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The Village Blacksmith: The Reality of a Poem

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Item 11650

J. P. Davis & Speer illustration, c. 1880

J. P. Davis & Speer illustration, c. 1880 / Maine Historical Society

The blacksmith shop, with its collection of tools of hammers, tongs and of course the anvil, could be found in every village and town. Some blacksmiths were specialists; they produced tools and machinery. It seems that the run-of-the-mill blacksmith spent most of his time repairing items. Most of their work according to Sturbridge Village "was on farm tools and household utensils."

Historically, blacksmiths had been very important on the frontier. James Read, the blacksmith of Jamestown was sentenced to death for striking the Governor John Ratcliffe. His life was spared in a last minute bargain, mostly because "killing the man who mends your guns, makes your nails, repairs your chisels, and fixes your locks, not to mention the shoes of your horses might not be the wisest." (Hume 162 -163)

During Lewis and Clark's trek across the continent, their "Corps of Discovery" included Private John Shields, a skilled blacksmith. In the winter of 1804-05 Shields did a booming business with the local natives repairing their metal tools and weapons. When business cooled off, since there was only so much repair work to do, Shields mass-produced battle axes, which were swiftly sold. His talent helped to feed the group and improved the relationship between the explorers and the natives.

 

Item 16092

Power Loom Weaving Early in the Century

Power Loom Weaving Early in the Century / Maine Historical Society

By 1842 the industrial revolution was well under way. Longfellow's father-in-law Francis Appleton was part of the money behind the Lowell mills. So what was Longfellow really saying? The Blacksmith, a staple of each rural community was the handy man or fix-it man of every town. For people who did not have access to a multitude of new products, repairing the old tools and implements was always very important. However by 1842, as displayed in Sturbridge Village, people wanted products like their neighbors had. They wanted access to similar, mass produced goods. Due to increased production, easier travel and different consumer wants, the blacksmith's role was rapidly diminishing.

 

Item 16346

Andrew Jackson, ca. 1840

Andrew Jackson, ca. 1840 / Maine Historical Society

The mid 19th century also was known as the Jacksonian period. The democratic party, previously led and dominated by Andrew Jackson, its celebration of the common man was the intoxicant of the day. The irony was, while the common man was empowered to rule the day, he was rapidly losing his place in the evolving economic system. Blacksmiths and farmers were typically task orientated, folks who finished a job and moved on to the next task only when the last task was completed. The mills of Lowell were time disciplined, work was done until the whistle blew. The blacksmith could not mass produce on the scale of the mill girl at her water powered loom, nor could he afford to work like them in a time disciplined fashion. Add to this the mass immigration of willing labor from Ireland. The blacksmith's role in the complex and changing economic system was rapidly fading.

 

Item 13294

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ca. 1842

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ca. 1842 / Maine Historical Society

So what was Longfellow saying? Was he celebrating a political awakening of the common man? Or was he lamenting the loss of such a dependable and responsible role model? Was he making a political or patriotic statement? Was he aware of the rapid change in the economic system? The decision is up to you.

 

Item 15562

Henry W. Longfellow, ca. 1846

Henry W. Longfellow, ca. 1846 / Bowdoin College Library

Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage. New York, New York: Touchstone, 1996, 198-199.

Calhoun, Charles. Longfellow: A Life Rediscovered. Boston: 2004, 140.

Hume, Ivor Noel. The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to James Towne. University Press of Virginia: 1994.

Old Sturbridge Village website

 

 

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