The Life of a Blacksmith in the 1800s
Blacksmithing existed within communities large and small in 19th century America. Although each blacksmith’s workshop, metalworking process, and expertise differed in some ways, they all possessed the general ability to fashion a variety of important items out of iron and steel. In a time when the rise of mechanized manufacturing still loomed on the horizon, Americans relied on their local blacksmith to create essential everyday products for use in the home and in the fields. Even after the rise of industry in the second half of the 1800s, blacksmiths found ways to remain vital members of their communities by evolving their services to fit specific economic needs.
- Watson, Aldren A. (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 192 Pages - 07/17/2000 (Publication Date) - W. W. Norton & Company (Publisher)
The Rise of the Blacksmith in 19th Century America
The importance of the blacksmith in 19th century communities is eloquently documented by renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1839 work entitled “The Village Blacksmith.” Longfellow describes the hardworking nature and steadfast presence of the local smith. His romanticized portrayal of blacksmiths indicates that they possessed a good deal of prestige within American society at the time. The first half of the 19th century is considered by historians to be the “golden age” of American blacksmithing due to the demand for metalwork in newly developing communities on the frontier.
By 1860, the United States census recorded 7,504 blacksmith workshops and 15,720 workers employed within them. It also listed blacksmithing as the fourth most popular trade after lumber milling, flour milling, and shoemaking. At a time when the United States population hovered around thirty million, this was a significant number of people employed in blacksmithing and illustrates the demand for this service.
In the latter part of the 1800s, the significance of blacksmiths shifted as industrialization mechanized the processes of many trades. Mass production threatened to replace the work of blacksmiths, as it allowed for faster and more cheaply made products that could be replaced instead of repaired. For example, before 1850, blacksmiths forged nails at a rate of one per minute, which made them relatively scarce and expensive. Nails proved so valuable that arsonists would burn down buildings just to collect the nails left behind. By the end of the century however, machines could make hundreds of nails per hour and at a cost that made nails easily replaceable instead of prized.
Blacksmiths responded to the rise of industrialization by turning their attention to shoeing horses and making and repairing wagons and carriages. Factories had not yet replaced these products with a machine, and the increasing movement of people from farm to city required reliable means of transport. By shifting their attention away from smaller projects and focusing instead on horses and transportation implements, smiths maintained a level of prestige as skilled tradesmen within the transportation industry despite the increasing prevalence of mass production in other sectors.
The Role of Blacksmiths in 1800s Communities
Blacksmiths living in the 1800s took on the roles of both tradesmen and businessmen in order to manage successful workshops and provide a variety of services. Townspeople and farmers alike valued the range of skills blacksmiths possessed and relied on them to create the tools and implements necessary for survival. Smiths could manipulate metal in endless ways, but usually created and repaired farm equipment such as hoes, plows, rakes and other tools as well as hardware and wheels for wagons, kitchen utensils and horseshoes.
Blacksmiths who could take on an array of specialized projects had more value within their community than those who could not, so most smiths prioritized becoming a “jack of all trades” in order to strengthen their reputation and serve as many people as possible.
Smiths managed their businesses carefully and kept detailed records of daily work orders and the debts owed by their customers. They interacted with other business owners in their community to build solid professional networks and advertise their services. Because they worked for themselves, smiths had to skillfully negotiate their compensation, which often took the form of cash payments, traded goods, or services promised by customers skilled in other trades.
Becoming a successful blacksmith involved setting wages that could both sustain the smith and attract future patrons. Most blacksmiths charged based on the type of project and the time it took to complete it. For the basic repair of farm implements such as plows, rakes, and other equipment, blacksmiths typically earned between one dollar and a dollar and a half per day. For the creation of a new product, blacksmiths could expect to earn an average of five and a half dollars per day.
Becoming a Blacksmith in the 1800s
The demand for blacksmiths within American society in the 19th century led many young men to pursue the trade. Although there is evidence of female blacksmiths during this time period, men dominated the industry. Becoming a smith required many years of careful study and dedication. In the early 1800s, master blacksmiths who worked in the trade most of their lives and had an ample set of skills took young apprentices into their homes and workshops. Apprentices would be educated, fed, and clothed in exchange for assisting master blacksmiths in their shops and learning alongside them. Most apprentices during this time worked under a contract or learned from relatives skilled in the trade.
By around 1830, it was customary for master blacksmiths to pay apprentices a small wage for their help in the workshop instead of housing them. Most boys completed their apprenticeship and became journeyman blacksmiths by the age of twenty-one. As journeymen, they were considered competent in their trade and capable of performing a range of tasks related to both metalworking and bookkeeping, but did not have enough experience to be considered a master smith. It took many more years of work for young journeymen to gain complete mastery in the craft.
The Equipment and Tools of a 19th Century Smith
Blacksmiths used a few essential pieces of large equipment and a number of small tools depending on the work being done. Every smith required a forge, bellows, and anvil to properly heat and shape their projects. Blacksmiths heated metal in forges fueled by a charcoal fire until it was hot enough to manipulate with small tools. Bellows helped concentrate air into the forge to make the fire hotter.
