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An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, Diego Velazquez, 1618. National Gallery of Scotland, NG 2180

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, Diego Velazquez, 1618. National Gallery of Scotland, NG 2180

…could be pewter. Or do I mean tin? Carolina had excellent points about pewter being, yes, that shiny, though we think it is not. Our perception is probably based in large part upon the extant items in museum collections. And museums don’t polish their pewter–at least we don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does. Is it because we’re so unaccustomed to using pewter daily that we no longer know how to care for it?

Covered chalice, pewter, c. 1756-1780. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008-110-1a,b

Covered chalice, pewter, c. 1756-1780. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008-110-1a,b

I thought it could be interesting to experiment with polishing pewter (not in the collection) so I turned for advice to that touchstone of housework past, Hannah Glasse.  In The Servants Directory, Part V: The Scullion Mrs Glasse lays out To clean Pewter, Tin, and Copper.

Take a pail of wood-ashes (either from the baker’s dyer’s, or hot-pressers; the latter is the best) half a pail of unslack’d lime, and four pails of soft water; boil them all in a copper together, stirring them; when they have boiled about half an hour, take it all together out of the copper into a tub, and let it stand until cold, then pour off the clear, and bottle for use.

When you clean your pewter, lay a flannel on the dresser; set your dishes one on another by themselves, the plates to likewise; then heat liquor according to the quantity you have to clean, pour some on the uppermost plate and dish, and as you use them pour it on the other. Take a piece of tow to rub them with, then having two little basons of red sand, pour some of the liquor on each; with the first scour your plates well, and rince them in cold water; with the second clean them, rince them into two waters, set them to dry, and they will look like new. Thus you may clean them at any time with very little trouble.

Very little trouble for you, Hannah Glasse! The red sand is definitely something museums won’t do: we have this prejudice about not abrading the collections, or applying chemicals, so the lime/ash/soft water mix probably won’t appear in our workroom either.

Willem Claesz.Heda, Still life with gilt goblet, 1635. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Willem Claesz.Heda, Still life with gilt goblet, 1635. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I also took a look in my books for paintings that showed pewter with sheen, and for objects. I suspect that pewter’s softness will not allow it to achieve the high-gloss shine of tin, but that it can be brought to brightness. I do think the best way to find out is to start polishing, so I’m in the market for some wood-ashes from the hot-pressers, and a good place to lay a fire and boil some chemicals. Who wouldn’t volunteer for open-fire chemical boiling?