Occupations of the past.
That's what today's posting is all about.
However, it is nowhere near a comprehensive report. Instead, it is an overview of only a few of the jobs from previous centuries and the people - the living historians - who keep these long-forgotten talents alive.
It's 2020, and I am driving down Gratiot Avenue (pronounced grash it), the main street through a number of Detroit suburbs, including my city of Eastpointe. Let's see, there's a Kroger grocery store, a Dairy Queen, a Rite Aid, Walgreens, Best Buy, the Macomb Mall, Petco, FedEx Printing, CVS, Burger King, Square Deal Auto Repair Shop, Costgo, Pep Boys, Cloverleaf Restaurant, Joe's Music, Adam's Furniture, gas stations galore, Melodies & Memories...all the businesses that are as familiar to me as my own name. Cars, SUV's, semi's, buses, and motorcycles zip past by the thousands in a constant flow of traffic. If one tries to cross this busy thoroughfare by foot it can be pretty dangerous due to those vehicles who turn right at the red light, forgetting that the pedestrian has the right of way.
Probably not unlike Anytown U.S.A.
|21st Century suburban Main Street - Eastpointe, Michigan|
Well, okay, if you're like me and constantly research daily life in the past, you probably have.
Also, since I am involved in reenacting, this is how I look at the world; yeah...both past and present as described.
|19th century Main Street - Historic Crossroads Village, Flint, Mi|
Let's see, there's the tinsmith, a baker, a gun manufacturer, the millinery shop, and there's the blacksmith shop, the cabinet maker, the general store, the printer, the tinsmith, the cooper shop, the farrier, a tavern...and another tavern...and another tavern...the weaving shop, the tailor, a wagon shop, the saddler & harness maker, the cobbler & shoemaker, and, seen on the outskirts is the gristmill and farms. Folks on foot, wagons, carts, and carriages pulled by horses trot hither and thither - watch your step as you cross the road! - water from the recent rainstorms cause puddles, muddying the bottoms of the shoes of the townsfolk.
|18th century Main Street - |
Duke of Gloucester St. in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Or have they...?
You see, as a living historian/reenactor, I have amassed many friends. And a large number of these friends have a variety of talents that help to make our 'reenacting cities' shine a bit brighter. I've found that reenacting in 2020 goes so far beyond the way it used to be when I first started in the hobby. Towns are seemingly recreated and include many of the occupations and arts one would have seen in the 18th and 19th centuries. Visitors to our events can now witness many of the same actions that would have been seen in those days of early America.
And that's what today's posting is all about: reenacting occupations from days long past.
Yet, as you shall soon see, these folks are not really reenacting.
So let us visit the men and women who are carrying these industries and artistries from a long-ago time, with pictures and brief descriptions:
We'll begin with the Tinsmith:
Tin was probably the most common of elements in the 18th and 19th century home. It was easy to use and cheap to purchase.
One man may have traced patterns onto sheets of metal and cut out the parts. Another craftsman could have shaped these into components and done some basic assembly, while a third person would do the final assembly and soldering,
|Tinsmith - 19th century|
|Tinsmith - 18th century.|
The kind presenter at the Greenfield Village tin shop
allowed me to give the job a try.
I always enjoy reenacting at Old Fort Wayne in Indiana, for their replication of the original fort that was built in 1816, which is, unfortunately, long gone, is remarkable.
Included in its reproduction are various outbuildings situated outside the walls of the fort, which shows many of the necessary trades for the folks who had lived in the 18th century, including the men who worked with wood.
It's no wonder that so many from that time were woodworkers. A young man in the colonies who wanted to work with wood had a choice of several good occupations; 18th century carpenters, cabinetmakers, coopers, wheelwrights, and shipbuilders all were available occupations for those who could work with wood, and the sawyers cut logs into boards that other woodworkers could use.
|Visiting the Woodwright shop...|
A cabinetmaker built furniture - all kinds of furniture, not just cabinets. A master cabinetmaker might have his shop in town where colonists could buy finished pieces of furniture or order just what they wanted. Cabinetmakers built tables, chairs, desks, clothes presses, and even musical instruments like the harpsichord. Some furniture was carefully decorated with wood carvings.
