The Life of a Tinsmith in Colonial America [Updated]

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The Life of a Tinsmith (Whitesmith) in Colonial America [Updated]

The use of tin for everyday goods originated in the Middle Ages in Europe and was introduced to the American Colonies centuries later. The relative ease associated with working tin plate helped popularize the trade in both Europe and the New World. The demand for functional, affordable, and most importantly, aesthetically pleasing housewares from the expanding middle class also influenced the production of tin wares in the 18th century.

The Origins of Tinsmithing in Europe and America 

tin kettle
Tinsmiths in colonial times made a range of goods for the home and for soldiers on the move. Kettles similar to this one were common products crafted in the tinsmith shop.

While other metalworking professions like blacksmithing and bladesmithing had existed since ancient times, tinsmithing was invented in the 13th or 14th century in Bohemia. Central Europe held a monopoly on the production of tinplate, with all tin goods available to greater Europe being manufactured and shipped from Germany.

This status quo remained until the 30 Years’ War, which disrupted production in many industries and forced countries to start crafting their own tin goods or do without. Britain began manufacturing its own tinplate, albeit slowly and inefficiently. It wouldn’t be until the invention of the rolling mill in 1728 that tinplate could be made easily.

colonial tinsmith reenactment
A tinsmith at Colonial Williamsburg reenacts day to day responsibilities. C Watts / CC BY-SA

In the early 1700s, Britain banned production of tinplate and tinware in its Colonies to encourage dependence on imports. Britain continued to dominate the tinsmithing industry until the late 1800s, with around 70% of tin products exported to America.

By the onset of the American Revolution, tinsmith shops existed in every major city and moderately sized town in the the Colonies. The middle class demanded affordable yet beautiful goods to imitate those of the upper class. Tin’s light weight and durability also made it popular in a land where goods had to be shipped on rough roads over long distances.

The creation of tinware was also relatively low maintenance compared to other metalworking professions like blacksmithing that required large workspaces and heavy equipment. In contrast, a tinsmith could work over a small, lightweight anvil with basic tools like hammers, tin snips, punches, shears, and soldering rods.

The 18th Century Tinsmith Shop

tinsmith shop interior
The interior of a colonial tinsmith shop was cozy, bright, and full of tools and wares. Doug Coldwell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonial tinsmiths learned their trade through apprenticeships starting at around age 15. Although tinplate was physically easier to work than large pieces of iron, an adequate knowledge of tinsmithing required math, precision, and aesthetic know how in order to shape flat sheets of tin into three dimensional, functional, and beautiful items. For these reasons, tinsmithing apprenticeships usually lasted around four to six years.

After completing an apprenticeship, tinsmiths sought employment at established tinsmithing shops or opened their own. The average shop possessed at least one blacksmith but could have three or more during busy times, such as during the American Revolution.

colonial williamsburg tinsmith
Tinsmiths produced goods using cutting, shaping, soldering, and punching techniques. C Watts / CC BY-SA

Each smith was assigned a specific task depending on their experience and specific expertise. One tinsmith would be in charge of tracing patterns on to tinplate and cutting out the shapes. Tinplate during colonial times was made from thin sheets of iron that were dipped in a tin coating to prevent rusting.

Another, perhaps more experienced smith took charge of shaping and basic assembly. Finally, a highly skilled craftsman would complete final assembly and soldering.

Soldering was a finicky process for colonial tinsmiths. They used soldering rods with copper heads placed in charcoal braziers. A smith added a tin alloy solder onto a seam and had to work quickly to close the seam with the hot soldering rod before it cooled down.

Common items created by the colonial tinsmiths included kettles, cookie cutters, coffee pots, cups, and lanterns.

During the American Revolution, tin was highly valued by soldiers for its light weight, affordability, and durability. Virginia’s government opened its own tin shop to produce kettles, cups, and other tin items specifically for army use.

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