pewter tankard

Pewter tankard

© Reardon

An alloy of tin, with additions of various other elements to affect its hardness, color and cost.

In England, three types of pewter were distinguished:

Trifle pewter cost ½ penny a pound less than plate pewter, and lye pewter 2 pence less than trifle pewter. The decrease in cost was achieved by increasing the amount of lead, the cheapest of the constituents, some say by simply adding lead to a pot of the higher quality metal. Lead is toxic and can be leached out of the metal, especially by acidic liquids. Pewter made in the industrialized world since the latter third of the 20th century does not contain any lead.

Composition of pewters, by parts
Source Alloy tin lead zinc copper bismuth antimony
Aiken   100     4 1 8
Ure plate pewter 100     2 2 8
ley pewter 4 1        
trifle pewter 83 X?       17
French law of 18xx > 83.5%          
Hiscox plate 79     2 2 7
ley 80 20        
trifle 79 6       15

Is pewter safe?

This question was put to the respected British Medical Journal (3 March 1973, page 543). Their response:

Drinking from Pewter Vessel

An infant was given a pewter mug by his godfather and has used it exclusively for drinking. Is there any danger in its regular use?

Much depends on the date of manufacture of the pewter vessel. Formerly, pewter contained as much as 30% lead and was thus potentially hazardous when used for domestic purposes. Significant contamination of foodstuffs and beverages by old pewter is most likely to result from prolonged contact with an acidic medium such as fruit juice, salad dressing, wines, pickles, and preserves. Modem pewter does not contain lead but is an alloy of tin with small amounts of copper, bismuth, and antimony. Provided that the manufacture was during the last two to three years there is no associated health hazard in normal usage.

Their answer assumes, of course, that the pewter was manufactured in a country like the U.K., with effective regulations.


for further reading

Howard Herschel Cotterell.
Old Pewter: Its Makers and Marks in England, Scotland and Ireland: an account of the old pewterer and his craft.
London: Batsford, 1929.

A search for other works by this expert will uncover a treasure trove of titles.

H. J. L. J. Masse.
The Pewter Collector. A guide to English pewter with some reference to foreign work.
New York: Dodd Mead and Co., 1921.
Digitized by Google.
    Includes illustrations of the "touches", or hallmarks, of many English pewterers.


For those who might like to try casting their own pewter objects:



The assay of the purity of tin and of the quality or standard of fineness of its alloy, pewter, was as early as the sixteenth century conducted as follows :—

A mould, such as is now used for casting lead bullets, was taken, and a ball of the particular standard of pewter in question was cast therein; then in the same mould another ball was cast of the pewter the quality of which it was desired to ascertain. The two balls were then weighed. If the latter ball was equal in weight to or lighter than the first or standard essay it was of the requisite quality; for the lighter the tin or pewter the purer it is. If it weighed more it was rejected as being of inferior quality.

From the little book published by the authority of the Pewterers' Company in 1772 it appears that the mould then used was of such a size that a ball of fine tin, absolutely free from any admixture, cast therein, weighed 182 grains; a ball of Plate Metal not more than 183½ grains or 1½ grains heavier; a ball of Trifling Metal not more than 185½ grains or 3½ grains heavier; and a ball of Ley Metal not more than 198½ grains or 16½ grains heavier.

H. J. L. J. Massé
The Pewter Collector. A Guide to English Pewter with some Reference to Foreign Work.
New York: Dodd Mean and Co., 1921.
Pages 78 & 79.


[Pierre] Bayen and [Louis-Martial] Charlard.
Recherches chimiques sur L'Étain, faites et publiée par ordre du gouvernement; ou Réponse a cette Question: Peut-on sans aucun danger employer les Vaisseaux d'Etain dans l'usage économique?
Paris: l'Imprmerie de Philippe-Denys Pierres, 1781.
Digitized by Google.

The title may be translated as “Chemical Researches regarding Pewter, performed and published by order of the government, in response to this question: May one without any danger employ pewter vessels in commercial uses?”


Pewter is, generally speaking, an alloy of tin and lead, sometimes with a little antimony or copper, combined in several different proportions, according to the purposes which the metal is to serve. The English tradesmen distinguish three sorts, which they call plate, trifle, and ley pewter; the first and hardest being used for plates and dishes; the second for beer-pots; and the third for larger wine measures. The plate pewter has a bright silvery lustre when polished; the best is composed of 100 parts of tin, 8 parts of antimony, 2 parts of bismuth, and 2 of copper. The trifle is said by some to consist of 83 of tin, and 17 of antimony; but it generally contains a good deal of lead. The ley pewter is composed of 4 of tin, and 1 of lead. As the tendency of the covetous pewterer is always to put in as much of the cheap metal as is compatible with the appearance of his metal in the market, and as an excess of lead may cause it to act poisonously upon all vinegars and many wines, the French government long ago appointed Fourcroy, Vauquelin, and other chemists, to ascertain by experiment the proper proportions of a safe pewter alloy. [These] commissioners found that 18 parts of lead might, without danger of affecting wines, &c., be alloyed with 82 parts of tin; and the French government in consequence passed a law, requiring pewterers to use 83½ of tin in 100 parts, with a tolerance of error amounting to 1½ per cent. This ordonnance, allowing not more than 18 per cent of lead at a maximum, has been extended to all vessels destined to contain alimentary substances. A table of specific gravities was also published, on purpose to test the quality of tbe alloy; the density of which, at the legal standard, is 7.764. Any excess of lead is immediately indicated by an increase in the specific gravity above that number.

