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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Brass, Copper, Tin, And Lead

( Originally Published 1940 )



Although Mr. Joseph Jenks' ironworks near Saugus, Massachusetts, in 1645, is supposed also to have been a brass foundry, very little brass work, in proportion to other common metals, was done in America prior to the end of the 18th century. Brass is an alloy of copper with zinc, and zinc was not commercially mined in this country until 1837.

Brass work was usually cast, such as andirons, heavy pots, or door-hardware. An exception to this was the popular brassbutton, upon which the fortunes of the glass-making Wistars of New Jersey had been originally based. These were most often made from old brass pots and other ware which the itinerant peddlers took in part payment for their goods and brought in for cash at the local foundries. These junked objects were first flattened into sheets and thereafter cut into buttons with sharp, steel dies, an anticipation of the role of craft in later industry in the person of the indispensable die-maker.

Copper was the next metal after iron to be successfully taken from its ore in America. This was first done at Cranby, Connecticut, in 1709. Therefore copper-ware became fairly common in early Colonial America.

Perhaps the most artistic copper and brass work was done in the making of warming pans. These were flat metal containers with long wooden handles. They were filled with coals and rubbed briskly over the cold sheets of one's bed. They were made of sheet-copper and brass and were decorated either by perforation or by engraving.

The use of copper for copperplate engraving has always been one of the most important utilitarian and artistic uses of the metal.

Tinware was at first imported, but by 1740, at which time the tinware firm of Edward and William Patterson began operations at Berlin, Connecticut, it had begun a rise which rapidly made it a major industry of America, particularly in New England.

Sheet tin was shaped into innumerable forms: candle-sticks, lanterns, sand-shakers, and boxes of all sizes and shapes. The sand-shakers were for spreading sand neatly on floors in lieu of carpets. The lanterns were tin cylinders, punctured by numerous holes, arranged in decorative patterns, with a candle-socket fixed inside.

Tinware was decorated with simple repousse work, scalloped edges, fancy punch work and, less frequently, with attached ornaments, cut from sheet copper, as in the "cut-card" method of silversmiths. It was also painted and japanned.

Lead found a decorative purpose on early houses at the heads of drain pipes, for which purpose it was cast into appropriately ornamental forms. Cast lead was also used for details of classic revival architecture and furniture, in the forms of urns, drops, and finials.



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