Coopers built containers. They are best known now as barrel makers, but they also made a variety of wooden containers. These containers held everything from flour to water to tobacco in colonial times.
|Here we find a woodworker crafting his skills in |
making such necessary 18th century items as
small writing desks, candle boxes, storage boxes,
and other items found in homes in the 1700s.
Another very interesting occupation I was able to watch was a wheelwright working his craft, which was a first for me at an actual reenactment. The only other time I've seen this was at Colonial Williamsburg, so naturally I spent quite a while in this vicinity.
Since I am not familiar with the wheelwright trade, and I could not remember all that the man here told me as he plied his craft, I went to the Colonial Williamsburg page to garner more information on this much needed occupation:First off, wheels must be round above all else.
Sounds silly, I know, but this was not such an easy thing to do. Made of wood and bound with iron, the wheels of the carriages, wagons, and riding chairs that navigated rugged colonial roads had to be strong and tight. But first and foremost, the wheels had to be round.
|"The wheels of the carriages, wagons, and riding chairs that navigated rugged colonial roads had to be strong and tight."|
I was quite pleased to be able to speak with the wheelwright here, and he was a wealth of knowledge - he was very willing to talk about his occupation.
Another woodworking job:
Another woodworking job:
Next up we have The Blacksmith.
The Blacksmith was an essential merchant and craftsman in a colonial town. He made indispensable items such as horseshoes, pots, pans, and nails. Blacksmiths made numerous goods for farmers including axes, plowshares, cowbells, and hoes. They also made hammers, candleholders, tools, files, locks, fireplace racks, and anvils.
Most of the blacksmith’s work was done in his personal forge in which scalding bars of iron were hammered with heavy sledges to fashion the iron into various shapes.
The above blacksmith works out of the shop at Old Fort Wayne in Indiana during special events and reenactments, adding the note of realism.
Then there is the blacksmith who works his craft at our "field" reenactments - the more a-typical reenactment held with rows of tents rather than historic buildings.
|Richard Heinicke is the foremost blacksmith at Civil|
War and Revolutionary War events, in the Michigan
area, making and selling anything reenactors
want or need for the hobby.
Here he is at the Colonial Kensington event:
Among the tools blacksmiths used were the following:
and a good hot fire & bellows
Our living history blacksmiths use these same tools while plying their trade as well.
Yes, we visit often. It's an important part of our modern lives.
Just as visiting the bakery was for many in days of old.
Our friends in the Queen's Rangers have a wonderful cook in CarolAnne Mann. And she typically makes the food over a ground fire. But once or twice a year she is able to utilize a hearth represented as one from the 18th century, and this whole scene reminds me of what it may had been like in a bakery of the time.
|To prepare food inside a kitchen from the colonial period is a rare |
treat for many reenactors, yet CarolAnne has taken to the task
admirably at Indiana's historic Old Fort Wayne during the
Revolutionary War reenactment there..
Raleigh Tavern Baker
(picture courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg)
Colonial bakers had work chores that consisted on the tending of the fire, drying herbs and drying spices by the fire, grinding the spices and herbs into powder (so they got the right measurements), grinding and granulating the sugar and also cleaning up the bakery.
Colonial cooking, which made a veritable feast from basic ingredients, was dominated by fireplace technology.
|CarolAnne bakes at the hearth. |
When one has an opportunity to cook in a fireplace,
why, the level of living history rises up many notches.
As I wandered through the long row of tents that makes up the Lac Ste. Claire Voyageur encampment, I came across this very talented woman who was tanning hides. In fact, she was "brain-tanning" a hide using traditional Indian methods. By the time I had taken the following photos, the early parts of this process were already completed, but it's something I've read about but had rarely gotten to see.