By the end of the 19th century, most blacksmiths had replaced their traditional bellows with rotary fan blowers, which performed more efficiently than traditional bellows. Once the metal heated up sufficiently, the smith would transfer it to his anvil for shaping. The anvil both absorbed the blows made by the blacksmith during shaping and provided multiple surfaces on which the metal could be worked. By the turn of the century, many blacksmiths added the drill press to their arsenal of large metalworking equipment.
Smaller tools varied depending on the job at hand, but blacksmiths typically utilized hammers, tongs, forms, wedges, and chisels to complete their projects. Hammers and chisels helped form the metal into unique shapes. Tongs allowed blacksmiths to place pieces of metal closer to the hottest part of the coals for quicker and more thorough heating. If they did not possess the tools required for a specific job, blacksmiths would make their own. Over the span of a blacksmith’s career, he could accumulate hundreds of different tools that existed solely for the completion of one particular item.
Blacksmiths often had trouble identifying the tools of other smiths because they were so individualized. This has made studying the process of 19th century blacksmithing difficult for modern historians as well because blacksmiths usually did not document each tool’s unique function.
Clothing of a Blacksmith in the 1800s
Smiths kept their workwear simple and functional by dressing in everyday clothing and adding a leather apron to protect from stray sparks. Crafted from affordable cowhide, the apron allowed for free movement while providing essential protection. It covered the blacksmith from the waist to below the knees and sometimes split in the middle to allow smiths to cradle the leg of a horse when fitting shoes. Blacksmiths usually wore sturdy boots to protect their feet and a belt to hold their frequently used tools. Smiths did not wear gloves because they preferred direct contact with the metal being worked.
Materials & Metals of a 19th century Smith
Prior to the mid 1830s, blacksmiths worked with mainly wrought iron because it was cheaper and easier to shape than other types of metal on the market. In 1838, John Deere’s successful invention of the steel plow made the metal a popular choice for craftsmen such as blacksmiths. Steel became more readily available for smiths in small communities as the demand for stronger, sleeker products grew. Although smiths began using steel for large farm implements, they still relied heavily on wrought iron for smaller, everyday tools and repairs. Wrought iron and steel could be ordered from commercial manufacturers or bought directly from local general stores.
Merchants sold metal in hoops and bars of varying lengths and prices. In the 1830s, wrought iron cost six cents per pound on average, making it the most cost-effective choice for blacksmiths, while steel could cost between eighteen and twenty-five cents per pound. Buying new metal could be expensive regardless of which kind a blacksmith chose because of transportation fees from the general store to the workshop, so many smiths saved money by collecting scrap metal left over from previous projects and using it again.
Inside the Workshop of an 1800s Blacksmith
Blacksmiths in the 19th century designed their workshops with practicality in mind. This allowed smiths to maintain efficiency in their work and their interactions with customers so they could complete more projects and optimize their daily wage. The small, one-room workshops were made of unfinished logs, lumber, brick, or stone depending on the climate and resources available. Workshops had one or two windows, but less lighting was ideal, as darkness allowed smiths to more easily see the glow of their heated metal. The most economical shops had dirt floors, but smiths preferred the comfort of wood and the warmth it sustained in the winter.
Blacksmiths designed their workshops with four distinct areas with specific purposes. The workspace contained the forge, which was central to the blacksmith’s craft. It possessed a chimney and bellows on one side to concentrate the heat of the fire. The anvil stood close by because blacksmiths used it regularly. Smiths who frequently made horseshoes and acted as a farrier would also keep a shoeing stand within their main workspace. Blacksmiths stored smaller and scarcely used tools around the perimeter of the forge and anvil, with the most handy items kept close by.
The walls and corners of the workshop housed the blacksmith’s collection of recyclable scrap metal, coal fuel, and other refuse. Smiths maintained this stock of scrap to be reworked into small tools or to be used for repairs. Some smiths preferred to keep scrap and fuel outside of their workshops to save space and prevent accidental fires. The final distinct area of the blacksmith’s workshop was the domestic area, or what we would think of today as a waiting room. It usually contained a fireplace to keep visitors warm in the colder months and a simple table and chairs. From this space, customers could watch the smith complete their order or relax with their pipes and newspapers.
Blacksmiths in the 1800s provided essential services within their growing communities and acted as savvy businessmen to promote their work. After completing years of education, smiths skillfully utilized a variety of large equipment and unique handheld tools to complete a wide range of projects. People of all occupations and backgrounds relied on blacksmiths to create the items they needed for their everyday activities. The workshops of blacksmiths reflected the practicality of the smith and the items he created. Although small, these spaces allowed blacksmiths and their customers to engage in the art of metalworking with efficiency and ease. As demands shifted and new means of production emerged at the end of the 19th century, blacksmiths evolved their trade to maintain their status as skilled craftsmen and essential members of their communities.