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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


From 1699-1780 there were 15, possibly 16, silversmiths in Williamsburg. There was a strong preference among wealthy planters for importing large silverware from London. Many Williamsburg silversmiths likeJames and James Geddy had to make their living by importing and selling English silverware and items not related to the trade. The majority of silver work in Williamsburg was making small pieces such as spoons, buttons, shoe buckles and completing numerous repairs for the middling sort as well as the gentry.

A silversmith works with precious metals such as gold and silver. Often in the 18th century, a silversmith would call himself a goldsmith for the added prestige. The "smith" part of the name indicates that hammers are used for shaping the silver (the word smith derives from the word smite, meaning to hit or strike). Flatware (knives, spoons and forks), hollowware (hollow vessels) and jewelry are all crafted in this manner.

The smith begins with a thick piece of metal called an ingot. The ingot is hammered with a sledgehammer on an anvil to thin the metal. Then the piece is placed over a stake, and the raising process begins. When the shaping is finished, the final smoothing is done with a planishing hammer.

Decorative pieces such as handles and finials are added after the final planishing. These pieces are cast in sand molds and are attached to the body of the piece with silver solder. Sometimes the smith uses a jeweler's saw or a sharp tool to create a pierced design in the object being crafted. Finally, the piece is polished using pumice (a volcanic ash), tripoli (decomposed limestone, less abrasive than pumice), and jeweler's rouge (powdered red iron ore.) These final steps require a great deal of time, often more than the shaping of the piece itself.

Virginia silversmiths faced several challenges. The greatest difficulty was obtaining unfinished silver: the only silver that Great Britain allowed the colonies to import was in the form of finished pieces. Silversmiths frequently offered to pay citizens for their old silver goods In addition, there was always competition among silversmiths whose customers were limited to the small group of colonists who could afford silver items.

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