Pewter has been used to make containers for dry goods and bottles/flasks for liquids since medieval times. Cylindrical pewter containers and screw-topped pewter flasks of various shapes were recovered from Henry VIII’s flagship The Mary Rose , which sunk in 1545.
However, although pewter containers must have been in widespread use, very few survive.Being utilitarian items, they wouldn’t have been valued and were doubtless scrapped or recycled when damaged or no longer needed. Further, very few of the British containers that do survive are marked, which makes dating or analysis of styles difficult.
You may come across British-made pewter containers of all sorts of shapes and sizes whose uses are impossible to guess. There are, though, certain types that crop up fairly frequently.
These usually have a round body 10cm or so high with a flat base and a slip-on lid. They should have a lead weight inside to compress the tobacco, though sometimes this has been lost. Most are 19th century.
Much smaller than tobacco boxes, they come in a bewildering assortment of shapes and sizes and often have interesting decoration. If you haven’t got much space, they make a good subject for a specialist collection. Some are made wholly of pewter, but some are combined with other materials such as horn. Most date to the period 1750-1850 when snuff was at its most popular. Some boxes described as snuff boxes may in fact have been for other items such as needles or matches.
These are rarer, but a few examples survive from the late 18th century. Unlike tobacco boxes, they are normally oval and often elaborately decorated with bright cut engraving or flutes.
So-called “spice pots”
These are small cylindrical containers with a slip-on or screw on lid, about 5-6 cm in diameter and 10cm high overall. Although collectors have traditionally called them “spice pots”, in truth there is very little evidence that they were used for spices. The commonest style has a baluster-shaped body on a small foot, with a domed lid, but there are also cylindrical examples. The scarcity of marked examples makes dating difficult, but they are believed to be 18th century, and many may be pre-1750.
About the same height as ‘spice pots’ but slimmer, casters come in a much wider range of body shapes. They have a perforated screw-on cap and could be used for anything foodstuff that needed sprinkling, such as pepper, sugar, and cinnamon. Most surviving examples are late 18th or 19th century.
Hip flasks were being made by the Sheffield pewterers in the 19 th century and have been produced continually ever since. They are still being made today!