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Tinware And Toleware
( Orginally published 1950 )
Any of the things which turn up in antique shops today were originally sold by the Yankee peddlers, who went everywhere. When Thoreau visited Cape Cod a century ago people took him for a peddler. One elderly native, who remained skeptical even after Thoreau explained that he had nothing to sell, remarked, "Well, it makes no odds what it is you carry, so long as you carry truth along with you."
Many peddlers specialized in tinware, others in clocks, a few in spinning wheels, and some in chairs, to say nothing of numerous other specialties, and the horde of miscellaneous men who sold all kinds of Yankee notions. The peddler was a master at pleasing all tastes, and there was scarcely any sort of easily portable merchandise he did not carry. Even the children were remembered. There were toy whips and jews'-harps for the boys, dolls and neat check aprons for the girls, and chapbooks with woodcut illustrations and an elevated moral tone for both. The trunk or pack peddler was in effect a walking five-and-ten-cent store.
That there were peddlers in New England in the youthful days of the colonies is shown by the early attempts that were made to suppress them. The chief complainants were the established merchants, who in their petitions to the various local lawmaking bodies pointed out that, while they paid taxes, the peddlers escaped that burden. In the interests of the public welfare, they also drew attention to the fact that the strolling salesmen were apt to be carriers of disease. But in spite of all the protests, the peddlers seem to have been left largely free to carry on their activities, probably because at that time there were not enough of them to constitute a peril, and people generally welcomed their visits, as they brought news of the world.
One day early in the eighteenth century a peddler appeared in the town of Franklin, Connecticut, once part of Norwich, with a stock of wares which for richness and luxury had never before been seen in that settlement. A farmer named Micah Rood, whose cupidity was excited by the dazzling display, asked the peddler to his house, where he stabbed him to death under an apple tree, the blood of his victim seeping down through the earth to the roots. The following spring the blossoms of the tree turned from white to red. This was disturbing enough, but when the fruit ripened in the fall, each of the large, yellow, juicy apples from the tree contained a drop of blood. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, Micah was reminded of his crime, which preyed on his conscience so heavily that he fell into dark brooding spells, neglected his work, and let his farm go to dereliction and decay. From a prosperous husbandman he sank to the status of a town pauper. The apple tree became the parent of many others, all with the same characteristics, and the so-called Mike Apple or Rood Apple or Blood Apple was famous for years throughout eastern Connecticut. Legend says that the conscience-stricken Micah finally hung himself from the tree beneath which he murdered the peddler, but the town records show that after a long illness the wretched man died a pauper's death and was given a pauper's burial, December 17, 1728.
It was the manufacture of tinware that gave peddling its greatest impetus. The industry had its rise in Connecticut about the year 1740, when Edward and William Pattison began making culinary vessels in the town of Berlin. The Pattison brothers, who were tinsmiths by trade, had come over from Ireland two or three years before, but they had been prevented from following their craft because they could not get the necessary sheets of tin. Eventually, however, they succeeded in securing a supply from England, and were soon turning out a variety of household utensils. They were the first makers of tinware in America.
Tinsmithing was then entirely a hand trade. The tinplates used were thin sheets of charcoal-smelted iron which had been reduced in a rolling mill and then coated with melted tin-three dips for what was called single tinplate, six for durable tinplate. Both kinds were heavier and more lasting than the light tin used today.
The tinsmith, in working the sheets up into various utensils, such as pans, pails, plates, teapots, coffeepots, bake ovens, measures, and cups, made patterns for the various parts of an article and having outlined these on a sheet of tin cut them out with a mammoth pair of shears. These were then brought to the desired form by a few simple tools specially adapted to the purpose. The various parts were then soldered together with a composition of tin and lead, a small charcoal furnace being used to heat the soldering iron. But before the tinsmith did any soldering he turned the edges of the parts which were to be united by beating them with a mallet on a steel-edged anvil called a "stock." This was done to strengthen the seams and give the solder a chance to take hold. Iron wire was used to re-enforce the edges and handles, which required more strength than the tin alone possessed. With the growth of the industry, machines invented by Seth Peck of Hartford County and driven by water power were used to turn the edges. These machines greatly expedited the manufacture of the ware and helped to reduce the price.
There was little tinware in the colonies when the Pattisons began making it. What there was of it was imported and expensive. Many people were not familiar with it at all, but though the new native product was something of a curiosity, it was well received. Housewives were attracted by its brilliant silvery appearance and delighted with its lightness. It was easier to handle than the heavy iron pots and kettles with which they had been obliged to wrestle.
At the outset, the Pattisons disposed of their tinware in Berlin and the neighboring towns by carrying it in baskets and peddling it from house to house. The business grew slowly at first, but as soon as the metal showed its serviceability the demand for it spread, and the Pattisons traveled farther and farther afield to supply the expanding market. They taught others the trade and hired adventurous young men to peddle for them. They were kept busy meeting the popular demand.