After returning home when the reenactment was over, I looked up this process and found the gist of the brain-tanning technique on a site called Native Art in Canada written by an Ojibwa elder, who explained the process:
Brain tanning hides is a lot of work. It's a very labor intensive process that uses an emulsified solution of animal brain and water to provide outstanding absorbancy to the final product. But what you get at the end of your sweat and toil is an exceptionally soft hide that stays pliable even after it gets wet. Nevertheless, the process of tanning hides by hand using the animal's brains, is not for the faint of heart.
At the end of a hunt there's usually no time to tan a hide because the priority is to process and preserve the meat. At this point, we used to tie the hides in a bundle and string them high up in a tree safe from scavengers...not porcupines, though! When they were removed from storage they were often dirty...and always smelly.
When the time comes to begin the brain tanning process, you have to first soak the skins in water for a few days to clean and soften them. If you have access to a handy dandy lake then that's the easiest way to go. City bred wives tend to fret if they find you've taken over the bathtub for this purpose, so if a lake isn't close by, call on your creative side.
Then, without doing damage to the rawhide itself, you're going to have to scour the skin to remove bits of flesh and fat. This first fleshing can be done over a wide log using a carved leg bone as a scraper.
Using your bone or steel scraper remove the grain. The grain is the name given to that part of the skin where the hair grows.
|You have to work hard and be sure that you scrape off every last |
bit of grain because otherwise your hide will be stiffer than it
should be and won't take the smoke evenly later.
Now it's time to turn your attention to the inside of the hide. You're going to scrape off the membrane layer which is where the blood vessels are. Before you start you have to wet the hide again. Soak the hide for about fifteen minutes in the handy dandy lake.
Place the hide back over the log and methodically scrape off the membrane. If you leave any in place the finished hide will be stiff and won't accept the smoke in the tanning process. The point is to end up with a hide that doesn't have any holes or knicks, so any scraping is best done with a deer leg bone or a blunt iron flesher. The tanner's aim at this point is to remove every...EVERY... bit of flesh and fat, including the paper thin epidermal layer between the carcass and the outer hide.
When you think you've done an excellent job you have to find a way to rinse the hide in running water overnight. It takes a LOT of rinsing. Said lake would do the trick, but a creek would be better. If the hide is small you could put it in a five gallon pail and run a stream of water from a hose all night long.
You're trying to get to the point where your hide feels loose and thin. It will take awhile and at first will seem to get thicker so don't fret. Just keep rinsing. Worse case scenario is that you'll have to do fling it over the log again for more scraping time.
Next morning wring the hide thoroughly. Rig up a wringer on a deck railing or heavy tree branch and ask a friend for help if its a big hide. You have to wring in one direction, then the other.
|Now you're going to have to stretch the hide as wide |
and evenly as you possibly can. Usually you can do
this on a frame made of poles that you lean up
against a couple of trees or your cabin.
The next step really depends on what will eventually become of the hide. If the hide is intended to be made into a rug or warm winter coat only one side of the hide needs to be scraped, because the hair doesn't have to be removed.
|Scraping the hide.|
Some animal hides are better suited for one purpose than another. Deer and moose make useless rugs, but great footwear. Wolf and fox fur stand up to some abuse and are also good for embellishing clothes. Rabbit skins can be tanned but are either ornamental or cut into strips and knit or woven into a jacket or cape.
If you want the hair to remain on the hide, of course you don't have to follow through with any of the procedures that loosen the hair. But when you come to the bit about applying the brain slurry you're going to have to be extra careful so that its only applied on one side.
If the hair is to be removed, then soaking the skin in a mild acid (urine was used in times past, in case you are interested in knowing), letting the skin putrefy for several months, or painting a sludge of slaked lime (wood ash and water or ground seashells boiled in water) will loosen the hairs.
|The finished product - all done in the traditional way.|
Chandler - candlemaker:
Candlemaking was not the fun hobby in colonial times as it has become in our modern era — in the home it was a labor normally assigned to the housewife and children, taking place usually in the coolness of the fall after butchering and cooking of meats was completed.
