Pewter is the name given to a soft white metal alloy made chiefly of tin. The word pewter is probably a variation of the word "spelter," which became "peutre" in French. Roughly 85 percent to 99 percent of the alloy is tin, with the remaining 1 percent to 15 percent being copper, which acts as a hardener. Lower grades of older pewter contain lead, which gives the metal a bluish tint. Modern pewter typically utilizes antimony and/or bismuth instead of lead.
Pewter buttons were made in America as early as the 18th century. Made of lead-based pewter cast in molds, these buttons could be made in the home. At first, the shanks of pewter buttons were cast as part of the button, but the soft pewter shanks quickly wore out from contact with thread. In the early 1800s, a more durable wire eye was embedded in the molten pewter, and from that time on the technology of pewter button making changed frequently, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The following descriptions cover a chronological sampling of the many types of collectible pewter buttons.
Several manufacturers in New England made pewter buttons to replace the supply of British buttons cut off during the American Revolution. All 25 or so American makers of post-Revolution pewter buttons whose backmarks have been identified were from Connecticut. Americans made their buttons using a hard grade of pewter with a fair amount of tin. Called "hard whites," the buttons appealed to the growing middle class. There is some evidence that hard whites, which date from 1800 to 1830, were made to resemble steel buttons popular at the time. Some makers went so far as to backmark their buttons "imitation steel." Because many of the Connecticut button makers were in close proximity to one another, their patterns were often the same or very similar. An apprentice would work for one maker and then hire out to another button maker, sharing designs and information.
Hard white pewters have steel or brass wire loop shanks embedded in a hump of metal on the back. Face patterns are usually conventional, with variations of stars and pinwheels being the most popular.
Styles for men and women
Men began to wear new styles of pewter buttons, including rimmed and faced buttons, in the 1830s and 1840s. Rimmed pewters are composed of a small one-piece pewter body with an applied brass rim. The shanks resemble those found on hard whites and consist of a wire shank embedded in a mound of pewter. Faced pewter buttons have a brass covering over the pewter, with shanks like those on hard whites and rimmed pewters.
In the mid-19th century, the women's wear industry began to utilize pewter buttons. These buttons were cast, often with the shank included. Many have stamped designs tinted with colored varnishes and are further enhanced with bright-cut designs. Bright-cutting is done with a sharp tool that gouges through the varnished surface to expose bright metal.
Late 19th-century designs
In the second half of the 19th century, an inferior quality of pewter, sometimes called Britannia, was used in combination with other metals. Conventional and pictorial designs were featured on the pewter centers, which were mounted on buttons of brass or steel.
In the last decade of the 19th century, openwork and other pewter buttons in conventional and pictorial designs became very common. Many of these buttons were made of pewter containing a high percentage of lead. The buttons are inferior in quality, dull in appearance, and apt to make a very dark mark on paper, like pencil lead. These are found in conventional and pictorial designs, sometimes tinted in various colors. A seam or mold mark on the back of the button is characteristic of the type. Backmarks, such as "Depose" or "Paris," are also found. The shanks are soft and bend easily.
Pewter buttons continue to be made in the 21st century by artisan manufacturers who work in the old method of casting, using high-grade pewter. Battersea, a family firm in Wisconsin, Sid Bell originals of New York, and Danforth Pewter of Vermont produce limited quantities of beautiful buttons prized by collectors.
People sometimes confuse the properties of pewter with other metals. You don't have to worry about pewter being attracted to metal jewelry, as it is not magnetic. It will oxidize when exposed to air, however. You can then polish it for a soft sheen.Suzanne Marsh has been a button collector for 10 years and is an active member of the National Button Society, for which she serves as librarian and trustee. She is currently the president of the Michigan State Button Society and also belongs to the Texas State Button Society. You can contact Suzanne through michiganbuttonsociety.org.