The occupation of our earliest American ancestor, John' BIGELOW of Watertown MA, was a blacksmith. The name of our newsletter is derived of course from that connection, and the logo of the blacksmith hammering on his anvil appears on the cover of each issue. The noun forge refers to a furnace or a workshop with its furnace where metal is heated and wrought. The verb to forge is the act of forming metal through the process of heating and hammering. The following article tells about the work of the early blacksmith and his vital importance to the colonial community.
It is a common misconception that the old-time blacksmith spent his entire day working on shoeing horses. A craftsman who did nothing but shoe horses was in fact called a farrier. A blacksmith on the other hand was a "Jack-of-all-iron-trades."
The blacksmith worked long days hammering, or forging, red-hot iron into an assortment of tools essential to the early settlers, such as axes, hoes, scythes, and plow blades. He made much-needed common items for the home such as nails, hinges, latches, pots and gates. And he repaired everything made of iron.
The first ships that came to the New World always carried a blacksmith because he was indispensable in supplying all the tools of progress. The first permanent British colony in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Among the original group of 105 settlers was a blacksmith, James Reed.
Villages were always eager to attract a good blacksmith for no village could have survived in the early days without one. First of all, the main means of transportation for thousands of years had been horses. While it formed only part of his work, a blacksmith was needed to shoe horses; as well, he made all the small iron pieces required for bridles and harnesses. Blacksmith's work required great physical strength, both to hammer the pieces of red hot iron into shape and to manage the heavy iron objects and lively horses.
While a blacksmith was a shoer of horses and a man of strength, he was also much more than that. He could do more things for people than any other tradesman in the community. He could mend a broken wagon-wheel, fashion a household kettle, make nails for the new barn, or design a personalized weathervane. His role, however, demanded even more than all this. The good blacksmith was a man of imagination and engineering creativity. He could take a shapeless lump of iron and turn it into anything desired. Take, for instance, a great church door hung by decorative strap hinges, a marvel of design. Or a fancy door knocker crafted to the specifications of a wealthy citizen.
For centuries, the blacksmith's shop was a hub of activity in the village,
a place for gossip and debate. The smith knew everyone, for every inhabitant
had a need for his services. The fascination invoked by the smells and
sounds of the blacksmith's work drew every child at one time or another
to his shop to watch him work. A much-coveted job among youngsters was
the smith's boy who was sometimes hired to pump the bellows, sweep the
floor or make deliveries.
The blacksmith shop was indeed a fascinating place. A huge fireplace and chimney were the most striking feature of the shop. Iron bars and rods hung on racks along the walls. The shop itself was a building large enough to hold the horses and wagons that had to worked upon.
In order to shape a piece of iron, the blacksmith had to heat it until it was malleable. The stone chimney with a rectangular hearth jutting out from one side into the shop was called a forge. The hearth was essential for heating the iron as it contained a waist-high trough, about a foot deep, where a charcoal fire burned. Charcoal was required as it burned at a higher temperature than wood and was smokeless. At the far end of the hearth was a counter where the smith could let an iron piece cool or lay his tools.
Behind the chimney and connected by a tunnel to the hearth was a bellows. The bellows was used to pump air into the trough and bring the charcoal to a high temperature. The blacksmith could then heat the iron bar until it was red-hot and ready to be shaped. Next to the hearth was a tub of water for quenching the hot iron.
Standing close by, usually towards the center of the shop, was the anvil. An anvil was a heavy iron block weighing up to 250 pounds on which the blacksmith hammered out the various bends and angles to a piece of iron. The square end of the anvil was called the heel while the sharp protruding end was the horn.
Often iron pieces were so large and heavy, such as wagon axles or wheel rims, that the blacksmith needed an adult helper in his shop. This was an ideal opportunity for someone to learn the trade of a blacksmith through being an apprentice. Someone who helped the blacksmith hold iron pieces in place was known as a striker. He stood opposite the blacksmith and "struck" with a hammer the sections that needed it. A busy blacksmith who had a lot of horses to shoe also needed a helper. Two men could shoe about nine horses during a 12-hour day.
The first task in shoeing a horse was to pare down each hoof with a knife to give it a flat, clean surface. The blacksmith then went to his forge to make the shoes. The iron was heated and bent into shape on the anvil. The ends were bent up and a clip to keep the horse's hoof from slipping on the shoe was welded to the front topside. The blacksmith then tried the roughly finished shoe on the horse for size and made any necessary adjustments. Lastly, eight rectangular holes were punched into each shoe for nails. The shoes were then attached to the feet by nailing them at an angle through the side of the hooves. The horse felt none of this since the hoof has no nerves. It is the cushion in the middle of the foot that must be protected by the shoe. The ends of the nails were blunted down and the hoof and shoe filed to make them even. The job was then complete.
There were no schools or books to train blacksmiths during the colonial days. The skills and different methods were passed along from smith to apprentice, from father to son, from one generation to the next. By 1900, the automobile had made its entrance into American society. As well, new mechanical inventions and the increasing production in factories began to take away the work blacksmiths had performed for some 4000 years. There are still farriers around today who do a good business shoeing horses in areas where riding is popular. However, some of the blacksmith shops that remain are ones operated as a hobby, or some are for tourists in replicas of colonial villages.
The searing heat, the conversation, the ringing sound of the anvil, and the general excitement of the blacksmith shop are now only a part of the history books.
Sources: Leonard Everett Fisher, The Blacksmiths, Franklin Watts, Inc: New York, 1976. Raymond Schuessler, 'The Village Blacksmith" in Early American Life, April 1974.