Tin itself is an elemental metal, represented by the symbol "Sn." Tinners did not work pure tin, however, but a material called tinplate. Tinplate is a thin sheet of strong, cheap iron coated with an outer layer of softer but corrosion-resistant tin. New England tinners bought tinplate from importers in Boston and other ports. The plate itself was manufactured in Britain, where Welsh iron was rolled into sheets then dipped into molten Cornish tin to give it a protective coating.
As long as the protective tin coating remains intact, tinware will not rust. If the thin outer layer of tin is scratched or worn off, however, the exposed iron underneath is indeed prone to rusting.
Working the Tin
Tinners used patterns to trace shapes onto sheets of tinplate, then cut them out with heavy shears. The tin was bent, curved, and folded as needed with hammers, mallets or even the hands over small anvils called stakes. The metal was flexible enough to be worked at room temperature.
Steel punches driven by hammers were used to pierce sheets of tinplate when making graters, lanterns, colanders, strainers, and the like. Thick sheets of lead were placed below the tin to support it, and protect the workbench, while punching holes.
To make punched patterns in items such as pierced tin lanterns, lines and circles are scratched onto the tin plate from a pattern, and then each hole is made by piercing the tinplate with steel chisels and punches of various shapes. (The pattern guides where the holes will go but does not control how many holes are made.)
Most pieces were joined and sealed with solder. Some pieces were joined with wire while many had their edges folded into interlocking seams. Solder is a metallic alloy applied like a hot-melt glue to bond metal pieces together. In the 1830s most solder was about half lead and half tin. Early tinners probably made solder by melting scrap lead with old pieces of pewter (which is mostly tin).
Most 19th-century tinware was not painted. Some more decorative pieces were hand-painted, however, as cheap imitations of fine Asian lacquered goods. This process was then called "Japanning," and today painted tin is often referred to as "tollware." The production of decorated tinware was often centralized in particular towns or regions, one of the important locations in the vicinity of Hartford, Connecticut. Women and girls, in a separate building, did some of the painting, but there also were a number of men who worked professionally in this aspect of the trade, “flowering tin.” A couple of large shops in Worcester County, Massachusetts, and southern New Hampshire respectively, were known as “manufactories of Japanned Ware,” and produced large quantities of stencil-decorated tinware.
Unlike some tradesmen, most 19th-century tinners seem to have worked at their trade full-time. This was made possible because they sent goods to distant markets, and made necessary because of the capital investment in equipment.
Tinners manufactured a wide variety of useful household items. Pots, pans, funnels, dippers, reflector ovens, scoops, colanders, measures, strainers, and other cooking utensils were a major category of tinware, as was such lighting devices as candle holders, oil lamps, and lanterns. You may see many tin items on the shelves of the shop. Although the technique of preserving food in tin cans was known in the 1830s, it would not become common for several more years.
Some tin was sold right out of the shop to local customers. Many tin manufacturers engaged peddlers (traveling salesmen) to sell tin door to door, sometimes hundreds of miles from where it was made. Some tinware was also sold in stores. Stores either bought directly from the shop or through peddlers or wholesalers called warehousemen. Since cash was in short supply, many peddlers accepted items such as rags, ashes, feathers, animal fat, and scrap metal in trade. The value of these items from customers was credited against their tinware purchases.
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 journeyman tin man might earn $1.00 to $1.25 per day. A small item such as a candle extinguisher might sell for a 1¢; a set of six measures sold for $1.00; and a large item like a tin oven sold for about $3.00. In a year a typical tinner might produce about $1,000 worth of tinware.
As with many other trades, a tinner usually learned his trade as an apprentice. Boys learned to be tinners by working with an experienced tin man. 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 introduction of the hand-operated machines also significantly lowered the skill level necessary to work at the tin trade. The length of an apprenticeship was not regulated, although it ended when a boy reached his majority at the age of 21.
By family tradition the tin shop at Old Sturbridge Village was an addition to the Alpheus Wight house in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and was used by a metalworker in the 1800s. It served many other functions until it was restored as a tin shop here in the 1980s.
Most country towns did not have a tin shop, while many urban centers had several.
Nineteenth-century tinners made most of their wares for distant markets rather than for their neighbors. Worcester County, Massachusetts had more tinners than many regions of New England, and yet only eleven out of more than fifty towns had tin shops. Massachusetts as a whole had 115 tin shops in 1837.
Between one and three men might work in a rural tin shop in 1830s New England, although there were a few larger operations that had more tinners and a large number of tin peddlers.
Tools and machines for the tin trade were manufactured in central Connecticut, especially in the towns of Berlin and Southington. In the 1830s a set of hand tools cost about $50 (about two month's wages) and a set of machines cost about $100. They could be purchased either from the manufacturer or one of his agents.