Skip to main content
Select Source:



METALWORK. Since the colonial period, craftspeople in America have worked with various metals, primarily silver, pewter, copper, brass, iron, and aluminum.


The designations "goldsmith" and "silversmith" were interchangeable in America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In England, silver-and gold-working skills were learned through apprenticeships that lasted from the ages of fourteen to twenty-one. City ordinances in Boston (1660) and New York City (1675) set down that no person could open a shop who was not of age and had not served a full seven-year apprenticeship. But no guilds were formed in the colonies.

At the time, working silver came from melted coins and was, in England and usually in America, assayed to the sterling standard (925 parts silver to which 75 parts of copper were added for hardness). Benjamin Silliman, a famous American scientist in the nineteenth century, recognized that the standard British silver was 8.3 percent

copper, while that for silver made in America was 10.8 percent copper. This difference in standards is now being used as a clue to the national origin of pieces of undocumented silver.

Working over stakes or anvils of different shapes and using forming hammers, silversmiths raised such objects as teapots from silver disks. Spouts, covers, and handles were hammered separately. Smaller pieces were cast. Moldings were made by drawing silver strips through shaped openings in a steel die. Planishing with a flat-faced hammer removed hammer marks. Then all parts could be assembled and soldered in preparation for decorating by chasing (removing no metal) or engraving (removing metal). Before the final finish, the maker's marks were struck on the piece.

The final step was to deal with oxidation, or tarnishing. It is not the silver but the copper that oxidizes, resulting in discoloration. Oxidation was cleverly inhibited by the silversmith who finished his masterpiece, in the words of Silliman, "by boiling the silver in a copper vessel containing very dilute sulfuric acid which dissolves out the copper of the alloy and leaves the silver dead white; it is then burnished and exhibits its proper beauty of color and lustre."

While it is very difficult to generalize about the social position of the eighteenth-century American silversmith, the most accomplished masters worked in cities and were socially well connected. Important silversmiths of the time included Paul Revere and Jacob Hurd in Boston, Myer Myers in New York City, and Joseph Richardson in Philadelphia.

Because a colonial silversmith was both manufacturer and retailer, his shop was often a workroom and a showroom. This practice continued until about 1840, when the discovery of the technique of electroplating led to the rise of large companies that produced and sold silver plate in stores. While not eliminating individual silversmiths, it did reduce their importance. By midcentury, silversmiths such as Edward Moore and William Gale, both of New York City, produced objects sold exclusively through establishments such as Tiffany and Company. Large corporations such as the Gorham Manufacturing Company and International Silver Company almost fully depersonalized the industry. Those who continued in individual shops specialized more in repair, chasing, and engraving than creation.

Until Europeans introduced silver into North America, it was unknown to the indigenous population. Small brooches of Iroquois and Seminole manufacture are known from the eighteenth century. Navajos first learned silversmithing about 1860, and they passed on their knowledge to the nearby Pueblo tribes. Southwestern silver was at first worn only as personal adornment, but as tourists arrived by railroad an industry was born. By the 1920s and 1930s, silversmithing provided regular income and became a full-time job for many in the Southwest.

Following the English model provided by Liberty and Company, Gorham Manufacturing introduced a self-consciously handcrafted line of silver in the 1890s, known by the trademark Martelé (a French word meaning "hammered, " given by William C. Codman to mass-marketed silver produced by "hand"). This industrial process mass-produced the tenets of John Ruskin and William Morris at a time when Arts and Crafts societies mushroomed across America. By 1900, handcrafted silver was a choice, not a necessity. Women became silversmiths. After World War I, some Arts and Crafts silver shops survived the change in style, but new shapes and the economic difficulties of the 1930s proved harsh, and few survived World War II.

While the traditional silversmith tradition may have withered, the craft found new life in the hands of the academically trained artist-craftsperson. This change radically altered the nature of the craft, so that by the early 1950s, many colleges and universities offered programs in silversmithing. Most prominent silversmiths now are graduates of this system and themselves hold positions at universities, which allows them the artistic freedom to produce wares not possible in production work. The personal statement replaced the functionality of earlier times.


