Before 1769 Pewter appears to have been made by small groups of skilled workers behind town shops or in smaller workshops, or in rural communities, and produced by casting. Casting pieces, soldering them together, and making the joins vanish by careful polishing, using a spinning lathe and with some parts finished and polished by hand.
Then in 1769 – “About the year 1769 a person was taken very ill and Mr Vickers visited him in his sickness. This person was in possession of the recipe for making white metal. Mr Vickers bid him five shillings and the offer was accepted.”
For hundreds of years tin had been mixed with lead or other base metals to make it malleable. Generally it didn’t need a lot extra to change it from brittle to workable though the quantities of additional base metals varied over the years. Here in 1769 James Vickers discovered that with the addition of a little antimony to the tin the resultant mixture could be turned into a sheet of metal. So instead of using expensive moulds to make castings, the resulting mixture in cooled sheet form could be cut, shaped, (by hand or spun on a wooden former) and the resultant pieces soldered together and an inexpensive version of the traditional pewter product was made.
Sheffield had been doing sheet metal for a while (silvered copper instead of solid silver for example) and the expertise was there. The industrial revolution was starting. Power driven machinery in factories instead of small units at home or in the back of the shop became the order of the day.
By the early to mid 1800s these factories grew bigger and turned out thousands of pieces at far less cost and lower selling prices than the traditional methods could compete with. This was not unusual, it happened with lots of previously cottage type industries – textiles for example.
The early Pewter collectors (collecting perhaps got going seriously from 1904 – 1930) were a tightly knit group of gentlemen who had this vision of themselves as eccentric and better end, collectors. Britannia Metal had happened just a short while before their time and factory production (which with land and what you could extract from it or transport for the new industrial age, might have made them their money) was looked down upon. Hence the only Pewter to collect was the cast pewter pre 1750 perhaps. There were, as with all such industries scattered remnants remaining of people producing cast pewter (and some were very good products for the discerning – those with money) by the old methods for almost the next 170 years.
Thus the wonderful design work and skill of those who had to work in the factories continued as people with talents could still rise above the rank and file of the other workers and express their design skills.
These skills and talents, though because it was factory production, have scarcely ever received any acclaim and the value today of those products is usually negligible and derisory. Perhaps this is something to collect that can be found in good condition is very inexpensive and was perhaps made over 140 years ago - it may yet appeal – but largely it has not done so yet.
So what was made? All that was previously made in cast pewter was going to be found in BM albeit made in the fashions that the age would buy. The new social habits of tea and coffee drinking and different eating rituals were catered for. The different concepts of designs for the age defined the factory production and the designer’s tasks.
Below I show four photographs of items easily found and which to me are very collectable and cost really very little.
This is a very simplistic summary and approach to explaining Britannia Metal Pewter. For perhaps the best book ever written on the subject you might consult –
Pewter Wares From Sheffield by Jack L Scott published by the Antiquary Press of Baltimore USA ISBN 0-937864-00-5
Not all Britannia Metal is cheap and cheerful for the collector - as the earlier marked pieces, especially those up to around 1800, are especially sought after by collectors in the USA.