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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 Hallmarks

Pewter and Its Touchmarks

The Furniture Guilds

The 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 any craft.

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 rigorous.

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.

Silver 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 (95.84% pure).

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., 1783.

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 are:

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).

Owners' Marks

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

Hallmarks from the reign of George III showing the leopard's head crowned, the date letter for 1814-15, the lion passant guardant, the marker's mark, and the duty mark.

Hallmarks that changed in 1831: the leopard's head uncrowned, the date letter for 1831-32, the lion passant, the marker's mark, and the duty mark.

Hallmarks for Britannia: Britannia, the date letter for 1711, and the lion's head erased.

Town marks for Birmingham (the anchor) and Sheffield (the crown).

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).

Pewter 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.

  

London Maker's Touch (Maitland); American Maker's Touch (Hamlin), including pseudo hallmarks.

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:

  1. The mark of the Hall, the mark of quality.
  2. 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, quality.

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.

Examples of the Crowned X and the Crowned Rose

Labels

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 accurate descriptions.

Pseudohallmarks

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.

Excise Marks

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.

Owner's Marks

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 (upholsterers).

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.

Joiners

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 or glewed.

All sorts of Cabinets or Boxes dufftailed pynned or glewed.

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 involve joinery).

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.

Cabinet-makers

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 all Europe."

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."

Turners

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.

Upholders (upholsterers)

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.