This week, the Regimental Brewmeister added a new skill to his repertoire — Blacksmithing. When Fort Mifflin was reconstructed in 1798, the first permanent structure built was the smithy and this was because no real work could begin on the structure without the hardware and tools produced in this shop. All the nails, bolts, hinges, binding straps, and other hardware used to build the walls and then the various structures within and below the walls was forged in this shop. Its fitting as we begin again rebuilding that we start with the smithy.
I’m not calling it a blacksmith shop because metalworking needed to support the fort comes in two broad classes and we plan to eventually have both at Fort Mifflin — blacksmithing and whitesmithing. Both blacksmiths and whitesmiths work with metal and both metalworking techniques are critical to both the building and maintaining of the fort. They are also great fun to watch so come out and see what we are up to.
Blacksmithing is an ancient craft that first developed in Assyria but quickly spread throughout the world. Prior to that, most tools were made of softer metals like bronze or even stone. Iron replaced bronze for use in tools and weapons in the late 2nd and the 1st millennia BCE. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, blacksmiths most of the iron vessels, tools, and other objects used in any community by hand. The blacksmith’s essential equipment consists of a forge, or furnace, in which smelted iron is heated so that it can be worked easily; an anvil, a heavy, firmly secured, steel-surfaced block upon which the piece of iron is worked; tongs to hold the iron on the anvil; and hammers, chisels, and other implements to cut, shape, flatten, or weld the iron into the desired object.
When rebuilding Fort Mifflin, Blacksmiths were employed to make the literally tons of common objects used in both the construction of the garrison and those consumed in everyday life at the fort. Nails, screws, bolts, and other fasteners; sickles, plowshares, axes, and other agricultural implements; hammers and other tools; candlesticks and other household objects; wheel rims and other metal parts in wagons and carriages; fireplace fittings and implements; spikes, chains, and cables used on ships; and the ironwork used to assemble buildings and even furniture were all made in the blacksmiths shop. The blacksmith shop was also critical to movement and transportation as it was frequently paired with a farriery where horses’ hoofs were reshod.
The term “blacksmith” comes from the heating process required to manipulate iron. When a blacksmith heats up iron in his forge (which holds hot coals), the surface of the iron develops a black color due to oxidation. “Smith” comes from the Old English word “smythe” (or perhaps the Old High German word “smid”), which means “to strike.” The word “blacksmith” combines two distinguishing elements of a smith’s work: the color of the iron when heated, and the act of striking the metal with tools.
Now if we simply opened the blacksmith shop, we would be well underway toward remaking Fort Mifflin but there are other metal implements that we need that are not easily made from wrought iron. Whitesmithing ( also known as tinsmithing) is a much newer form of metalworking that developed in the late 1600s and gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although found worldwide, whitesmithing was especially popular in the British Empire and so important to the British economy during the American Revolution that the British did what they could to keep tin and smithing supplies out of the hands of the rebellious Americans.
Whitesmithing shops and their wares were vital to equipping the army. Whitesmiths commonly crafted canteens, small boxes, cups and plates, and other sturdy, lightweight personal items. Other products made by whitesmiths included: lanterns, chandeliers, kettles, candlesticks, spice shakers, and pans. The whitesmith and blacksmith often worked together as the blacksmith created the large heavy hardware and the whitesmith focused added details to create a refined finished product. These included: locks, keys, small tools, stirrups, and buckles.
Like blacksmithing, whitesmithing gets its name from appearance of the metals worked. Whitesmiths historically worked with thin sheets of iron or steel that were dipped in molten tin to protect the metal from rust and provide a lightweight, aesthetically pleasing finish. In colonial America, tinsmiths worked with sheets of tin shipped from Britain. Because the pieces of metal worked were both small and thin, tinsmiths do not need the forges to heat the metal but they still hammer, cut, punches, and shape the metal over an anvil. Besides working the metal into various shapes, the whitesmith will also solder the seams with lead using a loggerhead (similar to those used in the bar to make toddies) This tool was heated over a fire and then pressed on the seam of tin projects to close it and make it water-tight.
So, over the next several months, stay tuned as we progress though our journey. It is my hope that we will open the smithy up as either a blacksmith, whitesmith, or both on a monthly basis in 2023.
Want to play a part? Well, we need patrons. Every visitor to Fort Mifflin sees the dire needs we have to make basic repairs and refurbishment of our facilities. Years of neglect, several fires, and the relentless battering of the weather are taking their toll on our fort. Please consider donating to the fort. Help us find sponsors for new roofs and much needed repairs. If we all work together, we can preserve this treasure for another 260 years!
If you can’t afford to make a big donation, consider patronizing our gift shop. Soon products from the smithy will be available in the gift shop. There are also portmanteau for your gear, books and giftables. We also have several exiting programs coming up including the second annual Cast Iron Chef (http://www.fortmifflin.us/event/cic-brew/) where you can enjoy a full day of immersion history with our cooks and brewer culminating in an 18th Century Tavern style dinner.