"Mother used to dip candles in the fall, enough to last all winter. When a beef was killed in the fall, she would use all the tallow for candles. On the evening before, we would help her prepare the wicks. The boys would cut a lot of rods and she would cut the wicks the length of a candle and then string them on the rods.
"In the morning she would commence her day's work. She would dip each one in the hot tallow and straighten out the wicks so the candles would be straight when they were finished. By raising the candles (out of the kettle) at just the right speed and working on a day with a moderate temperature, the fine quality of the candles would be assured. The candles would be cooled overnight and the bottom ends cut off neatly. The finished candles were packed away in a mouse-proof container for safe storage."
|Here is a wonderful look showing the amount of dips |
candles needed for completion.
November 5, 1787
"Clear & pleast. I Came from mr Fosters. we made 25 Dozn of Candles."
Twenty five dozen - that's 300 candles in one day!
And now my family and I, along with a few friends, make candles the traditional way in my own backyard.
And, yes, I do use them quite often.
|The beeswax is melting...|
| In all (including those not yet removed from the tin mold tubes) |
we made 44 candles. I believe that's the most we've done yet!
|The candles and the molds they came out of.|
Pewter is an alloy whose principal element is tin. Its uses were used in the home as well in the church. It was the common tableware of Colonial America in the 18th century, which was used well into the 19th century. Nearly every conceivable form was made of pewter. Plates, basins, serving dishes, mugs, tankards, spoons, ladles, porringers, sugar bowls, tea pots, coffee pots, funnels, nursing bottles, measures, and even commodes and bedpans were used in the home. Graceful flagons, chalices, and patens were used in the church.
|At the top we see a newly formed pewter spoon still in the spoon |
mold. Below that is the spoon mold itself. At the bottom is a
spoon directly out of the mold, waiting to be smoothed and filed.
|The finished product. |
Yes, he sold what he made and made what he sold.
They truly are a beautiful work of art.
|Mr. Strode also made pewter buttons from his button mold. |
I believe the mold pictured here is an antique.
Colonials in America used baskets to haul grain, store sewing implements, and carry vegetables, fruits, and eggs. They were a common sight, from what I have read.
To begin with, a gun stock is needed.
The wooden stock(Kalamazoo Living History Show)
|The metal barrels|
(Kalamazoo Living History Show)
(Kalamazoo Living History Show)
|A gunsmith putting all pieces together|
(Old Fort Wayne, Indiana)
|The completed weapon|
(Old Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Dressmaker - Seamstress - Taylor:
Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:
~As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘house’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
~For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers. (from THIS site)
|The Dressmaker at the Lac Ste. Claire Voyageurs|
I have also read the opposite, however, so I suppose the truth lies somewhere in the middle, depending on where one lived.
At any rate, in an urban environment—Williamsburg, London, Philadelphia, New York—tailors were the largest trade in terms of practitioners. "Everyone needed clothing." Demand for clothing was so strong that cloth was America's largest import before the Revolution.
Tailors in the 1700s worked by hand, meaning everybody at all levels of society had handmade clothes. This did not mean, however, that garments were uniformly expensive. They varied in price, style, quality, and material, which included silk, cotton, and wool.
And this is a good segue to the milliner:
in the 18th century, millinery shops were almost always owned by women.
|Milliner - hat maker...and so much more.|
(Ste. Claire Voyageurs Encampment)
trim for gowns
In addition to being a trades woman who made fashion accessories, the milliner was also a businesswoman who sold a wide range of fashionable imported goods. It was not uncommon for a milliner in the colonies to advertise that she had just imported from London the very latest in mercery (dealing in textiles), haberdashery, jewelry, hosiery, shoes "and other items too tedious to mention."
