Shipbuilding. The first European settlers in America founded towns along navigable rivers and next to deep Atlantic harbors. Waterways were the bases of transportation, communication, and travel. Necessity impelled colonists to use boats as their principal means of travel and trade as well as to ensure their future survival and wealth. The shipbuilding industry was of central importance to the New England economy from 1600 to 1754. Colonial shipyards during the 1600s produced five different classes of vessels: the shallop, a small, single-masted boat without a deck; the bark and the ketch, both of which had decks and two masts; the pinnace, a larger vessel used for coastal trading and exploration; and the ship, the largest vessel, having a cargo capacity of well over one hundred tons. During the 1700s the types of vessels changed, and four new classes of vessels appeared. The sloop was a coastal vessel in widespread use but was not as popular as the schooner, a more maneuverable boat. The brigantine was much larger than the schooner, and the snow larger than the brigantine. Colonial vessels usually had square sails in the fore and main masts (front and center of vessel) and a lateen (triangular) sail on the mizzenmast (at the stern). Locally grown hemp was used as cordage in rigging. Larger vessels often had several decks, and for stability sand or stone ballast filled the holds.
Shipwrights. Master shipwrights drew up the plans and then directed the building of colonial vessels. Noise and activity filled colonial shipyards. Dozens of craftsmen worked over the space of a year to build one vessel. It was built next to the water, and an elaborate oak scaf folding supported the boat during the construction process. The oak keel formed the backbone of the vessel, running fore and aft (bow to stern). Shipwrights fitted oak ribs (the frame) to the keel. Builders attached ribs to a beam, upon which the deck was built. Shipwrights preferred pine for the deck and outside planking. Locust pegs joined the keel to ribs and ribs to beam. Sawyers sawed the wood for the boat; joiners did much of the interior carpentry; and caulkers used oakum, made from hemp, to fill all seams. Pitch and tar from New England forests made the boat watertight.
Apprentices. Workers in the colonial shipyard included journeymen, apprentices, indentured servants, and slaves. The journeyman was a former apprentice who worked for the shipwright learning the master’s craft. Apprenticeship was a widespread colonial program of providing vocational education for boys under age twenty-one. Parents bound their sons to a master craftsman in return for room and board, the rudiments of liberal education, and sometimes a small wage. The boy who worked for the master shipwright did odd jobs and various chores around the shipyard, slowly learning the craft until the contract ended. Servants worked for no pay up to seven years. English convicts transported to the colonies worked up to fourteen years. Southern shipyards
frequently used black slaves for manual labor. Some slaves (and indentured servants) were skilled workmen. One Maryland merchant in 1754 used slave shipwrights to design and construct his ship. Other slaves were apprenticed to master craftsmen (but without the hope of ultimate freedom).
Other Trades. At one time or another colonial vessels used or carried the vast and diverse productions of American craftsmen. Each city had a ropewalk on the harbor where rope and cable were made that eventually formed the boat’s rigging. Blacksmiths forged the iron anchor as well as the heads of tools such as the adze, so important in woodwork. Coppersmiths made bolts used in shipbuilding, the copper sheaths that often covered the hull, and bronze for the compass and sextant. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities had specialized craftsmen such as glassblowers, pewter makers, silversmiths, wheelwrights, cobblers, weavers, wain-wrights, gunsmiths, tanners, millers, and coopers who supplied goods for domestic and foreign trade as well as for the use of the captains, mates, and sailors of America’s sailing ships.
America was the perfect place to produce iron. The colonies had iron-ore deposits in bogs and plentiful forests to produce charcoal for heating the ore. Colliers were craftsmen who felled timber and then built elaborate pits in which to burn the wood to form charcoal. Ironmasters put charcoal, iron ore, and limestone into a furnace. Large bellows, often powered by waterwheels, maintained the high temperatures of the furnace. Molten iron ran from the furnace to clay molds to form pig iron. Blacksmiths working at forges hammered and shaped pig iron into wrought iron for use in the kitchen, on the farm, or on sailing vessels. Colonial iron was usually for domestic, not foreign, use; whatever amount that was exported went directly to Britain, where it was processed into steel. Most ironworks were small affairs, and few were financial successes. One of the more famous ironworks was at Saugus in Massachusetts. Opened in 1648, the Saugus Ironworks smelted about a ton of iron a day. Even with such production the Saugus Ironworks went bankrupt in 1652.
