Woodbury Pewter – All that Glitters is Not Gold

Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

058_woodburypewterThe Chinese discovered by heating clay in a kiln they could produce porcelain, and from that they could make tableware. But prior to the mass production of ceramics, pewter was used instead for this purpose.

The earliest records pertaining to this malleable metal dates back to the Bronze Age when a piece from 1450 B.C. was found in an Egyptian tomb buried alongside a pharaoh. During the Middle Ages, pewter objects like communion cups or chalices were commonplace in churches, while pewter tableware, flatware, serving trays and platters, porringers, teapots, candle sticks, sugar bowls, and creamers graced only the tables of Great Britain’s aristocracy.

In 1348, a pewter guild was formed in London, England. The Worshipful Company of Pewterers not only controlled the manufacturing and allocation of pewter, but they set the standards and regulations governing how pewter products were made. The pieces produced by these metalsmiths were revered worldwide.

By the 1600s, pewter became mainstream and was used by merchants who filled their taverns with beer steins, flagons, and lidded mugs. Middle class families traded wooden utensils and dishes for a dinner table donning the shiny metal.

When the thirteen colonies were established, members of the guild came here to set up shop. But the British Government decided to restrict the export of tin to America; and since pewter is comprised of 85-99 percent tin as well as copper, antimony, and lead, no new pieces could be fabricated. Instead, pewterers were forced to melt down older or damaged pieces and recast them to create new ones. While the English did allow the import of pewter objects for purchase, the remolded items were less expensive and grew in popularity until the late 1700s  when craftsman James Vickers introduced a lead free metal called britannium to the market.

Britannium was easier to manufacture than pewter because it could be stamped or spun from sheets of rolled metal rather than cast. With the advent of electroplating, a thin coat of silver could be applied over the brittania, offering consumers the look and elegance of silver, but without the cost. Many pewterers became britannium makers, and those who didn’t, closed their doors.

As porcelain and glass products became cheaper to make than those crafted in britannium, the once fashionable alloy lost its sheen altogether. But today, pewter products have experienced a resurgence; and at Woodbury Pewter in Woodbury, Connecticut, many of their traditional and contemporary pieces are made with the same tools and techniques our Yankee forefathers used during the 18th and 19th centuries.

019_woodburypewterRuth Holbrook and her nephew, Lee R. Titcomb started Woodbury Pewter in 1952. Titcomb had been employed at an electrical inventing company while Holbrook worked for different department stores. With her marketing and design background and Titcomb’s mechanical skills, they decided to go into business together. It began as a real mom and pop operation, and those values remain inherent in the company today, even though their reputation for producing high quality pewter pieces and reproduction pieces for museums has become renowned worldwide.

“My great aunt Ruth would load up her Studebaker station wagon; and like the old fashioned Yankee peddlers, would zoom around to little stores all over New England, selling the wares they were making,” says Brooks Titcomb, Lee’s son and owner of Woodbury Pewter.

All the items are still made on-site by master craftsmen and women, many of whom are second and third generation employees. The pewter they use is 92 percent tin, 6 percent antimony, and 2 percent copper. It does not contain any lead so the products meant for holding food and liquid are completely safe to use. The metal arrives in sheets in a solid rectangular shape called an ingot, or as round discs 3 inches to 15.5 inches in diameter.

Before the discs are put into production, a touchmark, comprised of the maker’s name, initials, and/or logo is stamped into the metal. This serves to identify the maker, a tradition that began during colonial times. The flat, spherical pieces are then placed on a lathe and literally spun into shape. A hand tool pressing into the metal guides the pewter over a wood or metal chuck which dictates the form it will take. There are three basic chucks (straight, split, sectional) from which almost any shape can be created.

Other products or pieces of products are cast by pouring molten metal into a bronze mold and waiting for it to solidify. Some of the molds are several hundred years old, while newer molds crafted from rubber are used in a centrifugal casting machine. This is a cost effective way to make “several small, solid pieces at one time such as knobs, cup handles and ornaments”. After the pieces have been constructed, the seam lines left over from the mold are filed off by hand. All   the scraps are returned to the melting pot so there is no waste. The pieces are then grounded, polished, soldered together, buffed, polished again in either a satin or bright finish, washed, dried, inspected, and packaged for shipping, placed on a shelf as just-in-time inventory, or in their Factory Outlet Store.

They main133_woodburypewtertain a stock of over 900 different items, but produce literally thousands of decorative accessories and hundreds of thousands of holiday ornaments every season that can be personalized. They also make customized trophies for golf tournaments, sports clubs, the horse industry, and corporate awards, and are the only company in the world that manufactures megaphones for firemen. When director Ron Howard needed a megaphone for his movie “Backdraft”, he contacted them.

“We offer in-house engraving and do a tremendous amount of custom work which involves applying specialized logos to pieces for colleges, businesses, reunions, and weddings. Sometimes we receive the artwork from the customer and other times we create a design for them. It’s an inexpensive way to give a great gift,” explains Titcomb.

Titcomb has put a lot of thought into the Factory Outlet Store and the adjoining Gourmet Shop. He has chosen with care what items are to be sold, what the prices should be, and how to put a modern spin on a conventional product. This is, in part, how he has been able to remain afloat while many of his competitors have folded.

“We are one of the few pewter makers left in the United States,” says Titcomb. “We strive to keep ahead of the curve with our designs and create items that fit today’s use.”

Instead of selling only traditional items like pitchers, goblets, candlesticks, and tableware, Titcomb watches the latest trends to see what is new and different  and looks at the types of items people use daily. From this, he has added dip holders and spreaders, coffee scoops (noting they are no longer included with your pound of java), salt spoons, children’s cutlery, baby cups, pet bowls, jam jars and jam spoons, bottle openers, cork screws, desk accessories, and toiletries for men like shaving brushes with fine pewter handles.

woodbury_pewter_132“When I come up with a new idea, I draw the design, make the pattern, make the tooling, and we put it together,” says Titcomb. “A while back we also looked at items that could retail for $10 and under. When your metal cost is through the roof it’s difficult to do, but not impossible, and we did it. That’s when most of our competitors shook out. They couldn’t keep up. We are small, but everything is done right here, so we have leeway to do things they can’t.”

At the Factory Store, they also carry products from 30 other pewter manufacturers, as well as a large number of unique gifts that include jewelry, candles, rugs, general house wares, greeting cards, old-fashioned children’s toys, wind chimes, personalized hand carved soaps, Pashmina scarves, luggage, and men’s gifts, mostly made in New England.

The adjacent Gourmet Shop perfectly complements what is offered in the Factory Store. It boasts one of the largest selections of Stonewall Kitchen condiments, jams, jelly, chutney, spreads and preserves; Harney & Sons Fine Teas from New York; Fascia’s Chocolates from Waterbury; and J.K. Adams cutting boards from Vermont, in addition to everyday kitchen items like linens, serving pieces, pepper mills, wooden utensils, egg cups, cheese slicers, bar ware, cookbooks, porcelain ramekins, fondue sets, and graters.

“We sell teapots, candy dishes, and dip holders over there, and the things to put in them over here,” says Titcomb. “We stick with as much local as we can, and that seems to pay off. People are happy their dollars are staying in New England. We have a Make Your Own Basket. You choose the items, and we’ll wrap it for you. Again, we are hitting a price point, so people don’t come in and go broke.”

Pewter has been called the “Poor Man’s Silver” because of its lower cost, high gloss, and decorative elegance; and at Woodbury Pewter this elegance is evident in every piece they have masterfully handcrafted with the utmost care and pride.

For more information logon www.woodburypewter.com.

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