The 18th century printing process itself is not much different than it was in the era of Gutenberg, as printers use the old hand-press device. Basically, the press works with two main components: a screw and a movable bar. The different blocks of type, which contain the text, are put inside frames called coffins, and those coffins are placed on wood or stone beds and then moved in and out by hand with the lever of the press. Gradually, improvements have been made in the process, though nothing too tremendous, which speaks to the quality of Gutenberg's original design. Hardly any significant changes were made until 1798 when the Earl of Stanhope made a frame out of cast-iron instead of wood, which had been used in centuries previous. In the wake of these small improvements, the printing process itself is still quite simple: make the type from the submitted text, cut the paper and put it under the press, do the actual pressing, and then you have printed text.
It was very neat to actually work a press, I must say.
An important chore that, many times, would involve other women in the community and could earn a small pay, was spinning wool and flax.
For a very basic definition of a spinning wheel: it is an early machine for turning fibre into thread or yarn, which was then woven into cloth on a loom to make clothing and accessories.
Both spinning and weaving require nimble fingers. Although in our modern society a few men have taken up the art, spinning in the past was a universal female occupation, a "domestic" duty, integrated into a complex system of neighborly exchange.
|Here is my wife spinning for the visitors at the Lac Ste. Claire |
Voyageurs reenactment. She's only been spinning for a bit more
than a decade, but has taken to it as if she has been doing it her
|The hired girls working for the mistress of the house.|
(The Vermillion Creek reenactment)
Sarah Bryant usually warped and set the looms, but the hired girls did all of the spinning and much of the routine weaving.
|I am always interested in the textile arts, and while at the |
Revolutionary War reenactment at historic Fort Wayne in Indiana
I came across a demonstration of the art of spinning.
Coming soon to a computer near you!
Jumping up a hundred years or so, let's visit the tintype photographer:
|Wet Plate Photographer of the mid-19th century|
|This is how my daughter and I posed for our tintype.|
|This is how it looked to us, and...|
As you may or may not know, I usually present as a farmer during the reenactments I attend, whether 18th century or 19th century. In doing so I have amassed a decently large collection of original period farm tools, such as a flail, hay rake, scythe, and numerous other accessories.
Nothing too large, though.
|Colonial farming is the life for me...|
One of the very cool things about being a living historian is that I sometimes have opportunities to try jobs of our ancestors that I otherwise may not have the chance to, such as (for instance), working a printing press and soldering tin, as you've seen above.
But the coolest historical thing I believe I ever did was plow behind a team of horses:
Something else I was able to take part in which also rates high on my list of accomplishments was to help make beer in the same manner as it was done in the 18th century. This was not necessarily done as an occupation for me, but, rather, another opportunity to experience a part of life in the past which is not spoken of often in our modern times, but was known well in those old days.
Now, this again occurred at Greenfield Village during their Fall Flavors weekends, and one of the presenters allowed me to help out - just for a bit.
Along with apple cider, ale & beer were major dietary staples in the colonies. Literally everyone partook. It was the common item which spanned generations, from cradle to grave; everyone drank beer or cider: farmers, laborers, merchants, lawyers, and craftsman.
You would think they would be drunk, according to our modern manner of thought, but it was another beverage for health's sake. Alas, they were quite sober.
In making the beer, 18th century brewers took malted barley and cracked it by hand. They would then steep (or soak) the grains (including corn) in boiling water. They called the process mashing.
|Brewers in colonial times took the mash they had created, which |
has the consistency of oatmeal, and dumped it into a sawed-off
whiskey barrel. The modified tub acted as a sieve, filtering the
sugary liquid from the grain.
|Water is added to the mash, creating a steam-effect.|
The colonial brewer returned the strained liquid
to the boil kettle, or the copper as it was called,
for a 2-hour boiling.
In researching the era, it is believed that due to the high cost of imported hops and the documented hop shortages in Colonial America, the hopping rates would have been appreciably less than that of Old Ale and more comparable to a Strong Scotch Ale.
|Ready for the hops?|
Yeast is added, which helps turn the sugar from the malt into alcohol.
