Monday, February 25, 2008

Smithing: the Gibb Hypothesis

Businesses came and went in Port Tobacco, as they do and have done in any urban place. Owners retire, die, sell out, or lose out to bankruptcy. There is one kind of business in Port Tobacco, however, that survived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, even if it did so under a host of different owners: blacksmithing.

Blacksmiths were the automobile mechanics and handymen of the pre-automobile era. In fact, early automobile manufacturers and repairmen were blacksmiths, the repairmen eventually calling themselves machinists. They often shoed horses and draft animals, tired wooden wheels, fixed household appliances, and made new things to order.

For the country blacksmith, depending on individual skills, daily work was a mixture of making new and repairing old. That began to change, however, after the Civil War. Factory production (called derogatorily the "Cheap John" system for its often shoddy products), stimulated in part by war demand, began to ship products by rail to distant markets, aided first by regional salesmen operating through local smiths and other tradesmen and retailers, and then by mail order catalogues. Blacksmiths increasingly repaired objects made hundreds of miles away. Working with wheelwrights, they repaired wheeled vehicles often by replacing a worn or broken part with a new part made elsewhere.

In 1985, working on a wagon shop site in central New York State, it occurred to me that we could see this transition from new work to repair work through the materials left behind, and therefore we could date that transition, the move of manufactured goods into a community and the deskilling of the local labor force. Specifically, I was able to distinguish between scrap piles and trash piles of the Tripp Wagon Shop in Perry City, NY. One served as a source for raw material to make new parts, the other comprised worn machine-made parts that were simply discarded without any apparent intention to to be used again as raw material.

Although port towns, particularly in the Southern States, long imported manufactured goods, I am hopeful that in exploring the smithies, wheelwright and wagon/carriage shops of Port Tobacco we will find similar deposits that will help us chart the town's changing place in the evolving global economy of the 19th century.


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