November 9, 2011
Tinsmithing at the Armoury.
Nathaniel Nuthall was hired by James Anderson on June 25th, 1779 as a “tinman”. Just what is a “tinman” and why was he needed in an Armoury?
First, a look at tin. What we call tin, or tinplate, is actually thin sheet iron coated with tin. Pure tin is too soft for use in the manufacture of utensils. Iron, while much stronger, oxidizes (rusts) readily and in thin sheets will deteriorate rapidly. Applying tin to the surface of thin sheet iron protects the iron from exposure to oxygen, preventing oxidation while creating a shiny surface. Tinned iron is strong, light, corrosion resistant, and easy to clean. Flat sheets of tin can be formed into three-dimensional shapes by cutting, seaming, bending and soldering.
Tin plate was produced in standard sized sheets, most often 10 inches by 13-3/4 inches, and was normally shipped in wood boxes containing 225 sheets per box. Acquiring the raw material in standard-sized sheets affects the size, shape, and construction of tin items, as larger products must be pieced together from standard-sized sheets. Product forms were developed to make most efficient use of material, allowing the workmen to cut out components while minimizing waste. By the eighteenth century, English plating mills had developed the process of rolling wrought iron into sheets thin enough to be tin coated and worked cold into three dimensional shapes. The English trade centered in regions such as Monmouthshire which had a well established iron industry, sufficient deposits of tin, and well established transportation networks.
While tinned iron had been known since the fifteenth century, most early production was confined to central Europe. By the late seventeenth century the English tin trade had grown enough to incorporate a livery company, the Worshipful Company of Tinplate Workers. The trade was found sparsely scattered in the North American colonies, mostly in larger populated areas, and often combined with related trades, such as copper smithing. We are unaware of any tinsmiths working in Williamsburg until tinwork was introduced at the Armoury. Prior to that, most tinware was imported from Britain, like many other consumer goods, with a few local shops supplementing the market.
The properties of tin made it an ideal material for a number of military uses. It was relatively strong, unlike glass or ceramic, and it was light in weight making it useful to an army traveling on foot. Tin was also relatively cheap, satisfying the bureaucrats who kept track of expenses.
In September of 1777, Commissary General William Aylett ran this advertisement in the Virginia Gazette looking for workmen to establish a tin shop to manufacture military goods:
Tinwork made in the Armoury most often falls into three categories; items used in the preparation and consumption of food and drink; containers for storage; or miscellaneous camp equipment. Anderson’s wartime daybook lists quite a number of tin items delivered for public use between 1778 to 1780, the majority related to food. The single most common item delivered were tin camp kettles, 356 listed in all. Camp kettles are the basic food preparation and water-boiling container. They come in graduated sizes, usually nesting one within another for ease of packing, and looking to the modern eye much like a paint can. They are much lighter than a cast iron pot. Other food related vessels include “saus(e)pans”, measures, (gallon, half gallon, quart, pint, half pint) pots, and pans. Not surprisingly, plates are the next most common item, with 198 delivered. Dishes, tumblers, bowls, mugs, coffee cups and saucers, along with coffeepots (59) round out camp cookware.
Camp equipment included lanthorns (lanterns with horn panes), funnels, tinder boxes, shot canisters, and tin tubes, probably as liners for cartridge boxes. Archaeologists found copper and brass sheet in this summer’s dig, and the records reflect the use of copper in the shop as well. Newspaper advertisements and later texts related to the tinsmiths trade typically list sheet copper work as part of the tinsmiths trade, referring to the workmen as “tinsmith, coppersmith, and sheet metal workers.” Anderson’s daybook records delivery of 10 copper ladles for loading cannon during this period. This simple copper sheet-work employed the same tools and methods as those used by a tinsmith.
Given the time period and pre-war rhetoric relating to tea consumption, there are a few surprising items listed. Tinsmiths provided 20 tea kettles, 7 tea pots, and 4 canisters for tea, demonstrating that coffee had not completely supplanted tea as a beverage of choice. Also listed was a salt cellar and sugar dish, suggesting that some military camps incorporated creature comforts that might seem out of place in the stark furnishings of a military camp.
As we develop our tinsmith shop in the next year, we will identify tooling required to manufacture all of the items listed in Anderson’s accounts, and complete a furnishing list for the shop. Curator Erik Goldstein and I have undertaken this research along with friend and Master Tinsmith Bill McMillen as an advisor. Erik, Bill and I have been examining early examples of tooling, in both print sources and museum collections. We will also be looking for early examples of tin wares to guide us on forms for replication in the shop. Once plans for the tinshop are well along, we will begin to manufacture the stakes, shears, and soldering irons necessary to operate the shop, with the goal of having a running shop in 2013. We will keep you posted as Colonial Williamsburg develops a “new” trade for the first time in many years.
Contributed by Ken Schwarz, Master Blacksmith
Funded by a generous gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr., of Big Horn, Wyoming.