The Life of a Colonial Blacksmith

by M.H. Dyer

Highly skilled, well-trained blacksmiths were held in the highest esteem during Colonial times. Hundreds of blacksmiths supplied and repaired tools, equipment, household goods and weapons made of iron. Their craftsmanship aided a growing population and laid the foundation for commerce and expansion in a new country.

The Blacksmith's Shop

A traditional blacksmith's shop was small, dark and hot. A raised brick hearth, or forge, was equipped with bellows that continually fed air to a coal fire. The forge heated iron bars until they were hot and pliable. The blacksmith removed the iron from the fire with long-handled tongs, then placed the iron on a heavy iron block, called an anvil. He used a sledge hammer and various files to form the iron into the desired shapes.

Training to be a Blacksmith

Many blacksmiths began as indentured servants. Under this system, a young boy would work for a master blacksmith for an agreed-upon time -- usually four to five years -- in exchange for room and board and a small stipend to be paid at the end of the apprenticeship. In many cases, the master blacksmith also paid the fare for a young European boy to travel across the Atlantic to the new country. Some boys attended school in the evening to learn math and reading. At the end of the contracted time, the apprentice would enter journeyman status, free to work at the trade wherever he pleased.

Daily Life

Blacksmiths were in high demand in urban areas and often worked from dawn to dusk, six days per week. In rural areas with small populations, many blacksmiths supplemented their income with farming or hunting. According to "History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928," journeyman blacksmiths in New Amsterdam -- a Dutch settlement that later became New York -- earned about 40 cents per day in 1637. Blacksmiths sometimes bartered their services in exchange for food, goods or services.

Tools, Household Goods, Ships and Weapons

Horseshoes were among the most important items constructed and repaired by blacksmiths. Colonial blacksmiths also made tools for farmers, including nails, spikes, plows, shovels, hoes and axes. The blacksmith also made items necessary for daily life in the Colonial home, such as door latches, hooks, fireplace andirons, kettles, kitchen utensils and sewing tools. These early ironworkers were critical during the Revolutionary War, constructing cannons, guns, gun parts and knives. In seaport towns, blacksmiths made parts and fittings for ships. In urban areas, some blacksmiths made decorative gates, balconies or railings.

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