Pewter clock, Archibald Knox

Pewter clock, Archibald Knox

Tin and pewter

Tin is a very soft, silver coloured, corrosion-resistant metal. It has been used decoratively, in alloys and as a coating on other metals such as copper and iron.

Pewter, sometimes called 'poor man's silver', is an alloy or mixture of metals consisting primarily of tin. Adding metals such as copper and antimony makes pewter harder and more durable. The best alloys contain over 90% tin.

Before 1800 lead was allowed in 'lay metal', a lower-quality alloy used for measures and boxes. Soft lead made casting easier, but was poisonous, so it was forbidden in 'flatware' such as plates, dishes and porringers. Tests do reveal small amounts of up to 2%, but modern pewter contains no lead. Most pewter is cast in moulds.

Britannia metal is often mistaken for pewter. It was developed in response to the Sheffield plate industry and it borrowed much of the technology: most was stamped into shape using steel dies. By the 1850s, the use of Britannia metal superseded pewter for cheap mass-produced items. Britannia metal and modern pewter, containing antimony and no lead, are virtually indistinguishable.

Marks on both old pewter and Britannia metal vary. Marks on pewter consist of a maker's mark, a secondary mark such as a crown or a pseudo hall mark, and labels such as 'London' (never Sheffield), 'superfine', and 'English block tin', among others. Britannia metal marks sometimes show the maker's name, town of manufacture and a catalogue number. Common Britannia metal manufacturers include Ashberry, Dixon, Broadhead and Atkin, Vickers, Wolstenholme, and Yates. From the 1860s, Britannia metal was often silverplated and was then usually stamped EPBM (Electroplated Britannia metal).