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American Copper Cookware History {Part 1}

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As an apprentice tin and copper smith, I get to play with sheets of tin and copper all the time. Of course, tin is much easier to create kitchenware with in some regards (such as how easily it solders), but in this post I’m going to wax a bit poetic about copper (no surprise?) and discuss the bare basics of what coppersmiths were up against prior to the Industrial Revolution, and how they existed.

If it weren’t for the earlier examples of copper cookware in America, we wouldn’t have the copper heirlooms from the 1700’s and 1800’s that are still prized today in kitchens around the country (and around the world). I feel there is tremendous value in understanding the art and technique behind our modern kitchenware – being aware of what came before helps us appreciate the current day. The ancestry of our current copper cookware owes much of its design, and certainly its continued use, to these older, handmade versions of itself.

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Copper cookware from the 1700’s that needs new tin lining at the shop.

Before we had delicious modern copper cookware, we had the original, handmade copper cookware. Raised, braised, crimped, and cramped, the copper sheet used for making vintage copper bowls, kettles and pots was, prior to the Industrial Revolution and machinery, much thinner. It was also more malleable, and so the simpler hand tools available could form it.

In the 1700’s, in America, coppersmiths were few and far between. This was due to a number of factors. The first is there was not much copper sheet with which to make objects. Copper was mined in the colonies, but it was sent back to England to be processed (smelted and rolled) before being re-shipped over. It was also only sent over in very small pieces instead of the super long 10ft+ long rolls of today, so coppersmiths were obliged to braze or rivet together several sheets of copper to make larger kitchenware.

The second reason there were fewer coppersmiths in America was due to very little need for a full-fledged smith at the time. Only larger cities and ports could support a full-time artisan. Many smiths had to try their hand with several kinds of metals to keep afloat in those early years – perhaps you might be well-versed in copper, but you’d also be required to repair tinware, work with silver and pewter, and likely have a touch of understanding with the blacksmith trade (though there were ALWAYS a lot of blacksmiths).

If you were not an established smith in a large town or city in America, you likely were a tinker. After spending your winters forming items out of copper (and tin), you’d then wander around the area in better weathered months selling the wares you’d made throughout the cold season, as well as taking odd jobs repairing the tin and copper pieces of your clients. Customers would usually prefer repairs over buying new.

This traveling lifestyle meant most smiths were quite good at doing most copper work with portable hand tools – pliers, snips and a hammer, for example. Eventually, a smith may have found a place to set up shop, though, and the 1700’s smiths had many types of stakes and sledges made by the local blacksmith at his wrought iron forge, as well as large and small snips (scissors). What would you do at your shop besides repair and build cookware? Well, you’d be called upon to make coppers (these were soldering tools made of copper) for other smiths, or to braise together a cramp seam of a copper vessel. By hammering and “raising” the copper sheet, you could make small bowls and kitchen tools. Using copper wire, you could make rivets and piece together even a basic coffee pot with the limited sheet sizes you’d have from the Crown.

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See the tools on the wall? Those are from the 1700’s! The ones on the bench? From the 1800’s. Still in use today!

However, coppersmiths who set up shop had a few different issues to create cookware compared to silver or tinsmiths. This was partly due to the fact that copper is a metal that, while it conducts heat beautifully, melts at a much higher temperature than tin, silver, or pewter. A hotter fire is needed to move copper’s molecules – whether that’s during tinning the interior or sealing any seams. So coppersmiths need a lot more fuel and flame.

By the early 1800’s, the coppersmiths no longer labored with snips, stakes, and small hand tools only – though tinkers still would utilize the more mobile hand tools for many more decades – they also could start to rely on faster, more efficient tools crafted for “industrializing” the trade. Copperware was still measured and made by hand, but suddenly larger metal mechanical hand-crank tools were available to raise a burr, groove, roll, cut, and wire metal pieces into shape. While smiths could still do everything completely by hand for old time sake, it was possible to make more items with the same amount of help in the shop. The increased productivity and efficiency meant that copperware could become more affordable to the public.

The additional tricky part to making copper cookware was the need to line copper cookware with tin. Unfortunately, that tin lining usually contained lead, which is a practice metalsmiths today don’t touch – we all use full pure tin, perhaps cut with a small partial percentage of pure copper. So while copper cookware lasts many generations, and thankfully the interior lead lining does not!

I go on about how to line copper cookware on YouTube, but even if you don’t go the next steps to watch, just sit back and stare at your cookware and think about it’s predecessors: how it was all made, by hand, piece by piece. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?