Richard Pillatt, social historian from Camden, New Jersey, tells us a story of beer's importance in our history:
"After we announced (that we were doing a historic beer-brewing demonstration) this summer, I was in a nearby restaurant eavesdropping on some people who were discussing our publicity, and one of them asked the other, 'what does BEER really have to do with history?' Well, in terms of daily life in 18th-century Camden County, one word easily answers that question: 'Everything,' I said. Beer played a central role in the social, economic, and political life of almost all our regional ancestors. It provided daily nutritional sustenance, it was made from the crops that they grew and bought and sold in huge quantities, and it was the key lubricant in the networks of local taverns that were the culture's primary social and political venues."
By having such occupational activities as you see here, reenactments can come alive; they are more living history than "camping in funny costumes."
There are numerous other crafts and occupations I haven't really touched on. That's because as I was working on this I realized it could become a much larger post than I intended, so I did feel the need to cut back a bit.
Below are some of the other occupations and trades that were a part of daily eighteenth-century life that are not listed above:
Apothecary - acted as pharmacist, doctor, dentist, and general storekeeper
Barber - cut hair; also was a surgeon
Breeches maker - mades breeches
Coachmaker - made coaches and wagons
Cutler - made, sold, and repaired knives and scissors
Farrier - shoe'd horses and acted as a veterinarian
Goldsmith - made hollow ware (bowls, cups, and vases) and jewelry
Saddler - made saddles, harnesses, and other leather items
Tavern Keeper - provided meals, drinks, entertainment, and lodging
I find the trades of long ago much more interesting than nearly anything modern-made today, which are mostly done by machines and even computers; the fact that nearly all of the trades in this posting are done by hand lends an ear to talents not seen in 21st century shops. There is such talent in the world of the past and from those who try to keep it alive...whether watching a wheelwright, blacksmith, gunsmith, spinner, or even a farmer plowing a field behind a team of horses, that's where my interests lie.
One last thing before we leave - - -
Aside from all of the occupations and chores I witness at pretty much every reenactment I attend, I also get to meet the famous history book people from the past; heroes, in my eyes.
|Dr. Benjamin Franklin and I are discussing the so many pluses of the Declaration of Independence, of which he helped to author.|
And...we visited at the Pennsylvania State House as well:
Such an honor to meet the man who would become
the Father of our Country.
|And then there's the Great Emancipator, |
Main author of the Declaration as well as
the 3rd US President.
|Patrick Henry, who spoke the words|
"Give me liberty or give me death!"
At Indiana's Old Fort Wayne (and other reenactments) I often portray Paul Revere. While at the Revolutionary War reenactment in the summer of 2019, I was told there were two little girls who were quite fond of the famous midnight rider, Paul Revere, and upon hearing that "I" was there, they wanted to meet "me."
Their looks upon seeing me melted my heart. To them, I actually was Paul Revere!
I asked them what did they know of my story, which they responded more correctly than many adults. I then filled in the holes, so to speak, to give them a more accurate and complete portrayal of my most famous of rides. They really seemed to enjoy hearing that from me - they enjoyed meeting the man who was a part of the beginnings of the Revolutionary War. And it was an honor for me to meet them, for young folk who love history and are interested in the past are the ones we must water like a plant so that interest will continue to grow and flourish.
Paul Revere meets a couple of fans.
Their faces say it all.
I was truly honored.
(This picture used with permission and taken
by the young girls' father, Jason Arp)
This right here is what it is all about - why we do what we do.
Living history and reenacting (yes, there is a difference) have brought me to places I never thought I'd be. It has allowed me to witness and be a part of history rather than only read about it or see it in the movies or on television. In those days before we began to reenact, my wife and I would often dream of having the chance to experience bits and pieces of days of old. And now, we have...and still do!
Until Next time, see you in time.
The source I used for pewter came from THIS post
Some of the occupational information came from the Colonial Williamsburg page HERE
My woodworking information came from THIS site
Our Own Snug Fireside gave me a few of the original quotes
If you are interested in reading how it was for me to visit an 1860s photographer, please click HERE
Tavern keepers were also businessmen. I did not include them in this posting because I already wrote a fairly extensive article about them called Taverns and Travel of the 18th century
~ ~ ~