Pewter is an alloy mostly of tin, with a small proportion of copper or lead or both. From the fourteenth century in England and much of Europe, "fine" or "plate" pewter consisted of ninety-seven parts tin to three parts copper, and "ley" or "lay" pewter was an alloy of tin with up to 20 percent lead. Cheapness encouraged the addition of lead, giving a soft dull alloy. Britannia metal is a later eighteenth-century pewter alloy that contains antimony (stibnite), not lead. It is also known as white metal. The distinction is in the method of fabrication. Britannia alloys are spun, stamped, or rolled, and articles are thin and light in construction. They require no annealing and take a shine like silver. Pewter is cast and turned and may be hammered to compact and strengthen it. Its low melting point allows for easy casting into intricate shapes in molds of plaster or more durable and expensive bronze.

British settlers introduced pewter into the American colonies. Richard Graves had a pewtering shop in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1635. In large cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, the high cost of materials led to the collection of discarded utensils for recasting. Skilled pewter craftsmen gravitated to these cities. Among them were John Bassett and Henry Will in New York, Samuel Danforth in Hartford, and William Will in Philadelphia.

Pewterware was essentially utilitarian and simple in concept, while keeping with the latest style. It was the common tableware for all but the wealthy. Its softness and low melting point kept pewter from being used for cooking vessels, but its cheapness and toughness made it ideal for tavern tankards, measuring cups, baby bottles, inkstands, candlesticks, furniture hardware, and religious service items.

Stamping pewter into shapes was introduced in America in 1829 by William Porter of Connecticut, who perfected single-drop stamping. Five years later, he patented the spinning technique. For many centuries the lathe had been an important tool in making pewter plates and goblets, but spinning made it possible to complete the whole process on the lathe. The result was a faster and more uniform assembly line for the production of pewter and Britannia vessels. As teapots, coffeepots, lamps, and candlesticks were produced cheaply in ever greater quantity, individual craftsmen quickly became a memory. With the advent of electroplating around 1840, Britannia was compromised by an even cheaper-to-produce silverlike look. Nevertheless, pewter has remained popular, both for fine historical replication and as a more pedestrian non-lead version of colonial ware, awkwardly replicated for a mass-market appeal.


A highly malleable metal, copper also takes well to other metals to form alloys. Paul Revere, famous for his nocturnal ride but a silversmith and bronze caster by profession, had an important influence on America's copper and brass production. In 1801, he set up some newly acquired British-made rollers in a converted powder mill in what would become Canton, Massachusetts, and built the first successful copper-rolling mill in the United States. Contracts for the dome of the Massachusetts statehouse and the resheathing of the USS Constitution, both in Boston, established him as America's leading coppersmith.

Until the 1850s, except for mined copper from Connecticut, the main raw material was used copper from ship sheathing, stills, and boilers. With the eventual discovery of vast copper reserves in the western United States, increased demands could be satisfied.

In his short-lived, fashionable San Francisco workshop, Dirk van Erp, born in Holland, combined hammered-copper bases with shades made of strong, translucent mica to veil the recently invented electric lightbulb. In Chicago, the Scottish-born Robert Riddle Jarvie made candlesticks, lanterns, light stands, and trophies in brass, copper, or patinated bronze. So many craftsmen tried to reproduce his candlesticks that Jarvie was compelled in 1903 to inform House Beautiful readers that all his future work would bear his incised signature.


Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. In Shakespeare's day, and for some time thereafter, the word "brass" was applied to an alloy of copper and tin that is now known as bronze. While the distinction today is one of material, formerly it was one of purpose. If the metal was to be gilded it was bronze, and if not, it was brass.

The art of brass casting began in England in 1693, when a London merchant, John Lofting, was given a license for casting thimbles; these had previously been imported from Holland. During the eighteenth century, brass was made by alloying copper with metallic zinc imported from China under the name "tutenag." The smelting of indigenous zinc ore started in Europe about 1730. As brass became more plentiful, it received its own identity.

