“Under a spreading chestnut-tree the village smithy stands; the smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands……”.
These are the opening words of the poem ‘The Village Blacksmith,’ penned by the American poet William Henry Longfellow in 1840. It is both a tribute to his ancestor Stephen Longfellow, blacksmith, schoolteacher and town clerk, and to the craft of smithing.
Longfellow, from Portland, Maine, writes evocatively about a pillar of small community life, a craftsman who epitomised hard work and who lived amongst his clients. Theirs was a hard, dirty profession that was almost entirely male-dominated. Blacksmiths were artisans who, working out of a small shop, used hammer, anvil and furnace to shape out of iron and steel whatever their client required. Farm tools, mill parts, builders’ hardware – all were part of their remit.
Blacksmiths were toolmakers – self-sufficient individuals who fashioned their own implements wherever possible, invariably with a particular purpose in mind. Sometimes they re-worked scrap bought from a neighbour; only the large items, such as the anvil or vice, were imported, usually from manufacturers in England. Some made their own charcoal, used to feed the hungry furnace that softened the iron; others bought in supplies from a local collier.
Theirs was an unregulated world without trade academies. A son learned the craft from his blacksmith father; some started as apprentices with an experienced ‘smith’, exchanging their free labour for food, a bed and an education. By 1840 many were taken on in return for a small wage; all finished their apprenticeship when they reached the age of 21.
Few blacksmiths used cash in nineteenth century America. Most ran an account book, with a ledger that recorded debits and credits; neighbour dealt with neighbour. On average a blacksmith earned a dollar to a dollar fifty a day. For a simple hoe repair he might charge 12 cents; to make and install all the ironwork on a wagon, however, he might charge 5 dollars.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, as the ranchers and cowboys opened up the American West, the demand for a blacksmith’s services should never have been greater. Yet by the time Longfellow wrote his poem, a blacksmith’s services and his way of life were under threat. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution at the start of the nineteenth century brought mass production and interchangeable components. Suddenly special factories were producing nails and other essential items in large quantities.
Horseshoes, which had been forged on a large scale since the thirteenth century, could now be cast by a machine on a mass scale. During the American Civil War one of these machines gave the Union army a critical advantage over their Confederate adversaries. The civil war was good for the blacksmith, however. Both sides employed them as mobile support units for shoeing horses, repairing tack and servicing artillery equipment such as gun carriages. They worked from wagons specially reinforced to carry equipment weighing more than 1200 pounds including bellows, a fireplace and a 4-inch wide vice.
After the civil war, blacksmiths continued to work, but they survived rather than flourished. The number plying their trade full time steadily diminished. Many split their working time between the smithy and other environments like the farm, repairing equipment and shoeing horses, traditionally the domain of the specialist farrier. Some bought land and moved into farming altogether. A few became entrepreneurs and embraced the new industrial age. In the 1830s John Deere, for example, adapted his idea for a new ploughing tool and created a product for a mass market.
As the twentieth century ushered in the motor car, the Studebaker family, manufacturers of the famous Connestoga wagons, made a smooth transition into car production, and many former blacksmiths became the first car mechanics. The few that survived into the 1920s, fashioning bespoke gates and staircases for banks and the new millionaires, were swept away by the Great Depression.
The craft of the blacksmith has experienced a modest revival in recent years. The new millionaires and billionaires, like their 1920s counterparts, have shown a renewed interest in a product that is of great quality and exclusivity and is unashamedly expensive. In another twist of fate, a profession that in 1860 embraced more than 7,500 blacksmiths, is now often a leisure pursuit, appearing at theme parks, craft fairs and restoration villages.