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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

Teachers who attended the 1999 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute were asked to explore the use of digital cameras in the classroom by capturing images of their visits to historic trade sites in the museum and providing captions for the pictures. We invite you to view some of the digital images the teachers captured by visiting ten of Colonial Williamsburg's trade shops. Enjoy!

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During the 18th century, individuals of all social classes within the Williamsburg community increased their demands for consumer goods and services. Improved ways of conducting business, a high degree of specialization of labor, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution allowed Great Britain to supply Virginians with a large portion of these goods. Virginians transported their enthusiasm for British goods across the ocean just as they imported English forms of government and religion to their new homeland. In addition, Virginia people engaged in trades in the colony met a small part of the demand for consumer goods in the oldest, largest and wealthiest of Britain's thirteen colonies.

While most people in Virginia engaged in agricultural work, there were a small number engaged in non-agricultural trades. Approximately 140 different non-agricultural occupations were practiced in Virginia. Many of these trades were practiced in Williamsburg, and some of these colonial-era trades are still practiced in the 18th-century manner in Colonial Williamsburg today.

Virginia's 18th-Century Economy

The exportation of tens of thousands of barrels of tobacco, the primary cash crop, provided Virginians with the ability to procure goods produced in England a well as goods and services provided by Virginians. Large planters also grew corn and wheat for export to England and the West Indies.

Tobacco plants

Tobacco was the cash crop that made some Virginians wealthy. It was cultivated on plantations (farms) both large and small throughout a large portion of the colony. It grew in fields like this one at the Rural Trades site in the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area.

Tobacco was called a "13 month" crop. Seedbeds were planted beginning in January and seedlings were transplanted in early spring. The plants required worming, weeding, topping, and suckering until harvest time in September. Tobacco used up the nutrients in the soil in a few years and required large amounts of labor to cultivate.

Worming the tobacco
Prizing (packing) a tobacco hogshead

Tobacco was cured (dried) and prized (packed tightly into barrels) during the fall. Tobacco inspection began in November and lasted into the next year. The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 stated that all tobacco exported from Virginia was to be inspected and meet a minimum standard of quality. After tobacco passed inspection it remained in a government warehouse until it was shipped to England.

A barrel called a hogshead was used to ship tobacco to England. A hogshead was one type of container made by a cooper. By law, it was 48" tall and 30" across the head (either end.) It held 1,000 - 1,500 pounds of tobacco. Numbers burned into the side of the barrel indicated the weight of the barrel alone (tare weight), the weight of both the barrel and the tobacco (gross weight), and the weight of the tobacco only (net weight.)

Small planters received tobacco notes from Virginia merchants for their crops. These warehouse receipts passed as a sort of currency and represented the worth of the crop taken to the warehouse at the current price on any given day. Large planters sold tobacco through agents in London. The agent deducted shipping fees and his commission from the selling price of the crop and issued credit to the planter for the balance. When the planter sent tobacco to England he also sent an order for manufactured goods that his agent was to purchase for him in Great Britain.

While the importation of British goods accounted for a significant portion of the manufactured goods available in Virginia, goods and services provided by Virginia tradesmen and tradeswomen, also helped meet the increasing demands for consumer goods in the colony during the 18th century.

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