The history of tin goes back to the Sumerians who produced bronze (a copper-tin alloy) nearly 4500 years. The oldest known pewter is about 3500 years old and comes from Egypt. Pewter from China dates back at least 2000 years and from Japan about 1100 years. Phoenicians traded for Cornish tin more than 2000 years ago, and tin and lead resources may have been a factor in the Roman occupation of Britain. Small pewter items were made in Roman Britain.
In Europe, pewter plates and hollow ware were being used by noble households and the church in the 12th and 13th centuries. In lesser households, however, it was much later that pewter began to replace plates, bowls and beakers made of wood and bone. With the increasing use of pewter, guilds were formed to promote the interests of pewter makers and to develop and maintain both the quality of material and products made from it.
The first ordinance from the City of London granting rules for the manufacture of pewter was issued in 1348. Pewter, as with silver and gold, became subject to assay and carried makers marks and other marks of origin and standard. The power and authority of the British and European pewter guilds reached a peak during the 17th and 18th centuries but went into rapid decline as pottery and porcelain began to replace it as utility ware.
Although slow turning lathes were used to finish better quality plates, bowls and beakers, most pewter ware was formed only by casting or beating. Early alloys of pewter were relatively soft and the use of beating helped to strengthen as well as to give shape to the final form.
Pewter came to North America with European settlement but to protect their industry, the British allowed only importation of finished wares. During the American Revolution most of this imported pewter was melted down and used in ammunition. With American independence, however, there was a surge in American craftsmanship and technical ability which grew through the late Georgian period and the industrial revolution. American pewter of this time tends to be less ornate than it's European counterparts and often reflects the design of contemporary silverware.
Major changes in manufacture came with the introduction of Britannia metal, and at a time when it seemed that pottery and porcelain would replace pewter. Use of this alloy spread rapidly and it was found that the metal could be formed by spinning thin sheets on a fast turning lathe. The technique was first patented in America by William Porter of Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1834. Spinning lowered costs, increased production and led to the use of early "assembly line" techniques (parts were made separately and later soldered together). Unfortunately and perhaps more so in Europe than America, poor design and standards led to use of sheet metal that was sometimes too thin and weak for intended use, and the reputation of Britannia metal declined.
Most recently, with development of centrifugal casting during the 1950s and 1960s, pewter has become widely used in highly detailed jewelry and decorative ware.
Pewter ware continues to be made in North America, Europe and many other countries but the world's largest producer of pewter is Royal Selangor in Malasia. Interestingly, the origins of this company go back to 1885 when a Chinese immigrant set up a "cottage industry" to make pewter articles. He came from Swatow ........ known, today, for the beautiful Kuthin Swatow Chinese pewter ware.
Pewter By Design is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, specializing in beautiful handcrafted pewter countertops and in the classic French pewter.