Sunday, May 15, 2016

What the Apprentice Tinsmith Wore, c1775

Sunday, May 15, 2016
Isabella reporting,

It's easy enough to see how the nobility and royalty dressed in the 18thc; there must be scores of portraits, paintings, and prints documenting the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. But it's much more of a challenge imagining the clothing of ordinary women whose lives weren't as thoroughly documented. Thanks to the professional staff of Colonial Williamsburg, I've shared several posts featuring the clothes of Colonial American and English women c1775, and here are the links to the posts for a mantua-maker's apprentice, a housewife of the middling sort, a maidservant, a seamstress, and a female blacksmith.

The latest in my series shows one of the newer apprentices in Colonial Williamsburg's historic trades program. Jenny Lynn is serving her apprenticeship to become a tinsmith. Tinsmiths (also called whitesmiths) made and repaired objects - including pans, pots, kettles, cups, lanterns, plates, funnels, and saucers – that were commonly found in most 18thc homes and workplaces; see here for more about the tin shop and tinsmith's historic trade at Colonial Williamsburg.

Finding Jenny working in an 18thc tin shop isn't a 21stc equal-opportunity anachronism. Diderot's famous Encyclopédie, published between 1751-1772, showed women workers in the plate on tin making: "Metallurgie, fer blanc": (detail, lower right). There are documented examples of women tinsmiths in 18thc Britain, France, and colonial America, including a daughter continuing her mother's trade in South Carolina.

But while women are mentioned in advertisements, newspapers, and other documents, there are no known images of colonial women tinsmiths. When it came to researching what Jenny should wear for her apprenticeship in the shop, CW's historians in the Costume Design Center chose to dress her as a working-class tradeswoman. She's shown here wearing a brown wool gown over a striped linen petticoat, a checked linen apron, a cotton neckerchief filling in her neckline, and a linen cap covering her hair. Everything is handsewn. Long hand-knitted wool mitts, lower left, would have kept her forearms warm and protected them from sparks while keeping her fingers free for work.

She's also wearing stays (the 18thc word for a corset.) Not only would stays have been worn by her 18thc counterpart to maintain a fashionable and respectable silhouette, but the boned undergarment helps support her back during long days at her workbench.

Her most important garment for work, however, would be her black wool apron, or pinner, because it pins to the front of her bodice to protect her gown and petticoats. The women in the Diderot plate are wearing similar pinner aprons. At first Jenny wore a pinner of white linen, the most common kind for the time. But the white linen didn't work for tinsmithing. The white failed to offer enough contrast while working with the brightly polished metal. More importantly, the hot flux used in soldering the tin is made from acidic pine rosin, which ate through the linen apron.

Jenny switched to a black wool pinner, and both problems were solved. The wool resisted the acidic rosin and any stray sparks from the fire, and presented good contrast for working. Jenny isn't alone, either. Based on historical records as well as preferences, the male tinsmiths and several of the blacksmiths wear baize (a heavy woolen) aprons as they work, too.

A note about that black pinner. When I wrote a post last year about how the mantua-makers at Colonial Williamsburg were experimenting with black silk pinners for embroidery, I inadvertently ignited a minor furor on social media. Purists among reenactors maintained that if there wasn't primary source proof of the black pinners in use in colonial Virginia, then they should not be employed for interpretations. Ever. However, when that proof doesn't exist, sometimes even the most conscientious scholars have to rely on hands-on experience and a bit of ingenuity as to what works and what doesn't - exactly as an enterprising 18thc woman would have done as well.

Photographs ©2015 by Susan Holloway Scott.


Karen said...

I will say this after having a minor accident with fire while at an reenactment event, I was never so grateful for my wool garments. The wool literally protected me. I brushed off the soot and walked away! I am forever keeping that wool dress.

Douglas Butler said...

However well documented, if it doesn't work then they didn't do it that way.

Anonymous said...

It is possible the wool pinner wasn't black as in 'pure black', but natural black wool does exist and might be the fabric of choice if it's available - so it could easily be a deep brown. As for "it isn't documented" that's an on-going argument in all reinactment groups. On the one hand, what survives in archaeological digs and primary written sources is indeed a matter of sheer blind luck - as the survival of so much of colonial Williamsburg's own documentation shows. But reconstructing artifacts of daily life and using them will give a much better indication of how things really were made and used. Wool is far safer than any cellulose fiber for a trade involving fire and sparks and wearing a dark color rather than a light one also makes more sense when working with bright white metal. You'll never learn that from a book, but you will if you do hands-on work. And professional archaeologists are starting to respect the reinactment communities and are asking them to try reproductions of their finds to see 'how DO these work?'

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