It turns out that this little teapot, $15, from a thriftshop in Princeton, is quite a find. Not that it makes it any more valuable, really, – except perhaps it makes me wonder even more about its origin and the tables that it has been at and the conversations it has heard. If a pewter teapot could hear, that is.
The stamp on the bottom says ‘James Dixon & Sons’ (the surname of which holds interesting and enjoyable memories for me by itself) and has a couple of numbers stamped above and below. The whole teapot is rather battered, and appears repaired with thick welds. The handle is made of wood of some kind. There’s a mother of pearl flower as the knob, with a couple of yards of cotton string wound along the knob pin; presumably to keep the knob from rattling around. Inside, on a piece of card, is written in old school cursive (from about my dad’s vintage, say, mid 1940s) “antique pewter tea pot (from Fronee’s)“. Curious.
A little internet digging produces this site which shows the various marks according to the company’s manufacturing history. Apparently, the mark of my teapot suggests a date between 1835 and 1851. Before 1831, there was only one son. In fact, James Dixon had his second son in 1838. [Is it my imagination, or does it look like the 's' in 'sons' on my teapot has been stamped separately?] At this time also, trade with the United States was booming, during which the pewter and other metal household ware was termed ‘Britannia Metal’. However, after 1851 the place of manufacture was added into the stamp (‘Sheffield’ [England]) and trade to the US was severely restricted by the war in 1861. James Dixon died in 1852, and a few years later (1864) a massive dam broke in Sheffield, killing over 200 and damaging the factory. Later, James Dixon Jnr decided to revive an earlier stamp of a trumpet, used on wares from 1879 onwards – some of these were of electro plated metal, called British Plate. Toward the end of the century, the company became a partnership and continued to expand up until the Great War. W Milo Dixon continued the business from 1941 onwards.
So then I start to wonder about the design and the surface details. Do these themselves really typify the patterns and decorations of the mid 1800s? Can it be that old? And is it genuine? A little more digging reveals that a company in Massachusetts was copying Dixon ware – at least their coffee pots, anyway (Reed & Barton). Even more delightful is the idea that this teapot might have been catalogued by a Princeton alumni, Led Loughlin, class of 1912, who wrote a ‘handsomely bound and illustrated with 80 full color plates’ volume called “Pewter in America: Its Makers and Their Marks” which is “far from being dull…[it] gives a vivid picture of colonial life, and the economic, social, financial, and even the marital problems…” Alas – unlikely. But an enjoyable thought nonetheless.
I wonder for a while about whether to use it, to make tea. I wonder – are those welds lead? Would it be safe, given the leaching properties of the acidic tannins? Because…it appears so …useful. It would be a shame if it just gathered dust, wouldn’t it? What first drew me to it in the first place was its similarity to the old, endlessly practical, aluminum teapots used by mothers’ clubs and Sunday School kitchens in Australia. Holding more than twenty teacups’ worth, these were wielded by those who (like my grandmother and nanna) preferred their tea strong and as hot as possible. My Princeton teapot seemed to have that same practicality, as if it could serve the tea that soothes the kind of hiccups that come after crying a lot, or not crying enough.
Funnily, even George Orwell was inclined to agree about this kind of teapot, although begrudgingly. According to brainpickings.org, Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea” that as one of his eleven  ‘golden rules’ of making said cup, the teapot should be made of china or earthenware. However, while Silver or Britannia ware teapots produce worse tea than army tea (made in a cauldron, and tasting of grease and whitewash), Orwell makes the concession that tea made in a pewter teapot (“a rarity nowadays”) is ‘not so bad’.
So- how much lead is in the pewter? Later Britannia metal pewter didn’t have lead – it seemed to change mid 1800s. The pewter with lead has a bluish tint, and the welds in the base of my souvenir teapot do look bluish…
And other questions remain. Who was Fronee? Why did he/she have this pewter teapot with its wood handle and mother of pearl flower knob? Who had it before that? What will I use it for, if I dont make tea in it?
*sigh*. all good things to wonder, lazily, while the summer bakes and the hot northerly wind blows so fierce – and back in Princeton, USA, residents await their first snow. My teapot souvenir is probably one of only a few of its kind in Australia. Maybe people in the future will wonder how it got here. It’s definitely time for a cup of tea. Add the milk after the tea, mind.