With the exception of the period of the Revolution, Edward Pattison continued to make tinware in Berlin until his death in 1787. The war put a temporary stop to the business because it was impossible to get the raw material. Parliament had passed an act in 1749 prohibiting the establishment of rolling or planing mills in the colonies. This was done in a deliberate attempt to stifle possible American competition with the English manufacturers of metal wares. There was plenty of iron in this country, but no known supply of tin, which was first discovered in Goshen, Connecticut, in 1829, by Professor Hitchcock of Amherst. England, on the other hand, had the famous mines of Cornwall and Devonshire on which to draw. These mines had been in operation since before the days of the Roman occupation and continued to be worked until late in the nineteenth century, when the discovery of rich alluvial deposits of tin in Malaya and Peru caused them to become largely derelict.
Following the Revolution there was a boom in the American tinware trade. The year Edward Pattison died his son Shubael built a large new tinshop in Berlin. He took wagonloads of his tinware to Canada, where he exchanged it for furs. There is a local tradition that John Jacob Astor was his companion on some of these Canadian trips. However that may be, the furs which Shubael brought back to Berlin were made into muffs by girls, some of whom came from Newington and other near-by towns.
Meanwhile, other Berliners, who had seen the Pattisons prosper and had learned the business from them, began establishing their own shops. These Yankee tinsmiths did not subscribe wholly to Emerson's mousetrap theory. They believed in making a superior product, but like the Pattisons they did not wait for the public to beat a pathway to their door. They took their ware out and sold it directly to the people. For some time they carried their stock of pots and pans in baskets or sacks on their own backs or on the backs of horses. Later two-wheeled pushcarts were substituted, but as these were not suited to long journeys, they were superseded by one-horse wagons, which were in turn succeeded to some extent by large vehicles drawn by two and sometimes even by four horses. At first the tinware was peddled chiefly in New England and New York, but with the improvement of roads the peddlers extended their travels to the West and South.
Timothy Dwight, writing of the roving Yankee peddlers, said:
Every inhabited part of the United States is visited by these men. I have seen them on the peninsula of Cape Cod, and in the neighborhood of Lake Erie; distant from each other more than six hundred miles. They make their way to Detroit, four hundred miles farther; to Canada; to Kentucky; and, if I mistake not, to New Orleans and St. Louis.
The scattered population of those days was mainly agricultural. Travel was slow and in many areas country stores were few and far between and the peddler filled a definite need. As the people began to acquire new ideas and discover new wants, the peddler added other articles to his stock of tinware. A writer of a century ago says that calicoes were often packed in the same box with tin pans; cotton checks and ginghams were stowed away beneath tin cups and iron spoons; coffeepots were crammed with spools of thread, papers of pins, and cards of horn, pewter, and brass buttons, and cakes of shaving soap. Lengths of ribbon could be drawn from the pepper boxes and sausage stuff ers. Tablecloths of cotton or brown linen drew the admiring eyes of the women away from the brightness of the new tin plates and knives and forks, all WARRANTED PURE STEEL. There were shining scissors to clip the purse strings of the women and new razors to touch the men in tender places. Silk handkerchiefs and neckcloths -things till then unknown-occupied the husbands, while their wives covetously turned over and examined colorful ribbons and fresh cotton hose. And, as already noted, the children were not forgotten.
From a small paper-covered juvenile book called the Little Jack of All Trades, which was published in New England during the second decade of the last century, and sold extensively by the Yankee peddlers at twentyfive cents a copy, comes the following paragraph about the work of the cabinetmaker, which is worth quoting as having some bearing on the subject of this book. It carries, of course, the usual moral that was then the hallmark of all juvenile literature.
The ingenuity of an art which can convert planks of wood into chairs, tables, bookcases, chests of drawers, side-boards, and many other essential household articles, is certainly very great; and is now arrived at a much higher degree of excellence than it ever was. Whether veneered with the most precious woods, or inlaid with ivory, gold, ebony, and mother-of-pearl, painted, gilded, and varnished, no cost of labor is spared to render every article exquisitely beautiful; but in the decoration of our houses, as in that of our persons, we may be led too far, and in coveting splendor overlook utility.
A tin shop employing five men could keep twentyfive peddlers on the road supplied with pots and pans. The men who sold the ware were now seldom the ones who made it. While most of them were capable of mending a broken pan or a leaky coffeepot, they usually disclaimed the ability to fulfill the function of a tinker, as the repair of an old vessel might interfere with the sale of a new one.
