If you were dining or drinking in the seventeenth-century, whether in New England or old England, the chances are that you used a pewter vessel. Pewter was popular because it was relatively cheap — a little more expensive than wood but much cheaper than silver, which it resembled when kept polished and cleaned. Like silver, pewter shined brightly and increased the light in the dim rooms of the period. So why, we might ask, are there so few survivors from the hundreds of thousands of plates that must have been produced?
“The melting pot” is the simple answer. Pewter is not a durable metal, and it has been estimated that the lifespan of a pewter plate in daily use was about 10 to 15 years. When it became too worn, it was shipped off to the local pewterer to be melted down and remade into something new.
Pewter, by the way, is an alloy of 80 to 95 percent tin, with lead, copper, antimony or bismuth added in variable amounts. There was no standard formula: each pewterer worked to his own.
In early America there were no tin mines and no native sources of the other ingredients, so there was no American pewter: all of it was imported from England. When it wore out, however, this English pewter went to an American pewterer who melted it down and reworked it into an American piece. We doubt that this was the origin of the metaphor of the “melting pot,” by which immigrants were turned into Americans, but it’s fun to think that it might have been.
My blog post “Spooning in the Mud” tells why so many pewter spoons have avoided the melting pot and have survived.