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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

American - Masters Of Iron

( Originally Published 1940 )

Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition reported the presence of iron ore on Roanoke Island, in 1585. Bogiron was shipped from Jamestown to England in 1608 and references to "bog-iron" occur in all early American documents relating to ironwork. It was a soft iron ore found in marshes. Iron salts, dissolved from the soil and washed into the marsh, are precipitated by the carbonic acid given off by decaying vegetable matter and form spongy strata quite common in swampy regions. Wherever bog-iron was found throughout the early Colonies attempts at iron production were launched, most of which were failures.

Joseph Jenks is supposed to have operated an iron and brass foundry at Lynn, Massachusetts, for a brief time in 1645. The first really successful American ironworks seems to have been at Saugus Center, near Lynn, about 1685. The organization was granted the right to make ironware "on condition that the inhabitants of this jurisdiction shall be furnished with all sorts of barr iron for their use, not exceeding 20 per ton." The clause about "barr iron" seems to indicate the presence of a great number of blacksmiths without iron, for bar iron is not a substance which even the most versatile average colonist could have used to advantage. The meaning becomes clearer when we reflect that the earliest blacksmiths apparently had to work with expensive, imported iron. And there was a large number of blacksmiths in America before 1685, as Colonial registers amply testify.

But though one of the most useful, iron is also the most difficult of metals to separate from its ore. Hence it was not until about 1750 that a securely established iron industry existed throughout the Colonies. Once under way, however, it flourished rapidly, with Pennsylvania as one of its most notable centers. We have already seen one aspect of iron manufacture in Pennsylvania in the case of the versatile Baron Henry Stiegel, and the Biblical cast-iron stove-plates of the Pennsylvania-Germans.

These stove-plates were the most interesting aspect of castiron work. We are now concerned largely with forged iron; that is, objects hammered from bar iron.

The blacksmith executed nearly all early ironwork. He was then no mere shoer of horses. The blacksmith made all forged, or wrought, ironwork: latches, hinges, gates, fences, andirons, and similar objects. He was also the general maker of tools. An interesting aspect of collecting ancient tools lies in the fact that some of them were undoubtedly made to order by blacksmiths for a certain function, never duplicated, and never forrnally named.

Again England attempted, unsuccessfully, a great deal of prohibitive legislation to prevent the growth of the American iron industry. They were especially opposed to the manufacture of iron, for iron means, aside from industrial uses, swords, guns, and cannon. Because of the restrictive measures the industry had its ups and downs. In 1748 both New York and Connecticut were shipping iron to England. Then new prohibitions were enacted. Nevertheless, when the American Revolution occurred, the American forges were amply able to supply the needs of the Continental Army.

No service of ironworkers to the cause of American Indedpendence is more fascinating than the history of the construction of the great chain across the Hudson River at West Point. The necessity for a variety of river obstructions, to hinder the British navy from ranging unchecked up the Hudson River as far as Albany, was early seen. Familiar devices, such as the sinking of vessels and other obstructions at certain points, were adopted. But the West Point chain was an imaginative tour de force.

It apparently originated in the minds of the Board of War of the Continental Congress. In 1778 this body called Peter Townsend, irontnaster, before them and asked him if, in his opinion, it would be possible to construct a giant chain which could be hung across the Hudson at the narrows of West Point, to hinder naval action.

Townsend gave it as his opinion that the thing could be done. He returned to his Forge, at Sterling, New York, traditionally in a blinding snow-storm and accompanied by the War Board whose members wished to see the thing begun. The chain was to be forged with a swivel to every hundred feet, a clevis to every thousand feet. Twelve tons of anchors were required, in addition.

Sixty men were furloughed from the army to assist in the construction. Working day and night, at full capacity, they completed the chain in six weeks! Teamsters hauled it to West Point in separate sections of ten links each, as they were completed. Their weight was enormous and over the rough, nearly impassable winter roads the going was hard indeed, making a formidable task.

The sections were assembled at West Point and floated out across the Hudson on a log boom, with the anchors to fix it in place. Plans for coping with this chain were part of Benedict Arnold's plan for the betrayal of West Point. That it was a job well done is evidenced by the fact that the chain was never broken, either by the enemy or the elements, but was broken up and removed at the close of the war.

The blacksmith was frequently an armorer. In the case of one William Cheesebrough, who settled in the early days at Wequetequok, Connecticut, the local magistrates ordered him to move into the town of New London for fear he would repair guns for the Indians.

By the time the early American blacksmith was well established his most common product, after tools, was probably door and furniture hardware. Latches and hinges were the most important.

As we have discovered with other crafts, no new forms and ornaments necessarily sprang into being in America. The Colonial blacksmith, in common with his fellow craftsmen, imi tated the familiar forms of his homeland and added only a slight touch of his own here and there. This, of course, was coupled with the general tendency toward simplification and directness which was partly the result of limited resources and partly of the unaffected nature of the adventurer-colonist-craftsman himself.

