It will likely come to no surprise to those of you who regularly read or write books about the nineteenth century that the blacksmith was a key figure still. Various articles of metal, such as horse shoes and hanging bells, still needed to be created, and most were still manufactured by hand. But I ran across a phrase this week that intrigued me. A children’s book on English trades segregated blacksmiths, whitesmiths, and brightsmiths. And that called for some research (lovely, lovely research!).
It turns out that a blacksmith specialized in iron and steel. Steel was still created in small batches and was very expensive until well into the century. Often in stories and movies, blacksmiths wield a mighty hammer over their anvils to produce everything from nails to hand-and-a-half broadswords. Some, however, created finer items like locks and keys.
The whitesmith, on the other hand, might specialize in tin or other lighter-colored metal. Brightsmiths took the duller metals and created items polished to a high sheen. While a blacksmith worked on metal heated in a forge, whitesmiths and brightsmiths worked on cold metal.
The trade book I mentioned listed the key tools of the smith as the forge for heating the metal, the anvil and block for holding it, and the hammer, tongs, hole punches, and pinchers for manipulating it. While I have often seen the trough of water used in movies for cooling the metal, the author insisted that it was used for sprinkling on the coals to make them produce more heat.
To become a smith, a young man would apprentice. Perhaps he might start with stoking the fire or separating the metals his master would need for the task at hand. Later, he would move up to shaping the metal himself, simple pieces at first and then more complicated ones as his skill progressed.
Wrought iron was a very popular material in the early nineteenth century. It was used inside and outside the house for various decorations. Hinges, gates, chandeliers, and weather vanes might all be made of wrought iron and were sometimes gilded, like these gates at Hampton Court.
A smith who caught the fancy of the aristocracy might do quite well for himself. Be he a blacksmith, whitesmith, or brightsmith.