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, but in this post I’m going to wax a bit poetic about copper and discuss the bare basics of what coppersmiths were up against prior to the Industrial Revolution.
If it weren’t for the earlier examples of copper cookware in America, we wouldn’t have the copper heirlooms from the 1800’s that are still prized today in kitchens around the country (and around the world). I believe there is tremendous value in understanding the art and technique behind our modern kitchenware (one can only know much of something if one is aware of what came before). The ancestry of our current copper cookware owes much of its design, and certainly its continued use, to these older, handmade versions of itself.
Before we had delicious looking copper cookware from across the world, we had original, handmade American copper cookware. Raised, braised, crimped and cramped, the copper sheet that was used for making vintage copper bowls, kettles, and pots was, prior to the Industrial Revolution machinery, thinner than it is today. It was also, because of that, more malleable for the simpler tools available to the time period.
In the 1700’s, in America, coppersmiths were few and far between. This was due to a number of factors. The first is that there was not much copper sheet with which to make objects. It was sometimes 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 long rolls, so coppersmiths were obliged to braise or rivet together several sheets of copper to make larger kitchenware. Also, the King preferred us to just buy ready-made copper pieces from England.
There was also very little need for a full-fledged smith at the time – only large cities and ports could support a full time artisan. Many smiths had to try their hand with several kinds of metals. Say 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.
If you were not an established smith in a large town or city in America, you likely were a tinker. Spending your winters forming items out of copper (or 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.
This means that most smiths were quite good at doing most copper work with hand tools. Eventually, a smith may have found a place or the funds to set up shop, though, and the 1700’s smiths had the use of many types of stakes made by the local blacksmith at his wrought iron forge, as well as large and small snips (scissors). You’d make coppers (these were soldering tools made of copper) or 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.
Thanks to the machines made in the mid 1800’s, working with sheet metal became far easier and efficient. The same tools that tinsmiths used once they became more stationary were also available to coppersmiths.
This meant that the coppersmith no longer slaved with snips, stakes and small hand tools only – though tinkers still would utilize the more mobile hand tools for many more decades – but 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 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.
So if you’re well-off and have a lot of copper, or have a single, treasured piece, 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?