Search Our Site
Hallmarks, Touchmarks, and Guilds:
Regulating the Production of Silver,
Pewter, and Furniture
In early England, the selling and manufacturing
of goods was tightly controlled by the Guilds. The Guilds oversaw the production
and ensured the quality of what are today's antiques. Hallmarks on silver
and touchmarks on pewter are the most visible signs of their work.
This article describes the guild system and the work
of the guilds that were responsible for the production of silver, pewter,
and furniture. You may read it as a whole, or, by clicking on the links
below, may turn only to the parts that interest you.
Silver and Its
Pewter and Its
The Furniture Guilds
Guild System in Early England
In Medieval England, towns grew rapidly as economic
hubs for their regions. Though towns were originally market centers, they
soon became centers of artisans and craftsmen as well. The quality and prosperity
of life within them depended upon civic organizations, of which the most
important were the merchant's and craftsmen's guilds, often called "companies."
The merchant guilds controlled the selling of goods and produce, whereas
the craft guilds oversaw manufacture and production.
Guilds served three main functions:
1. They were fraternal or mutual aid societies: members
who had fallen on hard times, through sickness, injury, or old age, were
cared for by the fit and able.
2. They protected the economic interests of their members.
By lobbying national and municipal governments, the guilds were able to
restrict trade to their own members, to have foreign goods heavily taxed,
and in general to minimize external competition.
3. They protected their customers by enforcing high
standards of craftsmanship and materials.
The huge population of London
attracted large numbers of craftsmen with the result that there were enough
craftsmen in each trade to form their own guild. In smaller, provincial
cities, guilds often encompassed a number of different, but related trades.
Before the 10th century, both the Saxons and Normans
had embryonic guild systems which developed into the well-organized and
powerful guilds of the Middle Ages. In the early part of the period, many
guilds had a formal religious connection that emphasized what we have called
their mutual aid function. As the Middle Ages progressed, however, the guilds
sought their power in corporate administration rather than the church. In
this early period, the merchant guilds were more powerful than the craft
guilds, and they became the most influential bodies in early municipalities.
The systems of local government and of city corporations that exist today
developed directly from their organizations. As the Renaissance reached
England, and the Middle Ages gave way to the Elizabethan period, the craft
guilds gradually supplanted the merchant guilds in importance. In many English
towns today the Guild Hall is one of the earliest and most attractive buildings.
Craft guilds, rather than merchant guilds, are the
ones that most interest today's collector. Our antiques were their products,
and we can understand our antiques better if we understand how the guilds
regulated the craftsmen and women who made them.
The skills of working in silver, pewter or wood were
deemed a "mystery" or art, and the guilds strove to ensure both
that the art was practiced to the highest standard and that it remained
exclusive to their members. In 1563 Parliament passed "The Great Statute
of Artificers" that decreed that in all trades there should be a seven-year
apprenticeship to a master craftsman which had to be completed before the
age of 24. The apprentice then underwent a thorough examination by guild
officers, and if he passed, became a freeman of the guild. He was then entitled
to set up his own business, or to offer himself to a master for employment
as a qualified journeyman. Journeymen were paid by the day (from the French
journee = "day"). This hierarchy of master, journeyman,
and apprentice was ubiquitous, and nobody outside of it was allowed to practice
Each guild appointed "viewers and searchers"
to inspect members' workshops, materials and products to ensure that there
was no backsliding. Because the craft was a "mystery," the customer
could not be expected to have the expertise to check these standards for
him- or herself. The guilds knew that the success of a trade depended at
least as much upon trusting and satisfied customers as upon skilled craftsmen.
If only guild members were to be permitted to practice the craft, and if
"strangers and foreigners" were to be prohibited from setting
up rival businesses, then guild members had to be honest, skillful and,
most important, trusted by the public. The viewers and searchers were important
officers of any guild. The "quality control" they exercised was
By the middle of the sixteenth century, guilds controlled
almost all the production of goods in what was by now an expanding and prosperous
capitalist economy. One of the most powerful, and certainly the longest-lived,
was the Goldsmiths Company, which controlled the manufacture of gold, silver
and jewelry. The Pewterers were another important guild. The Goldsmiths
and the Pewterers used systems of marks on the products to show that they
were of the quality that the guild required: these marks are known as hallmarks
on silver and gold, and as touchmarks on pewter.
