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The Origins of American Blacksmithing: From Table to Store

The Origins of American Blacksmithing: From Table to Store

Blacksmithing has a long and dusty history that spans epochs of human society. Understand the origins of this spectacular trade now with this definitive guide.

Strike while the iron is hot! 5,000 to 10,000 Americans are blacksmiths, with hundreds of them doing it professionally. 

Blacksmithing may seem antiquated. In reality, it has a long history that includes many recent developments. Before you try out smithing or buy products from a blacksmith, you should learn about the history of blacksmithing. 

How did it start out? How has it evolved over time? What caused the decline of blacksmithing, and what is blacksmithing like today? 

Answer these questions and you can make the most out of blacksmithing. Here is your brief history of blacksmithing.

The Origin of Blacksmithing 

Blacksmithing began with the Hittites, a civilization in modern-day Turkey and Syria. Archaeologists have found daggers dating to 1350 BCE, which the Hittites made by hammering iron into shape. 

The Hittite civilization ended in 1200 BCE. Hittites scattered throughout the Middle East and made ironworks for their new communities. Daggers and other works have been found in Egypt, Greece, and other countries. 

The Hittites worked with a number of materials. Many smiths used copper, as it was easy to melt and forge with. The island of Cyprus had large supplies of copper, creating ample supplies for the Hittites.

But bronze was harder and more resistant to corrosion than copper. This made it valuable, but bronze was hard to make.

In order to make bronze, smiths combined tin and copper. But tin came from the island of Great Britain, which meant that the Hittites relied on traders to bring them tin. The long trade routes meant that bronze did not become popular amongst the Hittites, yet they allowed the Hittites to spread their knowledge.

The Iron Age 

The Iron Age began in 1200 BCE and ended in 550 BCE. Many civilizations were now familiar with techniques from the Hittites. Smiths began working with metals from around the continent, including iron. 

The blacksmith became an important figure in civilizations all throughout the world. Roman and Greek myths referred to blacksmiths, including divine ones. Some cultures regarded blacksmiths as having supernatural powers due to their ability to work with fire. 

However, early iron objects were crude by today's standards. Knives and weapons did not have sharp edges, and some of them broke to pieces after striking objects. Most smiths used wood fires, which did not produce a high enough heat for effective smithing. 

Many smiths knew that bronze was a sturdier material than iron. Yet iron ores were widely available, so smiths used more iron than bronze. 

Charcoal and Steel

Smiths realized that they need to produce higher temperatures in order to melt iron properly. They turned to charcoal, which can burn at a higher temperature than other types of wood.

Charcoal contains high amounts of carbon. When smiths burn charcoal, the carbon infuses with the iron ores and creates steel.

The first steel swords emerged from India. When Alexander the Great's army entered India during the 4th century BCE, soldiers took wootz steel with them.

Steel quickly became valuable. However, smiths were not aware of the science behind steel. This meant that many of them struggled to produce steel, limiting the number of steel objects in circulation. 

Yet the rare nature of steel made it culturally important. Blacksmiths were regarded as divine for their ability to produce such powerful weapons. Some steel swords were given names and passed down through the generations.

The Evolution of Blacksmithing 

Though steel was desirable, most smiths continued to work with iron. They started using blast furnaces to produce very high heat, and they began making different types of iron. 

Smiths made pig iron by smelting iron ore inside their furnaces. Pig iron was very brittle and hard to make into swords and shields. 

However, smiths discovered that they could remelt pig iron or combine it with other materials, including limestone. This allowed them to create cast iron, which they could use to make different weapons. 

Roman smiths began using blacksmithing to create household objects, not weapons. They made door and cabinet knobs, hinges, and handles out of iron and silver. 

Smiths also started making artworks by melting together metals. Smiths in northern Italy made the first ornamental ironworks, combining iron with gold and other precious materials.

The Middle Ages

Medieval leaders and artisans considered blacksmithing to be one of the most important activities. Leaders gave blacksmiths extensive resources to develop weapons and household tools. Blacksmiths themselves became important figures, sometimes serving as leaders within their small villages.

Blacksmiths began forming trade guilds. Apprentices could receive training and experienced smiths could meet together to share their skills.

Many guilds created rules that forbid any discussion of blacksmithing techniques with outsiders. This created an air of secrecy that gave blacksmiths more power. 

As trade guilds developed, blacksmiths began specializing in different jobs. A "blacksmith" was an expert in iron. A "whitesmith" worked with lead while a "nailsmith" developed nails for the military and ships. 

Cast iron arrived in Europe during the 16th century. Smiths began making pans and pots with cast iron as well as weapons. Blacksmiths in France started making artworks with iron and other materials in the 17th century, and some made names for themselves as artists.

America and the Old West

The Aztecs and other Indigenous American civilizations had their own smiths. Smiths also traveled with Christopher Columbus and other Europeans, so colonial America had a strong tradition of blacksmithing from its inception.

Smiths in colonial America did not have specialties. They made whatever products that their neighbors and traders needed, including nails and chains. Some smiths even served as dentists, using their blacksmithing tools to extract teeth. 

During the 18th century, smiths started using lathes. Lathes allowed them to rotate, cut, and sand metallic objects. Lathes made making gun barrels and cannons easier, which helped during the American Revolution.

After the American Revolution, the military began relying on blacksmiths to make horseshoes and other tools. As part of treaties with Indigenous tribes, the military hired thousands of Indigenous people to work as blacksmiths. 

As America expanded, blacksmiths went west. Some of them opened businesses in frontier towns and became rich selling their products on trade routes. 

Many of them repaired wagons and carriages. This allowed Americans to travel throughout the Old West and build communities. 

The Decline of Blacksmithing 

The Industrial Revolution started toward the end of the 18th century. Machines made the mass production of weapons, household tools, and other objects easy. Workers with little training could run these machines and produce more supplies in one day than blacksmiths could in a week. 

The Old West began to fade during the middle of the 19th century. By 1890, nearly all modern-day communities in the American West had been settled. This made many blacksmiths irrelevant, even as they started working with steel.

The first American automobiles were made during the 1900s. A few remaining blacksmiths went into automobile design. But these blacksmiths did not train new apprentices, so many blacksmithing techniques became forgotten.  

Blacksmithing also fell by the wayside in other parts of the world. Some rural communities in Europe, Asia, and Africa continued to rely on smiths to repair tools and create hardware. But automobiles made it easy to access cities, so people started driving to stores instead of turning to their neighbors for supplies.

The Modern Day

The Great Depression helped resurrect blacksmithing. The government hired blacksmiths to create new buildings and tools to boost the economy. They made staircases, automobile chassis, and iron accents to decorate rooms. 

After World War II, some blacksmiths worked in factories and plants. They used their knowledge to maintain and improve machines. 

Americans started returning to blacksmithing in earnest during the 1970s. Some blacksmiths opened art studios and made personalized artworks out of charcoal, iron, and steel. Other blacksmiths made kitchen tools like pans and knives. 

Modern-day blacksmiths combine modern resources with old techniques. Many of them use natural gas to create high heat to smelt iron and other metals. 

A Brief History of Blacksmithing

Blacksmithing dates back to antiquity. The first ironworks were basic and ineffective. But smiths quickly learned how to make steel, charcoal, and other materials used today, and smiths became popular figures.

The golden age of blacksmithing started in the Middle Ages. Blacksmiths began developing a wide range of objects, including nails and chains. The Industrial Revolution prompted a decline in blacksmithing, but the industry is coming back. 

Take a look at blacksmithing products and you'll see why. Old West Iron provides premium ironworks, such as fasteners and door hardware. Browse our store today.

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