The blacksmith of your grandfather’s day

Posted by | May 5, 2014

A few years ago the blacksmith was the very heart and center from which the great machine world grew.

In your grandfather’s time the blacksmith shod horses, made plough points, built wagons and carriages, and made all kinds of tools and implements. He could turn his hand to making guns or clocks or locks and keys. Here is the kind of shop he worked in and here are some of the things he made.

In a shop of fifty years ago you would find, besides all the modern smithing tools, a lathe, a bolt cutter, a screw-making machine, a power hammer and a great many woodworking tools.

For the blacksmiths of that day were wheelwrights, wainwrights, and carriage builders as well as horseshoers and toolmakers. You have but to look at the graceful and sturdy carts and sleighs, wagons and carriages of a bygone day to know something of the skill and cunning of the smiths who made them.

These vehicles were as lightly made as could be to save the strength of the horses that pulled them, but they were strongly built as well. There were no such smooth, straight highways then as we know now. Wheels ran in ruts, often deep and frozen, where a sudden wrench might shatter the spokes or twist the rims of wheels less well made. The smith had to know wood as well as iron.

The styles in carriages changed in our grandfathers’ day almost as often as do the styles in motor-cars today. The smith and his fellow artisans, the carriage builder and the cartwright, had to be able to build any of the common kinds of vehicle as well as those of special design made to suit the fancies of their customers. There were buggies, road carts, sleighs and sledges and a whole range of delivery wagons and drays that carried the merchants’ goods and brought the farmers’ crops to market. Part blacksmith’s work, part carpentry, each called for the best of their builder’s art.

Liberty, South Carolina's last blacksmith Jarrett Gillespie, Oct. 2, 1967

Liberty, SC’s last blacksmith Jarrett Gillespie, Oct. 2, 1967.

Not all blacksmiths of fifty years ago built carriages and wagons. Coach work was a highly skilled craft in itself. But if all smiths did not make vehicles, almost every smith was called upon to repair them.

If you have ever ridden in a wagon which had no springs, or in which a spring had broken, you will understand why spring making and repairing were also important parts of the smith’s work.

Any piece of tempered steel will spring back to its original shape after bending, provided it has not been bent too far or kept bent too long. Its ability to do this is called its elasticity. All springs, whatever their shape, are made on this principle— the spiral spring in your watch, the coil spring in the mattress on your bed and the leaf springs of motor-cars.

On the carriages of the nineteenth century, the leaf springs were the type most commonly used. They were made up of leaf on leaf of curved steel, each leaf being a little shorter and more deeply curved than the one next below it. The leaves touched only at their tips and they were held together by shackles.

On the early carriages and wagons the springs were fairly simple, sometimes being but single leaves bent into a curve which would support the body and take up the shock of bumps.

The object of all carriage springs is to take up the shock of bumps and to distribute this shock so that the rider does not feel it.

In the days of our grandfathers the art of making springs had advanced until the carriages and wagons of that time were supported on a whole network of springs called the “gear.”

Some acted lengthwise of the carriage; some acted crosswise. These springs were so set and attached that any bump against a wheel would be smoothed out in passing through the springs to the carriage body. Only a very severe shock would jar the rider.

Whatever their kind, spring making called for the highest skill both in shaping the spring and in tempering the metal from which it was made. Furthermore, almost all springs worked in pairs, and each spring of a pair must be exactly like the other, neither stronger nor more rigid, as a difference between the two would cause the body to tip.

When we look back at the workmanship and knowledge that were daily demanded of the smith we begin to realize what superb craftsmen these folk were. Not only did they make wheels and springs, set tires and repair carriages and wagons, but they shod the horses, repaired the farmer’s plough and reaper, and made tools for the carpenter and mason and the tools of a score of other crafts.

The smith of fifty years ago stood at the crossroad leading to the modern world. His children have become the toolmakers, the die cutters, the machinists of today. And while the modern mechanic’s work is more difficult and exacting in some ways than was that of the smith, no ordinary mechanic of today has to have the extraordinary range of skill and knowledge that went into the daily tasks of the smiths.

The Sons Of Vulcan, by Thomas Hidden, publ. by Butter and Tanner Ltd, 1944, London

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