19th-Century Blacksmithing

The Products

Blacksmiths worked iron and steel into a wide variety of items. In a rural shop like the one at OSV, the smith met the metalworking needs of his neighbors. He made and repaired farm tools, mill parts, building hardware, fireplace and cooking tools, and often repaired vehicles and shoed horses and oxen as well.

By the 1830s, more tools and hardware, produced in specialty shops and factories both in the United States and abroad (especially England) were being sold in stores. As a result, neighborhood smiths were called upon less and less often to make those items. Tool and vehicle repair, horse-shoeing and other custom work continued to be in demand, however.

Blacksmiths did not typically make nails. Machinery was developed for making nails around the year 1790. Even before that time, stores sold large quantities of nails by the pound. Such nails were produced in special manufactories called "naileries." Machine-made nails (called “cut” nails because they were cut from bars of iron) were cheap and readily available through country stores in the 1830s. On occasion a neighborhood blacksmith might still be asked to make a few nails for special purposes, however. Hand-forged nails, for example, could easily be "clinched," or driven through and the tip bent over, to fasten hinges, door latches, or horseshoes in place.

By the 1830s, more and more ironware was produced in specialty shops both domestically and abroad, and sold through stores. Neighborhood smiths were less often asked to make some new items as more affordable store-bought tools and hardware became available. Repairs and other custom work such as animal shoeing still kept most of them busy, however. Some other smiths abandoned custom work for their neighbors, and began to manufacture tools and other items for distant markets. The early 19th century was a time of changing circumstances!

The Shop

Most blacksmiths' shops in early America, like most buildings in general, were made of wood. This shop was originally built next to a stone quarry owned by cousins of its owner's wife. His house was also made of stone. We know that the smith was called upon to maintain the stone-cutters' tools, so perhaps he received part of his payment in the form of stone and stonework, or perhaps he made use of free, waste stone.

Materials & Tools

A blacksmith shapes iron and steel, sometimes called “the black metals,” by smithing or smiting (striking) it with a hammer. Hence the name, “blacksmith.” Other metal-workers include silversmiths, coppersmiths, and goldsmiths.

Iron ultimately comes from various ores in the earth. The metal is separated from the rock in a furnace, and then the iron is further refined before it is rolled out into bars, rods, and sheets.

Blacksmiths in 19th-century New England purchased most of their metal from dealers called iron mongers. Iron mongers were located in commercial centers on rivers, canals, and in port towns. They sold different sizes, shapes, and qualities of metal from producers throughout both Europe and America.

Rural smiths also sometimes bought scrap iron (worn-out tools and hardware) from their neighbors, and reworked it into new items.

Blacksmiths traditionally burned charcoal (half-burned wood) to heat and thus soften their iron. Some made charcoal themselves, although most bought it from “colliers” who cut the trees and burned them into charcoal.

As New England’s timber supplies diminished in the 1800s while the means of transportation improved, some smiths began to use mineral coal instead of charcoal. They purchased this bituminous coal from urban dealers who imported it from mines in England, Pennsylvania, and Canada. The smith then burned off impurities such as sulfur on the edge of the smith’s forge, leaving behind coke, a very pure fuel.

Since blacksmiths were tool-makers, a smith had the unique ability to make a tool if he needed it for a particular purpose. Not every smith made all of his own tools, however. A few tools, such as files, were commonly purchased new, through stores, from specialized tool-makers. Many other tools were purchased second-hand. Some tools came along when a smith bought a pre-existing shop. A few tools, such as the anvil or vise, were just too large for a rural smith to make on his own, however. In the 1830s these were usually imported from manufacturers in England.

Blacksmiths

There were no trade schools in early America. Boys learned to be blacksmiths by working with an experienced smith. Boys learning a trade were called apprentices. Some apprentices had formal contracts with their masters, while others simply learned by working with their father (if he was a smith, of course!). Traditionally an apprentice lived with the master and became a part of his family, trading his labor for food, clothing, shelter, and an education. This system was breaking down by the 1830s, however, as some masters no longer took apprentices into their homes, but instead paid them a small wage. The length of an apprenticeship was not regulated, although they ended when a boy reached his majority at the age of 21.

Some blacksmiths worked at the trade full-time, but situations varied from one blacksmith to the next, and sometimes with the same man from one year to the next. Some neighborhoods provided enough work to keep one or more blacksmiths busy full-time. Some blacksmiths combined the trade work with other employment, often farming. Many young blacksmiths bought land as they aged and intentionally did more farming and less smithing over the years. Every situation was unique, and depended upon individual circumstances.

There was very little cash in circulation in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Therefore, most people gave a "dollars and cents" value to goods sold and services rendered that were recorded as debits and credits in an account book. Over time debts between neighbors often cancelled each other out, although small amounts of cash were sometimes needed to settled accounts. Immediate swapping of items of equal value, what we think of today as “bartering”, was usually impractical, however, and therefore rare.

Although Americans in the 1830s used dollars and cents to express value, their values do not correspond with the value of dollars and cents today. A blacksmith might earn $1.00 to $1.50 per day, when there was work to be done. Blacksmith Emerson Bixby of Barre, Massachusetts charged as little as 2¢ to make a simple small item such as an axe wedge; 12¢ to "mend" (repair) a hoe; an average of 75¢ to mend an axe; 79¢ to shoe an ox; between $1.00 and $1.50 to "new lay" (repair and reshape) a plow; and as much as $5.50 to make and apply all the ironwork on a new wagon.

Today many very talented blacksmiths are female, but almost all blacksmiths in early New England were male. In the 19th century, some trades were seen as "men's work" and others as "women's work", while some jobs (such as bookbinding) were not seen as the exclusive domain of either sex.

Making Iron

There were different techniques used to produce iron, but all involved heating iron ores in a furnace to extract the metal. It was then refined and passed between heavy rollers to form it into convenient sizes and shapes. Every state in the Union and most countries in Europe made some iron in the early 1800s. (Asia and Africa also made iron, but iron from those places was not traded with New England in the 1830s.)

Steel, which is iron alloyed with a small amount of carbon, has been made for thousands of years. It is harder and tougher than iron, and thus allows sharp tools such as knives and axes to hold their cutting edges. Steel was readily available in early New England in the 1830s, but it was more expensive and more difficult to work than iron. As a result, it was only used where its hardness and durability were required.

A new method of making steel called the Kelly-Bessemer process was developed in the 1850s. This made steel much cheaper and more widely available by the later 19th century.

The Process

With bellows blowing additional air through the fire, it can reach temperatures of about 3,000° Fahrenheit. Iron burns at 2,800°, however, so the smith has to be careful to not ruin his work!

At just below 1,000° Fahrenheit the iron begins to glow a dull red color. As the temperature increases, the color becomes brighter, from reds through shades of orange and yellow to a dazzling white. A smith needs to be able to distinguish fine gradations of color and remember the different properties the metal has at certain temperatures (colors). The need to recognize these colors is why smithies are not usually as brightly lit as other workshops.

Blacksmiths don't cast iron, rather a blacksmith softens iron in his fire and shapes it with his hammer and anvil, but the iron remains a solid. This process is called forging. The smith's fire contains too much oxygen to allow iron to melt; as it approaches its melting point the iron burns instead.

Iron was cast into pots, mill gears, and other implements at iron "furnaces," or foundries. The furnaces were designed to reduce the amount of oxygen that came in contact with the iron. Cast iron also contains considerably more impurities than the wrought iron that a smith uses. These impurities reduce the melting temperature of the metal, which makes it easier to cast but also leaves it somewhat brittle.