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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


By the beginning of the 18th century, the economy in Virginia was becoming stable. Tradesmen and investors saw the potential for profit in the local production of goods, just as there was money to be made through owning land. As the 18th century progressed, towns were established, and people accumulated enough wealth to support more than the most necessary local trades. During the third quarter of the 1700s two hundred twenty-eight identifiable artisans worked in Williamsburg in 44 different occupations. In 1775 about 25% of the white male population over the age of sixteen were skilled workmen. There were also many slaves, apprentices, indentured servants and free journeymen who never appear in the records but worked with the identified tradesmen. However, labor remained in short supply, Virginians still imported the vast majority of the products they needed from England, and tradesmen frequently invested in land while continuing to practice a trade.

Labor in Virginia, especially skilled labor, was scarce and expensive. Rapidly increasing demand far exceeded the production capabilities of the few local artisans. Despite the county court's power to review accounts and inspect completed work in cases of disputed value, prices for Virginia goods remained much more expensive than their English counterparts. The scarcity and high cost of labor led some wealthy Virginians to encourage English artisans to immigrate to the colony and engage in work for them. The lack of a guild system meant that many tradesmen undertook work in related trades as well as their primary trade.

While many skilled workers in rural areas gave up their trade to pursue lucrative tobacco farming, many tradesmen in town continued to practice the "arts and mysteries" of their trade and own or speculate in land at the same time. James Geddy, Sr., a gunsmith, and his son William both owned land outside of town. Richard Charlton, a Williamsburg barber-wigmaker, owned several thousand acres at the falls of the Ohio River. Alexander Craig, a saddler, may have speculated in land. Skilled tradesmen found profit in owning businesses, and the profits allowed them to acquire more wealth through purchasing and cultivating land or buying other businesses.

Some successful artisans acquired the title of gentleman, and some served in government posts. Twelve Williamsburg tradesmen served on the city council. They often served on grand juries, and several acted as justices of the peace in the county courts.

Virginia's 18th century economy was fueled by the growth of tobacco. As planters realized greater profits from their fields, the demand for English and colony made consumer goods increased. Artisans successfully practiced a wide variety of trades in the city and served customers from the countryside as well as those in the capitol. An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette provides insight into the economic opportunity that was available in Virginia:

"Wanted immediately, A Journeyman Shoemaker that understands the Business well in all its Branches. Such a one, that can come well recommended, for an honest, industrious, sober Man, will meet with Encouragement to his Satisfaction, a good seat of Work and his money paid every Saturday Night if he chooses it."

This trades sampler was compiled from digital camera pictures taken by participants in the summer 1999 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. The sampler is not intended to be an exhaustive study of 18th-century trades or the trades practiced today in the Colonial Williamsburg historic area. It is our hope that this sampler provides basic information and entices you to explore further.

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