Ironwork with a fancy twist
What is a whitesmith? Look it up and you’ll find some variant of: “tinsmith” and “a worker in iron who finishes or polishes the work” (Merriam Webster). The Cabinet Cyclopedia of 1846 says nothing about tinsmithing, but says “The whitesmith, or brightsmith, as the term implies, is an artificer who makes and finishes articles chiefly in iron and steel with a bright surface, by means of the file and the turning-lathe, in contradistinction to the blacksmith.”
Ann Wagner, Senior Curator of Metals at Winterthur, writes, “It’s a pretty obscure reference today and a term that I’ve seen used in different ways in early American documents.”
Fortunately Wagner explained, “Some blacksmiths produced iron utensils with highly polished, reflective surfaces by devoting extra time for the file work and finishing as well as adding engraved ornament. In the 1700s and early 1800s this subspecialty was called ‘whitesmithing,’ as a contrast to the darker, less polished surfaces typically created by a blacksmith. Whitesmiths might also polish and refinish or repair objects made by a blacksmith, so the distinctions are a bit unclear today.
“By the 1830s, however, the term ‘whitesmith’ was widely adopted to describe a craftsman producing white, highly reflective household objects from tin-plated iron. These craftsmen also called themselves tinplate workers or tinsmiths. They did not work with wrought iron, rather with thin sheets of iron coated with molten tin.”
No wonder the definitions were twofold. We’ll focus on whitesmithing, the couture of blacksmithing, making utilitarian wrought iron items extraordinary. First, some history. Starting with the Egyptians who, according to Arthur and Ritchie in Iron, created iron implements at least 5,000 years ago. Two minerals, haematite and magnetite (as well as meteorites!) have sufficient concentrations of iron for manufacture, and the authors presume that prehistoric man probably enclosed a fire with lumps of ore, mistaken for stones, which grew hot enough to reduce the ore to metal. Eureka!
Well before the industrial revolution, English iron canons defeated the Spanish Armada, iron tools tilled fields, and iron anchors held ships. “The greatest incentive for sponsoring costly expeditions to the New World was not politics, religion, or spices; no, not even a new route to the Indies, but desire for metal and the wood to make it castable,” write Sanders and Gould in History Cast in Metal.
Arthur and Ritchie note that within a year of Jamestown’s founding in 1607, iron ore shipments made it to England. By 1750 England prohibited new ironworks producing finished products in the Colonies although Colonial demand for iron goods was strong and American production of iron tripled between 1750 and 1771.
Most of us have seen blacksmiths at work at Colonial restorations, so we know that while cast iron has been melted and poured into molds, wrought iron is worked into shape while hot by being hammered over anvils and stakes and then finished cold. What have you seen made by a blacksmith? Probably something rather utilitarian like a hook, right? In an article called Unusual Pennsylvania Ironware in The Magazine Antiques, Jeannette Lasansky studied over 100 blacksmiths’ account books from 1742-1935, finding, “From the beginning, with very few exceptions, one quarter to one-half of a smith’s business was shoeing horses. Then came ironing wagons, wheelwrighting; harness and repair work ” and finally, making new articles … ” Most of the new articles weren’t terribly exciting either. Take a “hog ring” for example.
Yet some blacksmiths took the time to make mundane items interesting. In Iron at Winterthur, Wagner’s predecessor, Donald Fennimore, provides a large and sophisticated tome on H.F. du Pont’s iron collecting, including glorious photos of such pedestrian items as a pair of wrought-iron Conestoga wagon hooks. Did you envision these as ending in a spiral with snakeheads? It’s this kind of whimsical or artistic detailing that collectors love in ironwork.
Lasansky writes, “It is perhaps because many iron kitchen utensils were given as dowry presents that they are quite often marked with names, initials, or dates.” In Fennimore’s book, beautiful spoons, cooking forks, spatulas, and ladles are etched with names and dates, inlaid with brass or copper, filed, gadrooned, crosshatched, beaded, punched out with shapes like hearts and circles—in many ways decorated beyond their utilitarian function. Lasansky writes, “In southeastern Pennsylvania heavy sheets of brass, placed lengthwise along iron handles, were held in place by crudely folding the edges of the iron over the brass. Most often, however, the blacksmith first chiseled, punched, engraved, or stamped his design into the iron and then filled it in with molten brass or copper.”
Fennimore notes that gunsmiths routinely incorporated such features in their products, describing a kitchen skimmer made by a Philadelphia gunsmith in 1827. “All their edges have been crisply filed to a bevel, which both relieves their visual mass and introduces light-reflecting facets.” Is a gunsmith a whitesmith? Not really, but they could do beautiful work on iron.
Collectors appreciate objects given extra attention by artisans wanting to show off their own expertise or to create a personal gift. In a January 2012 Pook and Pook sale an 18th-century wrought iron and brass adjustable candlestick, which looked like many others, sold within its $1,000-$1,500 estimate while six pairs of Moravian wrought iron hinges, beautifully crafted in the shape of ram’s horns, were estimated to sell in the $300-$600 range but brought $1,422 (including buyer’s premium).