In colonial America, brass was commonly employed in churches for many-branched chandeliers and as horse fittings, candlesticks, and irons, and domestic containers. The new brass industry was centered in Connecticut's Naugatuck Valley. It grew fast, but not without serious foreign competition. The outcry against cheap imported brass was heard in Washington, and by 1816, the tariff stood at 20 percent, ad valorem. Two years later, the rate was raised to 25 percent. Late in the nineteenth century, brass casting was introduced to Detroit and then to Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The hardness and ductility of brass depends upon the amount of zinc. Most zinc for brass was imported until

about 1870. Brass with 30 percent zinc could be rolled and was ideal for cartridge cases. Brass with an alloy between 30 and 36 percent could also be rolled and would take a clear impression when cold-pressed or stamped into dies for making buttons for soldiers' uniforms. Above 36 percent, brass becomes harder and stronger but has less plasticity. It is shaped by hot-rolling or hot-forging. Fine plumbing fixtures are made from 40 to 60 percent alloy.


When iron in its malleable state is struck a square blow with the flat peen of a hammer, the metal tends to spread. Different-shaped hammers and skill in applying the blow can not only flatten the metal but also force it to move in the desired direction. This is the manual basis of decorative wrought iron.

Following English models, falling water–powered ironworks were established by 1619 in Falling Creek, Virginia, and on the Saugus River near Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1634. Ever since the sixteenth century, the English had sought to substitute coal and coke for charcoal fuel in a wide variety of industrial processes. After 1775, no new charcoal-fired blast furnace was built in England. By 1784, steam power and coal set the Industrial Revolution on its coal-powered way. The new technologies used coke, resulting in a very hard, high quality cast iron, which could be cast into countless shapes, competing with smiths who produced decorative wrought iron with traditional means and materials. While both Europe and the United States were slow to adopt English technologies, when the United States did begin to use coke in its blast furnaces in the 1850, it quickly surpassed the English. Spurred by the Civil War, railroads, bridges, and facades of buildings, from the 1860s on, America's iron industry developments pushed production to new heights, greater tonnage, and into ever-new shapes and forms.

To the great distress of critics such as A. W. N. Pugin and W. R. Lethaby, overall decoration of any number of patterns on cast-iron furniture, chimney pieces, mantels, stoves, gates, railings, fences, and other objects were exceptionally popular from the 1840s to the 1900s. Richmond, Virginia, has one of the finest public displays of nineteenth-century ironwork in the United States.

In Philadelphia, Frank Furness established an independent attitude toward the plastic forms of cast iron when he freely departed from Gothic or classic motifs and used it to resemble wood or stone. His student Louis H. Sullivan, working in Chicago, became the uncontested American master of original cast-iron designs.

Wrought iron's fortunes waned until the great surge in restoring authenticity to medieval monuments or medieval-looking buildings began in France and Germany in the 1850s. England and America quickly followed. In Philadelphia, the Polish immigrant Samuel Yellin based his work on medieval originals.

Steel was already on its way to mass production in the 1850s with the emergence of the Bessemer (England) and Siemens-Martin (Germany) processes. Both tough (like wrought iron) and hard (like cast iron), steel quickly put an end to the dominance of industrial iron. Adding carbon to wrought iron or reducing the carbon in cast iron produces steel. In May 1865, the first steel rails made in America were rolled at the North Chicago Rolling Mills. Rapid railroad development followed. In 1883– 1885, using steel, William Le Baron Jenney, an architect and engineer, built Chicago's ten-story Home Insurance Building, generally known as the world's first steel skeleton–framed skyscraper.