Alan Marcus and Howard Segal, Technology in America: A Brief History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989).
Joseph Goldenberg, Shipbuilding in Colonial America (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976);
Alan Marcus and Howard Segal, Technology in America: A Brief History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989);
Edwin Tunis, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry (Cleveland: World, 1965).
Though countless enslaved craftspeople labored in the Americas from the colonial period until Emancipation, most remain anonymous in the historical record. Yet from the early years of the slave trade, there is evidence of skilled craftspeople, noted on slave ship manifests as metalworkers, woodcarvers, and weavers, among other trades. Such skills were highly valued in the Americas, especially during the pre-industrial colonial period, when household goods such as soap, candles, fabric, and tools were made by hand; a shortage of both skilled labor and goods increased the need for enslaved craftspeople. Slave narratives as well as records of sale indicate that slaves who were skilled craftspeople were sold at higher prices.
Some of the handcraft work by African and African American slaves developed in a regional manner that was related to the plantation economy. In the coastal Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia, for example, crafts that were related to rice cultivation and processing were valued; planters paid higher prices for slaves from the Windward Coast of Africa, who were skilled not only in rice cultivation but also in making the crafted objects necessary for processing, including hand-coiled winnowing or fanning baskets and hand-carved wooden mortars and pestles. The Low Country craft production of fanning baskets and mortars continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and similar tools were still in use in the early twentieth century on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
The regional production of ceramics was related to the availability of natural clay. For example, a thriving pottery enterprise developed in the Edgefield district of South Carolina (present-day Edgefield, Greenwood, McCormick, Saluda, and Aiken counties) in the early 1800s using the rich clay deposits of the area to produce stoneware, adding an alkaline glaze made from wood ash or lime. The pottery mills and shops were operated by white planters, who relied on the labor of both white potters and skilled slaves.
There are rare but outstanding examples of signed or attributed works made by enslaved craftspeople. Among the most famous are the works of Dave, an enslaved Edgefield potter who worked for the Landrum Pottery and the Miles Mill Factory from around 1830 through 1864. Remarkably, many of his surviving pots are signed, and many were decorated with inscriptions, often rhymed couplets, by the artist. Scholars have speculated about the reasons that Dave was allowed such artistic freedom at a time when literacy was forbidden to slaves. It has been suggested that there was a significant demand for pots made by Dave, which were distinguished not only by their inscriptions but also by their large size, pleasing proportions, and rich glazes. More than 100 of Dave's surviving pots are preserved in various collections, including those of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
Many enslaved craftspeople worked as apprentices to white or free black craftsmen, and others were hired out by slaveholders as an additional source of income. Slave carpenters and cabinetmakers formed a large number of these skilled craftspeople; in New Orleans in the early 1800s, free blacks and slave apprentices dominated the production of fine furniture. A small storage cabinet (c. 1850), considered to be an outstanding example of work by a master cabinetmaker, is attributed to Peter Lee, a slave carpenter from John Collins's Rodney plantation in Alabama.
Henry Gudgell, who was born a slave in 1826 in Kentucky, is believed to be the maker of an ornately carved walking stick, now in the Yale University Art Gallery. The walking stick, made for sale in 1867, is decorated with a lizard, tortoise, and human figure, reflecting a distinctly African aesthetic, and is probably representative of the style of wood carvings made by Gudgell during his enslavement. Gudgell is also identified as a blacksmith, a wheelwright, and a silversmith.
Women slaves often were skilled textile workers. Most plantations had a weaving or spinning building where women slaves were required to spin thread, weave fabric, and sew, usually after a day's work in the fields or in the slaveholder's house. Many of these skilled workers made embroidered bed coverlets and appliquéd pieced quilts. Most of these fragile textiles have not survived, but examples remain. A silk quilt, made by two slaves identified only as Aunt Ellen and Aunt Margaret at the Knob plantation in Kentucky, is dated to the late 1830s. The Bible quilts of Harriet Powers (1837–1910), who was born a slave, are among the best-known African American textile works of the late nineteenth century and may be considered representative of similar works by countless undocumented quilters and seamstresses.
Lewis, Samella, ed. African American Arts and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.