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History of Pewter

THE PEWTER: BRIEF HISTORICAL OUTLINE (from the book “Il peltro in Europa” by L. Mory – Bramante edition)

 

TIN IN ANCIENT TIMES

The discovery of archaeological relics are a record that men have been using tin for almost 4000 years. During prehistory tin was preferably used as a metal alloy (12-14%) combined with copper, to produce bronze.

Its ancient and widespread use is confirmed by the way it was traded. It was first brought around areas of Asia. Later, when Phoenicians took possession of the seas, it was traded along Spanish and French coasts, to the Isles of the North Sea.

On the Isle of Wight, by Austle, and on the Cornish mountains (Britannia) Phoenicians traders first and the Romans later found areas rich in tin. They exploited them extracting and then exporting this metal to other countries.

Even if confined, the use of tin minerals in France, Spain and Etruria enabled its trade.

Until XI century the great migrations of German clans and the conflicts they led, prevented the chance to work tin in great quantity. Until then it was mainly used  for religious purposes as during the Council of Reims (813)the use of tin only, besides gold and silver, was allowed to produce religious items.

As clans took up their fixed residence, the use of tin was increased by the production of plates, bowls, jugs and glasses. In the production of tableware, wood and clay started to be replaced by tin, considered a tougher material and around 1200, metal handicraft working started to develop in the main centres.

 

THE METAL

This silvery grey metal is chiefly derived from cassiterite (which takes its name from the Isles Cassiteriti, thought to be the Isles of Scilly, southwest Cornwall).

Tin is mainly found in underground ore deposits, tied together with other minerals, but it is also found in sand as placer deposits.

As native element, tin is rare. It is said to be first extracted in Central Asia. The extraction of it in south-west Britannia was described by Diodoro, Caesar’s contemporary : “Miles and miles of galleries under the sea, and above, on miners’ heads, waves roared”

In this highland areas tin was extracted under the open sky. The metal was melted on the spot in order to be directed to Marseille, Bruges and Köln through the Channel.

The mainland trade of tin started to raise when in 1347 the Prince of Wales “handed over all tin mines to the German Tiderman Limbergh for 3 years and 3 months, leaving him the right to corner all the tin of Cornwall and Devonshire”.   However, one hundred years earlier tin minerals were found in Germany. In 1240, in Graupen, on Erzgebirge plentiful deposits of tin were found.

While tin extraction itself wasn’t a difficult process, the one of separating tin from the other minerals it was found with, was quite industrious.

In many areas of Central Europe particles of tin were hardly separated from other minerals through mechanical and chemical process. In order to easily reach the place of manufacture tin took the shapes of ingots and bars.

At the end of XVIII century, due to poor profit, the extraction of tin from English and German mines was suspended. After that tin production raised consistently on the Malacca peninsula and during the XIX century on the isles of Banka, Billiton and Singkep. By this, the centre of tin extraction moved again towards Asia.

Among the most important centres of tin extraction we can find Russia (in particular areas neighbouring China), West Africa (Congo and Nigeria) and Bolivia, considered to be the richest deposit of tin of all America.

Because of its various properties tin has always met success. From a technical point of view it has high resistance to chemical and atmospheric agents; it has a low melting point (232°C); it easily alloys with other minerals; it has malleability and a bright colour.

Pure tin, which is too soft for practical use, is hardened with small quantities of copper and antimony giving birth to pewter. Pewter doesn’t oxidise as iron does; it doesn’t cover with a green coat as copper does and it doesn’t quickly blacken as silver does; moreover it isn’t breakable as pottery.

Pewter traits are sustained by Cornelius Gurlitt (1850-1926):

“ Once you try to eat in a pewter bowl you’ll wonder how pleasant it is, how easily food is cut and how it keeps warm. You’ll wonder how wine and beer keeps cool once poured in a pewter pitcher”.

GUILDS

Stimulated by the manufacture of objects in monasteries, in medieval times farmers started to produce all the items they needed.

Depending on their personal skills, some started to work wood, others became blacksmiths. Soon the farmer became a proper craftsman.

The exploitation of tin mines led to a new profession: the caster.

In Southern Germany these artisans were called “Kandler” or “Kandelgiesser” (from jug = Kandel and to melt = giessen) while in Northern Germany were known as “Kannenmacher” (from Kanne = jug  and machen = to make, to manufacture).

The first reference to Nürnburger casters, who gave birth to pewterer’s Guilds, dates back to 1285 and by the middle of 14th century, Guilds and Associations began to spring up throughout Europe.

In many cities of Germany and in other parts of Europe there were communities of casters, some independent while others assembled because of similar categories.

The art of casters soon got respect and consideration.

In the Middle Ages the Constitution of Guilds was a fundamental part of common law. It contained rights and duties of those belonging to a Guild, as well as instructions about a particular kind of job. It was first drafted by the elder Masters and then ratified by the city authorities. The ordinances included rules concerning the profession of artisan (composition of alloys, necessity of a trade-mark) and the private lives of artisans as well.

You could become an apprentice only by legitimate birth and if believed honest and devout. The traineeship lasted from 3 to 8 years and it was particularly hard. If the trainee held up this period, the Master charged him with a test before living him any kind of qualification. Two older men were at the head of the workers.

It took many years to get all the necessary skills to become a caster. Once become a Master he should be subjected to strict rules.

The exam was held in the Master’s workshop and it lasted two weeks. The difficulty of the test was not only that the trainee should manufacture three object using pewter, but he should also prepare moulds for stone, terracotta and brass.

The objects he should produce during the exam were usually wine jug, bowls and ampoules.

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