early in the 19th century, it was used rather than pewter for many items and as the base for silver-plated items.
Pure tin was used in the form of tinplate (thin sheets of tin over an iron base) in the 18th and 19th centuries. Such tinware became popular in the United States in the 19th century.