The peddlers usually started out in the fall, their brightly painted wagons loaded inside and out with shiny wares. The Southern States proved such a fertile territory for them that tinsmiths from Berlin and the surrounding towns were sent South with quantities of tinplate to keep the army of peddlers in the field supplied with all the tinware they could sell during the winter. At the beginning of summer, the peddlers sold Tin their horses and wagons and after an absence of from six to eight months returned home by water to New York and thence by boat to New Haven. The extent of the tinware trade is indicated by the fact that immediately after the War of 1812 no less than ten thousand boxes of tinplates were manufactured into household wares in Berlin alone in a single year.
The peddler had to be not only a good salesman but also a shrewd trader, as he often had to take payment in country produce or personal property which he had to dispose of later. If he did not know the value or the market for the things he took in exchange, he might find himself with a load of junk he could not get rid of to save himself. But generally he knew these things better than those with whom he traded, with the result that he made a profit not only on his original merchandise, but also on the things he took in exchange. Old copper kettles, pieces of pewter, brass, broken clocks, decrepit spinning wheels, all sorts of household things were taken by the peddler in gracious accommodation of his customers, especially in backwoods districts where there was little money in circulation. Richardson Wright says that the peddlers were the first dealers in early American "antiques."
The socially vigilant Timothy Dwight thought that peddling was a low calling and the peddlers themselves a set of rascals. No course of life, he said, tended more rapidly or more effectively to eradicate every moral feeling. "Many of the young men, employed in this business, part, at an early period with both modesty and principle," he declared. "Their sobriety is exchanged for cunning; their honesty for imposition; and their decent behavior for coarse impudence. Mere wanderers, accustomed to no order, control, or worship; and directed solely to the acquisition of petty gains; they soon fasten upon this object; and forget every other, of a superior nature."
One recalls the stories of Yankee peddlers selling wooden nutmegs, basswood hams, and white-oak cheeses. These yarns were, of course, exaggerated, though no one would have put it above most of them to resort to such trickery if they had found it worth while. Even the local merchants in those days were none too honest in matters of trade, many of them purposely keeping their shops in perpetual twilight, so a customer could not see the shoddy character of the goods he was buying. There was doubtless more than a grain of truth in the old story of the storekeeping New England deacon who called out to his clerk, "John, have you dampened the tobacco?" "Yes, sir." "Have you watered the rum?" "Yes, sir." "Have you sanded the sugar?" "Yes, sir." "Then come in to prayers."
The peddlers were often full of plots and plans for taking advantage of the people living in isolated places. There was one who used to make a special trip every spring to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket to sell women's straw hats. He repeated his visits until he had built up a good business, and the women of the islands came to rely upon him to keep them informed as to the latest styles in feminine headgear. One season, when the hats were tiny, he told them that it was the fashion to wear two hats, one in front and the other over the bun in back, and instead of selling his hats singly that year, he disposed of them in pairs.
Despite all that was said against them, the peddlers were not altogether a bad lot. Many men who distinguished themselves later in life began their careers as itinerant vendors of Yankee goods. It will be recalled that Whittier's schoolmaster:
Could doff at ease the scholar's gown, To peddle wares from town to town.
Multitudes of young men took to peddling because there was not much else for them to do. Farming conditions were too poor in many sections of New England to give the increasing population a living. Just as necessity was the mother of Yankee inventions and manufactures, so was it the cause of the growth of peddling. The peddlers, who were often benighted on the road and had to crawl into haystacks or bivouac in the open under the stars, were indefatigable in getting the local products to market and selling them. The importance of peddling was that it showed New Englanders they could reach out beyond their own borders for trade. It accounts for the wide distribution today of many different kinds of New England antiques.
Yet it was not always smooth sailing for the peddler. Sometimes the demand was for one thing, sometimes another, and whether or not a sale was made depended on the ability of the salesman to flatter or cajole people into buying. One peddler, writing to his Connecticut employer in 1814, said, 1 have traversed the country from Dan to Beersheba, besides going to Albany, and have not sold buttons or spoons to any amount. Nevertheless the trip probably proved a success, because the letter writer hastened to add, Tin goes extremely well.
The distinctive wagon of the peddler was developed very early in the days of the tinware trade. In shape it resembled the old New England town hearse, a flattopped, boxlike affair, with rows of compartments along the sides, one above the other, which the peddler opened up to display his wares. There was a curving dashboard in front and a baggage rack behind. The driver sat exposed to the weather, though he often used a large umbrella which fitted into a socket to keep off the rain. Lashed to the baggage rack were bags stuffed with rags and feathers and other things which the peddler took in exchange; the top of the vehicle was also sometimes piled with these things. On either side near the rear or across the back were racks of brooms. Tin pails hung from hooks along the sides at the top of the wagon or were suspended underneath. They made a cheerful clatter as the peddler proceeded on his way.
