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Pewter is an alloyed metal made primarily from tin, with a small component of lead, copper, bismuth, or antimony. It has been traditionally used to make tableware and decorative items. The metal is highly ductile, meaning that it can easily be worked, embossed, or carved. Its malleable nature has been harnessed for thousands of years, at least since Roman times, and the metal was at one point highly prized.
Tin is the metal that appears in the highest concentration in pewter. Most is made up of at least 90% tin, although other alloys may include as little as 63%. The other metals in the alloy are used as hardeners, to make the pewter practical for daily use and metalworking. Classically, pewter has been cast in molten form, although it has also been worked in other ways. It is also highly tarnish resistant, although it does form a protective patina with age.
In color, pewter starts out glossy and bright, almost like silver. Over time, the metal oxidizes and acquires a grayish tint. Pewter made with lead will eventually turn black, explaining the alternate Roman name of “black metal.” Historically, this material was once very expensive, and owned only by wealthier members of society. Like other alloys, pewter is more useful for certain applications than its component metals alone.
The addition of lead to pewter is potentially highly dangerous. The lead can leach out, especially into food, which is why old tableware has been linked with cases of lead poisoning. Because lead is cheap and easy to work, it was a very popular addition in alloys in the past, which is why people should not actually use antique pewter for eating. Modern pewter tableware is made without lead, and it is safe to eat from, although wary consumers may want to confirm the absence of lead with the manufacturer.
Caring for pewter is relatively easy. The metal is susceptible to damage by acids, so it should always be promptly washed with gentle soap and warm water if it has been exposed to things like vinegar or lemon juice. It should be washed with a sponge or soft cloth to avoid scratching the metal, and dried thoroughly. Pewter can also be cleaned with specialized polish, although people should not use generic metal polish on this alloy, as it can cause damage. Consumers should also be aware that pewter melts at low temperatures, and it should not be exposed to extreme heat.