Pewter - its use and cleaning

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By Ken Clayton

Pewter is a subject that raises temperatures in re-enactment circles for a variety of reasons, not least because some people like to use pewter tankards at events.

WHAT IS PEWTER?

Pewter is a metal alloy that consists of more than 90 per cent tin. Modern pewter has up to 97 per cent tin content with antimony and copper making up the balance to harden and strengthen the tin. It dates from around 1500 BCE although it was the Romans who developed its use in the manufacture of household utensils (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012a). From the middle of the 16th century, pewterers in Germany and England marked their products to confirm that they met the required manufacturing standards (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2012b).

USES OF PEWTER

Pewter tankards are often seen around re-enactment events and it is these, as much as anything else, that raises hackles. To be clear, the use of pint-sized pewters tankards is fine… in the beer tent… after the public have gone. They should not be used in any re-enactment. Tankards were made in the 17th century but they were usually for ecclesiastical use, not for the ale-house and common soldiers would be unlikely to have any type of pewter-ware.

Pewter was commonly used by the gentry for plates, chargers, jugs and drinking vessels but in this use it should be bright, not dull. Bright does not mean polished to a high, silver-like finish, but definitely not the dull, grey appearance of pewter that has had nothing but washing.

CLEANING PEWTER

First, the do nots:

  • Do not put pewter in a dishwasher
  • Do not clean pewter with silver or brass polish
  • Do not just wash it and allow it to become dull and grey

Some commentators claim that pewter needs to be cleaned regularly because eating off dull, grey pewter can affect the user’s health. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the case that pewter that has had citrus fruit on it should be washed as soon as possible after use.

There are various ways of cleaning pewter but the two preferred methods are:

Cleaning pewter at home

(NB The inclusion of this method should not be taken to mean that Fairfax Battalia approves of the method. Any person using this method must first satisfy themselves that it is safe to use on their own pewter.)

Make up a paste containing

  • 4 ozs of flour
  • 8 ozs of vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Spread it on the pewter and let it dry. Wash off the paste and rinse the pewter in warm, soapy water and dry it with a soft, clean cloth.

Cleaning pewter at an event

(NB The inclusion of this method should not be taken to mean that Fairfax Battalia approves of the method. Any person using this method must first satisfy themselves that it is safe to use on their own pewter.)

The traditional method is to get hold of a weed called Mare’s Tail or Horse Tail (Equisetum arvense) which is described as ‘an invasive, deep-rooted perennial weed’ (Royal Horticultural Society, 2012). The green part of the plant is rolled up and can then be used in the same way as a pan scourer to clean the pewter which can then be dried with a cloth.

REFERENCES

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012a, http://www.britannica.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/EBchecked/topic/596496/tin-processing/82131/Pewter#ref623360

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012b, http://www.britannica.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/EBchecked/topic/377708/metalwork/74021/Pewter#ref600746

Royal Horticultural Society, 2012, available from http://apps.rhs.org.uk/advicesearch/profile.aspx?pid=257 (accessed 6 October 2012)