A Thriving Tradition
August 1, 2012
Text by Maria LaPiana
Pewter is old. An alloy that dates back more than 2,000 years, it’s composed of tin (90 percent or more), antimony and copper, so it’s a fairly common metal, used more for everyday bowls than for bling. Because it’s inexpensive to produce and easy to work and maintain (it doesn’t tarnish), American colonists embraced it. Known as “poor man’s silver,” it became something of a New England icon.
But pewter is new, too. At least in Woodbury, where a venerable company has, for the last sixty years, been reinventing itself—all while honoring the age-old technique of crafting pewter objects by hand. As the economy has ebbed and flowed, and American styles and tastes have changed, Woodbury Pewter has evolved.
“We deal with some 2,000 stores directly; we sell online and in our outlet store,” says Brooks H. Titcomb, company president. “But in some ways we are so small we can diversify like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “In the first twenty years there were not a lot of changes to our operation. Nowadays, we can spin on a dime.”
The company’s headquarters sits on Main Street, among the many antiques stores for which Woodbury is known. Here, skilled workers turn raw pewter into everything from tankards and napkin rings to bud vases, dog dishes, wine caddies and honey pots. They do it by melting the alloy and casting it in molds, or by turning flat discs on a lathe.
Woodbury Pewter is thriving today thanks to the forward-thinking Titcomb, whose father, Ray, and great-aunt, Ruth Holbrook, founded the company in 1952. In the beginning, they made reproductions of traditional pieces designed by Revere and Danforth, and sold them to gift shops. They had twenty or so items in their repertoire, says Titcomb. Over time the business outgrew its space, so in the mid-1960s they moved to Main Street, hired more staff and added more objects to the company catalog. Eventually Holbrook retired, and that’s when Titcomb, Ray’s eldest son, took the helm. By the time Ray retired in the late ’80s, they were selling some 120 items. Today, they stock more than 450 and make thousands of custom pieces every year. “We are always looking for the next good idea,” says Titcomb, who is well versed in the history and manufacture of pewter and amenable to sharing.
Did you know that satin finishes, for example, have always been popular north of the Mason-Dixon Line, while “brights,” or shiny finishes, were more of a mainstay in Southern homes? And that today, brights are on top in the Northeast? He explains: “If you look closely, the satin finish has a directional swirl that shows scuffing, but bright finishes do not. Let’s face it: no one today has time to break out the polish.”
Titcomb says his offerings have always been influenced by what is—and isn’t—in vogue. “In the ’80s, everyone was serving prepackaged dips when they entertained,” he notes. “So we designed a porringer that was just the right size for dropping in a tub.”
In 1997 he opened an outlet store in front of the factory. It still features first-quality pieces (and seconds), as well as wares produced by pewter makers from around the world. Over the years, they’ve added fashion accessories, greeting cards, jewelry, handbags and gifts for the home. There’s a gourmet shop, too. “We wanted a local flavor, so most of the teas, jellies and chocolates we sell are from the area,” says Titcomb.
A significant part of Woodbury Pewter’s business is memorabilia: awards, plaques, trophies and the like. But across the board, says its president, “It’s baby gifts that sell best.”
Certain items, such as soup tureens, have been discontinued as people’s tastes have changed over the years. But in New England and beyond, there’s still a steady market for Woodbury Pewter’s iconic ware. Why? “Here’s the thing: we’re still making pewter by hand, one piece at a time,” says Titcomb. “Every piece we make is looked at and handled. Much of our tooling is more than 150 years old. Sure, the technology has changed…but not that much.” •