pewter, any of a number of ductile, silver-white alloys consisting principally of tin. The properties vary with the percentage of tin and the nature of the added materials. Lead, when added, imparts a bluish tinge and increased malleability and tends to escape from the alloy in poisonous quantities if the percentage used is too large; antimony adds whiteness and hardness. Other metals including copper, bismuth, and zinc can also be added. Pewter is shaped by casting, hammering, or lathe spinning on a mold and is usually simply ornamented with rims, moldings, or engraving, although some Continental display ware, especially of the Renaissance period in France and Germany, shows intricate ornamentation. Pewter was early used in East Asia, and Roman pieces are extant. England was a pewter center from the Middle Ages; pewter was the chief tableware until it was superseded by china. America imported much English pewter in colonial times and from c.1700 made large quantities. The craft had virtually disappeared by 1850 but was revived in the 20th cent. in reproductions and in pieces of modern design. The collection and study of pewter are increasingly popular, although relatively little old pewter has been preserved because of its small intrinsic value and of the ease with which it may be melted and reused. Pieces made of britannia metal are similar in appearance to pewter ware.
See L. L. Laughlin, Pewter in America (1969); and H. J. Kauffman, The American Pewterer (1970); C. F. Montgomery, A History of American Pewter (1973).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.