Saturday, February 5, 2011

Early Ironware - Art from the Blacksmith

Back in the early nineteenth century, while England was starting the industrial revolution, Americans were still producing things the way they always had, mainly from skilled craftsmen and artisans.  In Colonial times, the blacksmith was an important member of any community and in fact, a town or village needed a blacksmith before it could develop and grow.  Today, we think of a blacksmith as the man who shod horses.  Well, they did that, too, but their skills went way beyond that.

The blacksmith made tools, latches and locks, hasps and hinges, fireplace and cooking utensils, lamps and lighting devices, in fact, anything you can think of that would be forged and hammered out of iron.  He repaired farm tools, wagons, carts and carriages.  In fact, a Colonial village or town without a blacksmith had a serious problem.

Eric Sloane's book 'A Museum of Early American Tools' is a
great place to learn about them .
Because of the lasting quality of iron, many implements created in Colonial times have survived until today and perhaps while not as aesthetically attractive as other collectible antiques, there is nevertheless a large number of collectors for this early Americana.  Be it in the category of tools, fireplace or kitchen collectibles, someone is bound to collect it.  It's a category of antiques collecting where true early Americana can still be found and still quite reasonable in price

For the most part, knowledgeable dealers and collectors are able to identify it and date it within a time frame, but because most hand wrought iron is never marked or dated, the task of accurately dating it is impossible.  But there are two ways we can determine the approximate time frame in which an item was created.  One, is from the design of the object.  While common utilitarian objects are the most difficult to date, items that incorporate design features can give us a clue.  As style and fashion changed over time, many of the blacksmith's designs changed too.  Take for example, the pair of andirons shown here. 

 Pair of Handmade Eighteenth Century Andirons
The design is distinctive because of the 'Posset Cup' holders.  We know that the posset drink was used in England as a medicinal aid, from medieval times until about the end of the eighteenth century, when it went out of use.  We can therefore reasonably assume that these hand wrought andirons date from, say, 1750 to 1800. perhaps earlier, and that they were probably English or, made in America by an English blacksmith.  We discovered them here in Pennsylvania, so more likely than not, they were made here.

Another method of dating an implement, is knowing the time frame that a specific tool or device was used before being superseded by a newer or better design.  Good books, museum and auction catalogs become a necessity and the serious dealer and collector accumulates a good library over the years.

Today, many antiques are being reproduced.  The market is flooded with them.  Honest dealers and collectors have learned to recognise and avoid them.  Usually, reproductions are of the most popular forms of antiques and with ironware, the reproductions we've seen are limited to the castings of decorative items which can be created cheaply and in huge quantities.  We don't foresee the antique reproduction manufacturers employing craftsmen to spend hours in recreating a single item, to duplicate an early blacksmith's handiwork.

We recently sold this eighteenth century Pennsylvania
'Rams Horn' hinge.  It still showed marks from
the blacksmith's hammer.
But of course, there are still skilled artisans today who produce replica wrought iron artifacts.  We attended an open air Crafts Fair last summer and were fascinated to watch a blacksmith working at a forge and creating wonderful iron pieces.  Of course, his prices were quite similar to that of similar antique items, so we'd hardly consider them 'repros' in the usual sense of the term.  His recreations rivaled anything we've ever seen, and represented the very finest works of a contemporary craftsman.  But being antiques lovers,we'd still prefer the thrill of holding an object that was handmade two hundred years ago and reflecting on the history of the period and the man who made it.

So if you're interested in early Americana, and you're willing to learn about it, you'll find that you can still unearth fabulous items created by Colonial and early nineteenth century blacksmiths for far less than you might have to spend on other antique items from the same period.