The first models of door hardware were whittled of wood. This was distinctly American and due entirely to the lack of iron. These wooden pieces were whittled as nearly as possible to conform with the colonists' memory of iron objects in the Old World. It was during this period that the wooden latch was in use, operated by a string, which was thrust out through a hole when the householders were at home. From this comes the phrase, "our latch string is out."

As soon as iron latchmaking was feasible, the four types of latch used at the time in Europe came into use. These have become known as the Suffolk, Norfolk, and Knocker Latch, and the Escutcheon Lift.

The Suffolk Latch was the most popular. In this type the handle was attached to two separate cusps, or plates, usually of similar design. The design of the plates was the main decorative feature of the latch. The most popular designs were those of the arrowhead, bean, ball, spear, swordfish, tulip, and heart. The door was opened by means of a thumb-press above the handle. Occasionally, in the Suffolk Latch, there was no lower cusp, that end of the handle being pointed and pounded through the wood of the door. Paradoxically this lack of a lower plate was more popular in Europe than in America, where one might have expected such an economy to be welcomed.

Between 1815 and 1820 the Norfolk Latch, which had long been in use, succeeded the Suffolk in popularity. This was a latch in which the handle, or grasp, was attached to a single metal plate called an "escutcheon." The shape of the escutcheon became the main decorative feature of this latch.

The other two types of early latch fell into the gadget class and were not so generally used. The knocker latch is made in such a way that the knocker, when twisted, lifts the latch. The Escutcheon Lift is arranged so that sliding up the escutcheon plate of an otherwise ordinary Norfolk type lifts the latch. The Norfolk style remained the most popular until William Blake's invention of the cast-iron latch, in 1840.

There were also four popular types of hinge: the dufttails, (dovetails), cross-garnet, and side-hinge, and the super-simplified strap-hinge of America. The latter was, of course, the first American hinge. The dovetail was later known as the "butterfly," which it more closely resembles. The side-hinge was a vertical device, the opposite of the horizontal strap-hinge. The crossgarnet was a combination of the slightly decorated strap-hinge, on the door, and side-hinge, on the frame. In addition, H-L, H, and L hinges were also used and were of the shape indicated by those letters.

The simple early American strap-hinges were often made from wagon-tires, their edges chamfered. (Pounding was not considered a decorative method until the era of our present day antique dealers). The European hinges of this day achieved an extreme ornateness ; but not those of America. The difference is so great that it hardly seems entirely attributable to lack of resources or ability. The fact is that the generally hardy American did not care as much for the intricate lacework of life in general as did the Europeans. This is again and again made evident.

What is called "chest hardware," hinges, latches, bindings for chests, naturally achieved a greater intricacy than doorhardware. This was because it was more distinctly an individual product for individual use, less directly utilitarian. Any personal feeling might find expression in this field.

The most famous type of American wrought ironwork is found in the grills, gates, fences, and balconies of the South. It is generally agreed that most of the exquisite ornamental iron work of New Orleans was the work of negro slave blacksmiths. It was difficult to explain the peculiarly naive, yet vital translations from the Colonial pattern-books, of Spanish and French ironwork by any other conclusion.

Most of the fine New Orleans work is post-Revolutionary, due to the fire which almost entirely destroyed the city in 1780. But the exquisite freshness and freedom of its slave-made, wrought-iron fantasies are world famous.

The wrought-iron of Charleston, South Carolina, in some ways exceeds the quality of New Orleans work. It also offers many more examples of pre-Revolutionary work. But the finest work of Charleston dates after 1810, when the names of a few great smiths are actually recorded. These were the families Thibaut, Justi, Werner, McLeishe, and Ortman. Their flowing, imaginative curves are almost fluid in their quality of ease. These smiths worked their iron at white heat in accordance with the finest ancient tradition of the craft.

As the American frontier was pushed westward, the situation of the mid-western communities repeated that of the early seaboard colonies. In Ohio, for example, iron was first imported in bar form from the mills of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. The earliest mid-western blacksmiths imitated the forms of the eastern states just as the earliest American blacksmiths had imitated those of Europe.

Handwork in iron has naturally received a considerable setback from the industrialization of iron manufacture. Much modern ironwork, even when largely accomplished by hand, employs machinery in its various steps, and is performed upon cold iron. So far as the old tradition of iron craftsmanship is concerned, the Encyclopedia Britannica has stated the case with such succinctness as to make the quotation of an entire paragraph worthwhile.

"The interest and charm which the most unpractised observer must find in the work of the early craftsmen in iron is due to the fact that the metal was worked at a red or white heat. There was no time for measuring or copying a design save by the eye. Thus we get a spontaneity and a virility in forged work which expresses the life of the metal and gives the work its unexpected charm. These old craftsmen knew every branch of their work; they lavished as much skill and creative ability on a small handle as upon a great gate. No detail was overlooked, no matter how small or insignificant. This can be seen in various examples of their work, as in the fine old chests and boxes; the wonderful old locks, keys and other decorative hardware used in the great cathedrals. The sincere nature of craftsmanship and the proper use of materials for ends to which they are well adapted is little understood today. This is not because there is any lack of information on the subject, but because the perfection of the mechanical means of production at our disposal has blinded many to the simplicity of the means which produced the great works of the past."

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