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.
Sources: George Daniels, Science in American Society: A Social History (New York: Knopf, 1971);
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);
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);
Edwin Tunis, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry (Cleveland: World, 1965).
"Craftsmen." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/craftsmen
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