Although it is never found as a metal in the earth, aluminum is plentiful in the earth's crust. The trick is to get it. With the announcement in 1808 by the Englishman Sir Humphry Davy that he believed that a plentiful compound, alumina, was the oxide of an undiscovered metal, the hunt was on. After many tries resulting in pinhead samples, in 1855 the French chemist Henri Sainte-Claire Deville made the first bar of aluminum. Soon the world began using minute amounts of costly aluminum for special purposes such as jewelry. On 23 February 1886, Charles Martin Hall, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, melted cryolite in his crucible, dissolved a small amount of alumina, inserted two carbon electrodes, and connected them to a battery. A few hours later, he poured the crucible's contents into an iron skillet to "freeze" it. When it cooled, he broke it with a hammer. Among the pieces were several pellets of silvery aluminum. His low-cost process would turn the new metal into an enormous industry. In 1888, Hall set up the Pittsburgh Reduction Company. By 1891, the firm's aluminum was being used for heating grates, light fixtures, mailboxes, and, in Chicago's Monadnock Building, as staircase cladding. Brass-rolling experts were rolling aluminum sheet, and the company was selling aluminum wire to utilities in the American West while peddling aluminum pots, pans, kettles, and other utensils from coast to coast. In the 1920s, aluminum became the essential element of the American machine age. After World War II, aluminum became a byword for lawn furniture, children's toys, and the auto industry. In their 1950s furniture designs, Charles and Ray Eames used aluminum in influential ways.


Carpenter, Charles H., Jr., and Mary Grace Carpenter. Tiffany Silver. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978.

Darling, Sharon S. Chicago Metalsmiths. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1977.

Kerfoot, J. B. American Pewter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1924. Reprint, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1976.

Osborne, Harold, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Ward, Barbara McLean, and Gerald W. R. Ward, eds. Silver in American Life. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1979.


See alsoArts and Crafts Movement .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Metalwork." Dictionary of American History. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Metalwork." Dictionary of American History. . (December 14, 2017).

"Metalwork." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


metalwork: Copper, gold, and silver were probably fashioned into ornaments and amulets as early as the Neolithic period. Goldwork and silverwork have since employed the talents of leading artisans and artists in making jewelry, plate, inlays, and sculpture. The first great advance in metalworking occurred when techniques for making bronze sculpture were developed during the Bronze Age. Brass, an alloy of copper with zinc, came into use later (see brasses, monumental; brasses, ornamental). The Iron Age provided a cheaper medium used chiefly for tools and ornamental ironwork until modern times, when improved methods, alloys, and machinery made iron available and essential to the industrial and structural trades. Pewter, tin, and lead have been used in industrial and art metalwork. Methods of shaping metals include drawing, spinning, hammering, and casting; various decorative processes include chasing, damascening, embossing, enamel work, filigree, gilding, inlaying, niello, and repoussé.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"metalwork." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"metalwork." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 14, 2017).

"metalwork." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


met·al·work / ˈmetlˌwərk/ • n. the art of making things out of metal. ∎  metal objects collectively: a wealth of fine metalwork, including a sword. ∎  the metal part of a construction: engineers spotted cracks in the metalwork. DERIVATIVES: met·al·work·er n. met·al·work·ing n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"metalwork." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"metalwork." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 14, 2017).

"metalwork." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


metalworkberk, berserk, Burke, cirque, dirk, Dunkirk, erk, irk, jerk, kirk, lurk, mirk, murk, outwork, perk, quirk, shirk, smirk, stirk, Turk, work •Selkirk • Falkirk • Atatürk •patchwork • handwork • waxwork •artwork, part-work •craftwork • headwork • legwork •metalwork • guesswork •fretwork, network •breastwork • daywork • spadework •framework • brainwork •casework, lacework •paintwork • beadwork • fieldwork •needlework • teamwork • piecework •brickwork • handiwork • bodywork •basketwork • donkeywork • telework •clockwork • knotwork • formwork •coursework • falsework •groundwork • housework •coachwork • roadwork • homework •stonework • woodwork • bookwork •footwork • brushwork • firework •ironwork • underwork • wickerwork •paperwork • openwork • camerawork •masterwork, plasterwork •earthwork

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"metalwork." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"metalwork." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 14, 2017).

"metalwork." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from