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An 18th-Century Trades Sampler

a photographic essay by 1999 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute participants

Introduction / Apothecary / Blacksmith / Founder / Harnessmaker / Milliner
Printer & Bookbinder / Shoemaker / Silversmith / Wigmaker / Summary


Clang, clang clang... the blacksmith strikes the hammer against the red-hot metal. Whoosh, whoosh... he pumps the bellows as he breathes life into the fire. These are familiar sounds at the James Anderson Blacksmith shop.

The 18th-century blacksmith worked with the black metals - iron and steel. James Anderson's shop had seven forges and was the largest and most successful blacksmith business in the city. He was appointed the public armorer and was responsible for keeping arms at the Powder Magazine repaired, and his shop was responsible for iron work needed by the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Coal and charcoal are used to fuel the forges. In Virginia, coal was mined north and west of Richmond. To soften the iron and steel the fires needed to be heated to approximately 2,000°F.

The blacksmith used leather bellows to feed oxygen into the fire. This created a fire hot enough to prepare the metal for forging into different shapes. Blacksmiths made and repaired hinges, household goods, farm implements, tools, and locks. Blacksmiths also made iron goods for use by other tradesmen (tyres for wheels made by a wheelwright, for example)

As a blacksmith learned the arts and mysteries of the trade, experience was often the best teacher. Temperature sensing instruments were unavailable in 18th-century Virginia, so blacksmiths learned to judge the temperature of the iron by its color. Iron was worked in a range of color between red and yellow.

When the iron was soft enough to work, it was brought from the fire to an anvil, a large, heavy block of iron, usually steel-faced, where the bar iron was hammered into shape.

Many smiths set up business in Williamsburg during the 18th century. The blacksmith trade was less specialized in Virginia than it was in England. There were fewer customers in Virginia A high degree of specialization was not possible. There was also fierce competition from imported iron goods from England, so repair work was a large part of a blacksmith's work in Williamsburg. In spite of these limitations, blacksmiths provided an important service to the citizens of Virginia.

Introduction / Apothecary / Blacksmith / Founder / Harnessmaker / Milliner
Printer & Bookbinder / Shoemaker / Silversmith / Wigmaker / Summary