Unlike silver or pewter, however, furniture was never
marked by the guild. Nor was there a single guild to mark it, for furniture
was produced by differently trained craftsmen, who were organized into different
furniture makers' guilds. The most important were the Joiners, the Upholders
(upholsterers), and the Turners.
and Its Hallmarks
The production of silver, gold and jewelry was the
responsibility of the Goldsmiths' Guild. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths,
to give the guild its correct name, was chartered by Edward III in 1387.
At that time, the guild, called The Warden and Commonality of the Mystery
of Goldsmiths of the City of London, was already more than 200 years old.
As early as 1238 Henry III ordered the Mystery of Goldsmiths to appoint
six officers to set and enforce the standards for gold and silver, and in
1300 the Company was ordered to mark every piece that it assayed with the
leopard's head hallmark. From this date, every piece of silver had to be
taken to a guild hall (hence hallmark) to be assayed and marked.
In 1544, the most recognizable hallmark was introduced -- the royal lion,
which indicated that the silver was of sterling standard. Every piece of
sterling silver made in Britain since then carries the lion passant
(the heraldic term for a walking lion).
It also carries three other hallmarks -- four if it
were made between 1784 and 1890. Small pieces, of about one ounce or less,
were allowed fewer marks, and a few were exempt altogether. Most silver
is of sterling standard (92.5% pure), but some is of Britannia standard
Hallmarks on Sterling Silver
On sterling silver, the hallmarks are:
1. The assay mark -- the famous lion.
This mark testifies that the piece has been tested as sterling silver, i.e.,
an alloy that is 92.5% pure silver. Prior to 1831, this was the mark of
the lion passant guardant -- (in heraldic terms, the lion walking
to the left with its head turned to look at the spectator). After 1831,
the head was turned from full face to profile (the lion passant).
2. The town mark. This is the mark
of the city where the assay office was situated. The first assay office
was in London, its mark of a leopard's head (wearing a crown until 1831)
is still in use today. Edinburgh and Dublin, the capitals of Scotland and
Ireland, were soon granted assay offices, and provincial English cities
such as York, Chester, Norwich and many others soon followed. Sheffield
and Birmingham, which both began assaying silver in 1773, are the only cities
outside of London whose assay offices are still working. Their town marks
of an anchor (Birmingham) and a crown (Sheffield) are the most frequently
found after London's leopard's head.
3. The date letter. Each year, which
runs from May till April, is allocated a different letter. A cycle of 20
letters is used (omitting J, V, W, X, Y, and Z) so there are five cycles
in a century. Each cycle has its own style of letter and/or its uniquely
shaped shield. The original purpose of this letter was not to record the
year in which the piece was assayed, but to identify the Assay Master (who
was appointed annually in May) so that he could be called to account if
he passed lower grade silver as sterling. To be pedantically correct, the
date of silver should include two years, for example 1783-4, but in practice
we usually use only the first of the years that the letter spanned, e.g.,
4. The maker's mark. This consists
of his or her two initials (except in the Britannia period from 1695 to
1720 when the marks was the first two letters of his name). Early makers
often used an emblem with or without their initials.
5. The duty mark. In 1784 a special
tax was levied on silver to pay for the war against America. Like most taxes
it long outlived its original purpose, and was not repealed until 1890.
Between these dates the mark of the sovereign's head (King George till 1837,
and then Queen Victoria) showed that the duty had been paid.
Hallmarks on Britannia Standard Silver
The English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century
was paid for, in part, by melting the silver from churches, manor houses
and castles, and turning it into coin. When peace returned, the wealthy
families wanted their silver back, so they reversed the process, and turned
coins into useful and beautiful objects. The subsequent shortage of coins
nearly destroyed the economy, so in 1695 Parliament decreed that all silver
objects had to be made of a 95.84% pure alloy -- the Britannia standard
(coins, of course, were sterling). This lasted till 1720, when silversmiths
were allowed to use either of the two standards -- as has been the case
ever since, though sterling pieces far outnumber Britannia ones.
The hallmarks that were changed for Britannia silver
1. The assay mark: The seated figure of Britannia
replaced the lion.
2. The London town mark: The lions head erased
(i.e., from the neck up) replaced the leopard's head.
