Pewter is a malleable metal alloy composed of 85-99% tin, mixed with approximately 5-10% antimony, 2% copper, bismuth, and sometimes silver. Copper and antimony act as hardeners but may be replaced with lead in lower grades of pewter, imparting a bluish tint. Pewter has a low melting point, around 170-230 °C (338-446 °F), depending on the exact mixture of metals. The word pewter is probably a variation of the word spelter, a term for zinc alloys (originally a colloquial name for zinc).
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Older pewters with higher lead content are heavier, tarnish faster, and oxidation gives them a darker silver-gray color. Pewters containing lead are no longer used in items that will come in contact with the human body (such as cups, plates, or jewelry) due to health concerns stemming from the lead content. Modern pewters are available that are completely free of lead, although many pewters containing lead are still being produced for other purposes.
A typical European casting alloy contains 94% tin, 1% copper, and 5% antimony. A European pewter sheet would contain 92% tin, 2% copper, and 6% antimony. Asian pewter, produced mostly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, contains a higher percentage of tin, usually 97.5% tin, 1% copper, and 1.5% antimony. This makes the alloy slightly softer.
Pewter was used for decorative metal items and tableware in ancient times by the Egyptians and later the Romans, and came into extensive use in Europe from the Middle Ages until the various developments in pottery and glass-making during the 18th and 19th centuries. Pewter was the chief material for producing plates, cups, and bowls until the making of porcelain. Mass production of pottery, porcelain and glass products has seen pewter universally replaced in daily life. Pewter artifacts continue to be produced, mainly as decorative or specialty items. Pewter was also used around East Asia. Although some items still exist,Ancient Roman pewter is rare.
"Unlidded" mugs and lidded tankards may be the most familiar pewter artifacts from the late 17th and 18th centuries, although the metal was also used for many other items including porringers, plates, dishes, basins, spoons, measures, flagons, communion cups, teapots, sugar bowls, beer steins, and cream jugs. In the early 19th century, changes in fashion caused a decline in the use of pewter flatware. At the same time, production increased of both cast and spun pewter tea sets, whale-oil lamps, candlesticks, and so on. Later in the century, pewter alloys were often used as a base metal for silver-plated objects.
In the late 19th century, pewter came back into fashion with the revival of medieval objects for decoration. New replicas of medieval pewter objects were created, and collected for decoration. Today, pewter is used in decorative objects, mainly collectible statuettes and figurines, game figures, aircraft and other models, (replica) coins, pendants, plated jewellery and so on. Certain athletic contests, such as the United States Figure Skating Championships, award pewter medals to fourth-place finishers.