There were peddlers by sea as well as by land. There were vessels called "old junkmen" which used to cruise along the coast, particularly the Maine Coast, selling tinware, calico, and notions, as did the tin peddlers with carts by land, taking in exchange old rags, iron, and other junk. Vessels were even built and fitted out especially for the marine peddling trade. They were like floating general stores with shelves loaded with goods. They visited the islands and small coastal villages at regular intervals.
Maine had its tinsmiths as well as Connecticut. Stevens' Plains, now within the boundaries of Portland, was the center of the trade, which was established early in the nineteenth century by Zachariah Stevens. A score or two of men are said to have been employed here in the tinware industry, but some of these may have been peddlers.
Connecticut, however, remained the center of this metal industry. For the first four decades of the nineteenth century two thirds of the nation's supply of tinware came from this state. During most of this period the raw material continued to come from England. In addition, both before and after the Revolution British tinsmiths exported quantities of finished tinware to this country, and it must be owned that they were pretty clever about it, too. Like the Staffordshire potters who decorated their china especially for the American market, the English tinsmiths painted their "japanned" tinware, or toleware, in the style now called "Gaudy Dutch" expressly to attract purchasers over here.
This competition was met by our native tinsmiths' likewise lacquering their ware and also improving their methods of manufacture so they could sell their products cheaper. A delegation of British manufacturers visiting the United States about the middle of the last century reported: "The class of tools commonly used by tinmen are almost obsolete in New England States. In a well-furnished tinman's shop there are about twelve different kinds of machines employed."
Japanned tinware originated in the Far East and reached America by way of Europe. The ancient Chinese art of lacquering or varnishing wood probably suggested that tin should be treated in the same way. At any rate, not long after the appearance of lacquer in Europe, japanned tinware began to be imported from the Orient and was soon being made in France, Holland, and Spain. It was the French who gave the name "toleware" to trays, coffeepots, tea caddies, and other household articles of painted tin. England was especially successful with the new ware, owing to the discovery of a superior varnish that was particularly well suited to the process. It could withstand heat and presented a smooth, hard surface that was easy to decorate. Vast quantities were made at Pontypool, the center of the trade in Britain. It was chiefly this English toleware which found its way to America during the latter part of the eighteenth century.
It was painted with brightly colored flowers and other designs on a field of solid color. While black was the most popular background, other colors, such as Chinese red, yellow, green, blue, and white were used. Sometimes the background was painted in imitation of tortoise shell. Cold or bronze was frequently used for decorating, in the manner of oriental lacquer. Even the Chinese-pagoda motif was used on tea caddies or canisters and other pieces. The rich, mellow colors and quaint decorations of the early imported and domestic toleware are what make it so desirable today.
Some toleware was stenciled, but most of it seems to have been painted free-hand, with the same design repeated on piece after piece. Since it was not produced for the luxury market, but was made in quantity for popular sale, not much time could be spent in decorating it. It passed rapidly through the hands of the decorators, who, because they had to work fast in a kind of fine, careless rapture, achieved great facility and freedom in the execution of the designs. It is this unconstrained and easy technique which distinguishes the massproduced article from the more timid, painstaking, and stilted work of the village tinsmith turning out an article to fill a special order. Yet the primitive designs used by the local artisan are often more interesting than those of his highly commercialized competitors.
Another form of decoration was pin-prick or punched work. This was a raised or embossed design made by tapping a blunt instrument with a hammer forcefully enough to dent the tin but not to pierce it. This kind of ornamentation was done before the various parts of a piece had been joined together. The design was marked out on the reverse of the side which was to display the decoration, the tinsmith working on the inner side to raise the bosses on the outer surface. Occasionally the tinsmith engraved a design directly on the outside, with a sharp instrument. But chased tinwork whether punched or engraved was never so popular as toleware.
Although many of the things made of tin were for kitchen or pantry use, numerous articles were also made to be used in other parts of the house, among them candlesticks and sconces. The former were often japanned, but the latter with their polished reflectors usually were not, as they threw back more light when unpainted. Many sconces were fancifully made. There were also candle boxes and tinder boxes and, later, matchboxes. Tin lamps were common before glass lamps put them on the shelf.
The commonest of all lighting devices made by the tinsmith was the lantern, which for many years was of the traditional Paul Revere type, a cylinder of tin with holes pierced in the sides and a peaked top with a ring handle. The perforations through which the single candle inside shed its beams were made in a variety of patterns according to the tinsmith's fancy.
Another New England perforated tin piece was the foot warmer, with a wooden frame and handle, which was used in the meeting house on the Sabbath and in the family sleigh on weekdays. Many of these portable stoves have survived.
Almost everything the Yankee peddler carried in his wagon, from buttons to books, is now sought by collectors of antiques.