In 18th-century America, most women served their meals on pewter plates, tankards, pitchers, flatware, and serving vessels. Pewter is an alloy composed mainly of tin with various amounts of lead, copper, zinc, antimony, & bismuth. Women in early China, Egypt, Greece, & Rome also used this soft metal for serving food. Because of its low melting point & how easily it dented, experts estimate that pewter in the colonial American home lasted only 10 years.
Nonetheless, while poor colonials used wooden utensils, most who could afford it used pewter. Though pewter vessels cost only about 1/10th the price of silver, they were still fairly expensive. One dish or tankard equaled or exceeded what a skilled craftsman earned in a day.
A study of English export records by Robert W. Symonds revealed that by 1720 "the value of pewter imports from England began to exceed the combined totals of the value of silver objects, furniture, upholstery wares, including bedding, curtains, carpets, hangings, and upholstered furniture." More than 300 tons of English pewter were shipped to the American colonies annually in the 1760's.
The English monarchy tightly controlled the export of goods to the colonies through the establishment of export laws. Exactly which pewter wares were to be exported was largely controlled by the English pewter guilds. These measures ensured the English guilds a market in the New World for their products, and significantly restricted the ability of American pewter smiths to compete.
However, due to the low melting point of pewter metal, it could easily be melted down & re-cast into new forms with little loss of material. American pewtersmiths decided to collect damaged or disused pewter goods & recycle them. One common colonial practice among pewterers was to offer 1 pound of new pewterware in exchange for 3 pounds of old. In some regions, pewterers traveled from door to door in order to collect damaged vessels for repair or for recycling.
William Will was born in Germany, near the Rhine river. His family came to New York City in 1752, when he was 10. His father was a pewterer, as were his brothers. He appeared in Philadelphia, with his brother Philip, in 1763. The pewter maker married there & also served as an overseer of the poor, a sheriff of Philadelphia, an officer in the army, & in the General Assembly of the state. He died there in 1798. A local newspaper reported, "On Saturday morning departed this life after a lingering indisposition, which he bore with Christian fortitude, Col Willim Will, in the 56the year of his age; a native of the city of Nieuwidt in German; and on Monday, his remains were interred in the burial ground of the German reformed congregation attended by the members of the German incorporated society, and a very large number of respectable citizens."
In colonial America during the life of William Will, artisans made pewter articles by either casting the liquid pewter into molds, which were usually made of brass or bronze; by turning on a lathe; or by hammering a flat pieces such as large dishes, trenchers, or chargers into shape. Almost all pewter prior to 1800 was cast in molds. Molds were expensive; & immigrating pewterers, such as William Will's family, usually brought their molds with them from England or Germany.
For more information see:
Davis, John D. Pewter At Colonial Williamsburg. Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2003.
Ebert, Katherine. Collecting American Pewter. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.
Fennimore, Donald L. The Knopf Collectors' Guide to American Antiques: Silver & Pewter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Herr, Donald M. Pewter in Pennsylvania German Churches. Birdsboro, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1995.
Hornsby, Peter R.G. Pewter of the Western World, 1600 - 1850. Exton, PA: Shiffer Publishing Ltd., 1983
Jacobs, Carl. Guide to American Pewter. New York: The McBride Company, 1957.
Jacobs, Celia. American Pewter Marks & Makers, A Handbook for Collectors, rev. 2d ed. Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Green Press, 1970.
Kauffman, Henry J. The American Pewterer His Techniques and His Products. Camden, New Jersey: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1970.
Kerfoot, John Barrett. American Pewter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924.
Laughlin, Ledlie Irwin. Pewter in America: Its Makers and Their Marks. 2 Volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940; Volume 3. Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1971.
Montgomery, Charles F. A History of American Pewter. A Winterthur Book. New York: Praeger, 1973.
Myers, Louis G. Some Notes on American Pewterers. New York: Country Life Press, 1926.
Peal, Christopher. Pewter in Great Britain. London: John Gifford, Ltd., 1983.
Pewter Collectors' Club of America. Collecting Antique Pewter What to Look For and What to Avoid. PCCA, 2006.
Pewter Collectors' Club of America. Pewter in American Life. Providence, RI: Mowbray Company, 1984.
Thomas, John Carl. Connecticut Pewter and Pewterers. The Connecticut Historical Society: Connecticut Printers, 1976.
Thomas, John Carl, Editor. American and British Pewter. New Jersey: The Main Street Press, 1976.
Much of the information about the general history of American pewter in this blog comes from the website of The Pewter Collectors' Club Of America, Inc.