3. The maker's mark: The maker is identified
by the first two letters of his surname instead of his initials (there were
no women silversmiths in this period).
Silver was often engraved with the crest or coat of
arms of the family that owned it and sometimes with the owners' initials.
When there are three initials arranged in a triangle, the one at the apex
is that of the surname, the lower left is that of the husband's Christian
name, and the lower right the wife's. Pieces marked in this way were often,
but not always, marriage gifts or part of a dowry.
Examples of Hallmarks
A comprehensive, and very heavy, book that lists all
the known marks is Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks of England, Scotland
& Ireland, edited by Ian Pickford (also, thankfully, published in
a pocket edition).
and Its Touchmarks
The Worshipful Company of Pewterers is almost as old
and well organized as the Goldsmiths, but they do not appear to have had
as ready access to the authorities, and thus lacked the social and legal
clout to enforce their regulations as strictly. This may be because the
rich and powerful were personally motivated to ensure that their silver
was up to quality, but cared less about pewter which was made for the common
man. Whatever the reason, pewter is less consistently marked than silver,
and is often misleadingly marked by foreign makers (including Americans)
who wanted to pass their wares off as English. The only touch on pewter
that is as credible as hallmarks on silver is that of the maker. The pewterers
had no system of date letters, and, because pewter is a far more loosely
defined alloy than silver, their "quality" marks do not have the
precise meaning of the lion passant.
The Maker's Touch
In 1503, the Company decreed that all members must
strike their wares with their own touchmark. By 1550, the Guild had a "table
of pewter with every man's mark thereon." This first touchplate is
of no use to today's collector, however, for in 1666 the Guild Hall was
burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London, and all records and touchplates
were lost. A new touchplate was started in 1667, and from then on, all pewterers
marks had to be recorded on it, together with their date of striking.
The Mark of the Hall or Quality Mark
The "mark of the Hall," used by the guild
to identify work made of quality metal, goes back at least to the 15th century.
The "quality" of pewter is variable and thus confusing. Pewter
is an alloy of tin mixed with varying quantities of lead and/or copper,
to which antimony and bismuth were sometimes added for hardness. The one
constant principle was the higher the lead content, the lower the quality.
Pewter has never had a standard composition as precise and invariable as
that of sterling silver.
In 1548 the guild purchased a marking iron of a fleur-de-lys
as its stamp of quality. But the most familiar hallmark, the crowned Tudor
rose, came into use in the middle of the 16th century, and appears on almost
every piece of English pewter made after then. It had two meanings:
- The mark of the Hall, the mark of quality.
- The mark of goods exported.
Unfortunately, the crowned rose was also used by continental
pewterers, possibly in an attempt to fool their customers into thinking
that their wares were of the higher English standard.
Today, the crowned Tudor rose is usually read as a
mark of quality. Though it was technically a mark of the London guild, it
was used by provincial makers as well. To confuse matters still more, there
was another mark of quality, the crowned X, which was often struck alongside
the crowned rose. In some cases the two marks appear to mean the same, but
in others, the crowned X stands for Hard Metal ware, an alloy of ten parts
of tin to one of lead. By Victorian times, the X has often lost both its
crown and its precise meaning, though it still denotes, however loosely,
In Scotland, the earliest quality mark was a hammer
crowned, but from the 17th century onwards, the thistle was used to denote
metal of the same quality as the English crowned rose.
Continental makers sometimes put their initials within
the crown or the rose: English pewterers never did.
The label LONDON or MADE IN LONDON was sometimes used
to denote wares made in that city, but was often used by provincial (and
American) pewterers who wanted their customers to believe that their wares
were London made and thus of London quality. It thus means very little.
Other labels are used equally loosely to give the appearance
of quality: LONDON SUPERFINE, SUPERFINE HARD METAL, or ENGLISH BLOCK TIN
(used by Irish makers) should be viewed as sales promotions rather than
Pewterers would sometimes strike four marks in small
shields that from a distance or in poor light might be mistaken for silver
hallmarks. In the 17th and early 18th century, these were struck on the
front of a piece where they would be most visible: the maker's mark, which
looked nothing like a silversmith's mark and thus contradicted the "hallmarks,"
was struck more discretely on the back or underside. Chargers are the wares
most frequently "hallmarked" in this way. In England this use
of pseudo-hallmarks died out around 1735, though more discrete "hallmarks"
can sometimes be found on the back of plates for most of the century.