The pewterer fashions almost all his articles by casting them in moulds of brass or bronze, which are made both inside and outside in various pieces, nicely fitted together, and locked in their positions by ears and catches or pins or various kinds. The moulds must be moderately heated before the pewter is poured into them, and their surfaces should be brushed evenly over with pounce powder (sandarach) beaten up with white of egg. Sometimes a film of oil is preferred. The pieces, after being cast, are turned and polished; and if any part needs soldering, it must be done with a fusible alloy of tin, bismuth, and lead.

Britannia metal, the kind of pewter of which English tea-pots are made, is said to be an alloy of equal parts of brass, tin, antimony, and bismuth; but the proportions differ in different workshops, and much more tin is commonly introduced. Queen's metal is said to consist of 9 parts of tin, 1 of antimony, 1 of bismuth, and 1 of lead; it serves also for teapots and other domestic utensils.

A much safer and better alloy for these purposes may be compounded by adding to 100 parts of the French pewter, 5 parts of antimony, and 5 of brass to harden it. The English ley pewter contains often much more than 20 per cent of lead. Under Tin, will be found the description of an easy method of analyzing its lead alloys.

Andrew Ure, M.D.
A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines...
London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1839.
Page 967.


PEWTER, which is commonly called étain in France, and generally confounded there with true tin, is a compound metal, the basis of which is tin. The best sort consists of tin, alloyed with about a twentieth or less of copper, or other metallic bodies, as the experience of the workmen has shown to be the most conducive to the improvement of its hardness and colour, such as lead, zinc, bismuth, and antimony. There are three sorts of pewter, distinguished by the names of plate, trifle, and ley-pewter. The first was formerly much used for plates and dishes; of the second are made the pints, quarts, and other measures of beer; and of the ley-pewter, wine measures, and large vessels. The best sorts of pewter consist of 17 parts of antimony to 100 parts of tin; but the French add a little copper to this kind of pewter. A very fine silver-looking metal is composed of 100 pounds of tin, 8 of antimony, one of bismuth, and four of copper. On the contrary, the ley-pewter, by comparing its specific gravity with those of the mixture of tin and lead, must contain more than a fifth part of its weight of lead.

Luke Hebert.
The Engineer's And Mechanic's Encyclopædia, comprehending practical illustrations of the machinery and processes employed in every description of manufacture in the British Empire.... Vol II.
London: Thomas Kelly, 1836.
Page 289.


This is an alloy of tin and lead only, or of tin with antimony and copper. The first is properly called pewter. Three varieties are known in trade:

I (Plate Pewter).— From tin, 79 per cent; antimony, 7 per cent; bismuth and copper, of each 2 per cent; fused together. Used to make plates, teapots, etc. Takes a fine polish.

II (Triple Pewter*).— From tin, 79 per cent; antimony, 15 per cent; lead, 6 per cent; as the last. Used for minor articles, syringes, toys, etc.

III (Ley Pewter)—From tin, 80 per cent; lead, 20 per cent. Used for measures, inkstands, etc.

According to the report of a French commission, pewter containing more than 18 parts of lead to 82 parts of tin is unsafe for measures for wine and similar liquors, and, indeed, for any other utensils exposed to contact with food or beverages. The legal specific gravity of pewter in France is 7.764; if it be greater, it contains an excess of lead, and is liable to prove poisonous. The proportions of these metals may be approximately determined from the specific gravity; but correctly only by an assay for the purpose.

*Thus the 1907 edition. In later editions the line was corrected to read: “II (Trifle Pewter).—(sometimes mistakenly called triple pewter”, and to “Ley Pewter” was added “(sometimes mistakenly called lye pewter)”.

Gardner Dexter Hiscox, editor.
Henleys' Twentieth Century Book of Recipes, Formulas and Processes...
New York: The N. W. Henley Publishing Company, 1907.
Page 75, under the headword “alloys”.


Although the introduction of cheap and beautiful pottery had largely superseded the use of expensive pewter ware long before the commencement of the present century [i.e., the 19th], it was not until the war with France had raised the price of tin so greatly that the pewter dishes disappeared so generally in the country.

Dionysius Lardner, editor.
A Treatise on the Progressive Improvement and Present State of the Manufactures in Metal vol. 3.
London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, and John Taylor, 1834.
Page 93.

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