In Scotland and Ireland, pseudo hallmarks are found
until the middle of the 18th century. The Scottish ones often include a
thistle and a rose, the Irish a harp and the figure of Hibernia.
Pewter measures and tankards used in shops and taverns
had to have their capacities verified by official inspectors. These marks
are known as excise or verification marks. They usually include the initials
of the monarch reigning at the time of the inspection or whose standard
was being applied (which may differ from the date of manufacture). There
are a few from the 17th and 18th centuries, but most are found on 19th century
pewter. Collectors pay little attention to the 19th century ones, though
some can indicate when and where the vessels was tested.
Pewter was sometimes engraved with the crest or coat
of arms of the family that owned it. It was also sometimes stamped, presumably
by the maker or retailer, with the owners' initials. When there are three
initials arranged in a triangle, the one at the apex is that of the surname,
the lower left is that of the husband's Christian name, and the lower right
the wife's. Pieces marked in this way were often, but not always, marriage
gifts or part of a dowry.
The Furniture Guilds
There was never a single guild of furniture makers,
for furniture was produced by differently trained craftsmen, who were organized
into different guilds. The oldest guilds were the Companies of Carpenters
and of Joiners, though the Turners were also important. From the 1660s,
however, the furniture industry was dominated by the Joiners and Upholders
The history of the Guild of Carpenters can be traced
back to 1333, at which time it organized all workers in wood. There was
then no distinction between builders of houses, farm implements, furniture,
coffins and anything else made of timber. The Guild of Joiners was established
in 1375, and for the next two or three centuries, disputes between the two
were frequent, and occasionally, bloody.
In 1440 the Mystery of the Joyners of the City of London
was allowed to elect two wardens with powers of search in the city, and
in 1613, in London, the Lord Mayor gave to the Company of Joiners the exclusive
power of search over makers of cupboards, trunks and boxes, a ruling that
began the eventual the victory of the Joiners over the Carpenters. In 1632,
the Court of Aldermen, in an attempt to end once and for all the arguments
between the two trades, decreed that from that time onwards, the joiners
alone should be entitled to make:
All sorts of Bedsteads whatsoever (onlie except boarded
bedsteads and nailed together).
All sorts of chayres and stooles which are made with
mortesses and tennants.
All tables of wainscotte walnutt or other stuffe glewed
with frames mortesses or tennants.
All sorts of formes framed made of boards with the
sides pinned or glewed.
All sorts of chests being framed dufftailed pynned
All sorts of Cabinets or Boxes dufftailed pynned or
This ruling codified the practice that had emerged,
at least in the towns and boroughs, that the joiners made the furniture,
and the carpenters made almost everything else. Possibly, the carpenters
still made boarded and nailed chests, like the beds that were specifically
excluded from the joiners' responsibility (boards nailed together did not
The main provincial cities had their own guilds, and
we may presume that they organized the woodworkers' trades in much the same
way as London. In rural areas, however, the towns had no jurisdiction, so
carpentry and joinery were often the responsibility of the same person.
Indeed, estate records of the period show that oftentimes the estate carpenter
made the furniture for the great house.
The Joiners had the political savvy to incorporate
potential competitors rather than exclude them: carvers, box-makers and,
most importantly, Cabinet-Makers all became members of the Joiners Company.
The Carvers were specialist artisans who formed a distinct
group within the Joiners Company. They worked with joiners and chair-makers
to decorate furniture, and worked on their own to produce frames for pictures
and mirrors. They were, in effect, an early kind of subcontractor.
The Box Makers were another distinct group of artisans
within the Joiners Company. In the 17th century, their skill lay in carving
rather than joinery (see BIBLE BOXES), but during the 18th their trade developed
into miniature cabinet-making of the highest artistry, particularly in the
production of tea caddies.
The term "Cabinet-Maker" came into regular
use during the reign of Charles II, and was another sign of the new taste
for luxury. The Cabinet-Maker provided case furniture, tables and stands,
whereas the joiner made chairs, stools and beds. Sometimes the difference
between them is described in terms of the joints that each used most frequently
-- the dovetail for the Cabinet-Maker, and the mortise and tenon for the
joiner. Cabinet-making produced case pieces with flat surfaces that were
suitable for the newly fashionable veneering.
In 1660 there was a small group of specialist Cabinet-Makers
in London, but by 1700 they had been subsumed into the Joiners, and Joiners
had learned cabinet-making. In 1700 the Joiners Company claimed that its
members were "bred up in the Art or Mystery of making Cabinets, Scrutores
(desks), Tables, Chests and all other sorts of CABINET-WORK in England,
which of late Years they have arrived at so great a perfection as exceeds
Any distinction between cabinet-making and joinery
rapidly diminished, and the term "Cabinet-Maker" displaced "Joiner"
as the regular name for the producer of furniture. In 1747, the General
Description of all Trades gives an idea of cabinet-makers' prosperity
and status: "Many of their Shops are so richly set out that they look
more like Palaces, and their stocks are of exceeding great value."
In 1803 Sheraton wrote that cabinet-making was "one of the leading
mechanical professions in every polite nation in Europe."
The Turners kept their trade separate from the Joiners,
which may not have been the wisest decision. In 1633, the London Court of
Aldermen, recognized that "the arts of turning and joining are two
several and distinct trades and we conceive it very inconvenient that either
of these trades should encroach upon the other, and we find that the Turners
have constantly for the most part turned bedposts and the feet of joyned
stooles for the Joyners and of late some Joyners who never used to turn
their own bedposts and stool feet have set on work in their own houses some
poor decayed Turners, and from them have learned the feate and art of turning
which they could not do before." They concluded that "whatsoever
is done with the foot as have treddle or wheel for turning of any wood"
should be done exclusively by the turners.
The Turners were to supply the Joiners with any furniture
part that required lathe-work -- a process that might be seen as the beginning
of assembly-line manufacturing.
The Turners did not form guilds as early as did the
Joiners, though their art goes back at least to Roman times. But even before
the 1633 ruling, the Turners had the right to order that all chairs made
in London by strangers and foreigners should be brought to Turners Hall
to be searched, to ensure their quality. It appears that some types of chairs
and stools were made entirely by turners, and today we still distinguish
between turned chairs and joint chairs of the period. The Restoration brought
new tastes to metropolitan England, and turning became a largely rural trade
devoted to the production of Windsor chairs.
The Upholders' Guild is another that began in the fifteenth
century, but it was not until the Restoration of Charles II that it gained
social status and power. Charles spent the Cromwellian period in exile in
the French court, and when he returned he brought with him a taste for luxury
that was new to English society. He appointed Robert Morris to be the King's
Upholsterer, and in a mere 21 months spent 10,000 pounds (approximately
$13,800,000 in today's prices) with him. From this date on, the upholsterers
never looked back, and by the middle of the 18th century were one of the
most powerful bodies in furniture making. The London Tradesman,
published in 1747, describes the upholsterer as one who "was originally
a species of Taylor, but by degrees has crept over his head, and set up
as a Connoisseur over every article that belongs to a House. He employed
journeymen in his own proper calling, cabinet-makers, glass-grinders, looking-glass
framers, carvers for chairs, testers and posts for beds, ..." Descriptions
such as this suggest that the Upholders were becoming what today we would
call "interior designers."
The Upholders had had to fight for their success. In
the 1660s, the East India Company imported large quantities of rattan cane,
and cane chairs became the fashionable rage. They were promoted for their
"Durableness, Lightness and Cleanness from Dust, Worms and Moths,"
and they were cheaper than upholstered chairs. The Upholders, supported
by the woolen cloth makers, petitioned Parliament to ban the manufacture
of cane chairs. They failed, but continued to compete successfully with
the chair caners, who allied themselves with the Joiners. Much was at stake.
In the 1690s London produced about 190,000 chairs upholstered in woolen
Turkey work and about 72,000 caned chairs per annum. Between a third and
a half of these were exported to the Continent and America.
The Weavers were powerful allies for the Upholders. Cloth
and drapery were costly and of high social status. In 17th and early 18th
century households the most expensive furnishings were the hangings for the
master bed. The wealth of Medieval England, which was considerable, was built
largely upon the wool industry. English cloth was widely exported across the
continent and across the Atlantic. The spinning and weaving of cloth was a
labor-intensive cottage industry in hundreds of English villages and towns.
It is hardly surprising that the spinning Jenny and the power loom were the
first machines of the Industrial Revolution.