Colonial tradesmen learned the swordmaking craft as Virginia armed itself for war. Journeyman brass founder Suzie Dye describes the process.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.
War creates an industry of its own in every century, calling artisans and inventors to bring forth the best of their craft in the fastest way possible. In the Revolutionary War, this burden lay heavily on metalworkers, whose sword blades and gun barrels were in constant demand. Suzie Dye, a journeyman brass founder, joins us now to tell us more about the technology of war in the 18th century.
Before we get to that, ahhhh….. a female journeyman and brass founder. That doesn’t sound like what we would call “a woman’s job.”
Suzie Dye: Well, I think that in the 18th century, unless you were very wealthy, you were the gentry, the upper 2 percent of the population, you might, as a female, find yourself doing what we today consider non-traditional work for that woman. What I would suggest for females is, the poorer you are, the more likely your labor is required.
You might also marry and you might bear children, but your labor is going to be required for that family to succeed. So, you might be the wife of a tradesman and you might work alongside your husband. You might be the daughter of a tradesman and work in your father’s shop. You might be a young girl who’s very poor, who is apprenticed into the church system – actually orphaned into the church system – and then apprenticed out into a trade.
Lloyd: So women at work was ordinary at that time.
Suzie: The regular, working-class people have always worked, and always will.
Lloyd: What do you like best about the foundry?
Suzie: The challenges. I like the, I love to make things. I like to work with my hands, I love people, I like talking. It’s kind of the best of all worlds, working in a trade shop in a museum environment in Colonial Williamsburg.
I have the opportunity to research beautiful antiques and pieces that are in the collection. I have an opportunity to re-create those items using 18th-century technology and techniques in the shop. I’m not burdened with the production aspect of, let’s say, a modern factory or foundry where I would have to produce a certain amount of work in a certain time period.
Lloyd: You are known as something of an expert on swords, or making swords, or however one phrases that. How did that come about?
Suzie: I’m not sure I would call myself an expert, but I know a lot about sword making and we do reproduce swords. It has to do with the archaeology at the site that I work at. There were fragments of sword parts found on the site, as well as several other sites in Colonial Williamsburg in the Historic Area, including the Governor’s Palace. These were infantry, small swords, English swords.
The swords that were found on our property, one of them was partially finished, and the other one was a little bit smaller than the original. When you mold an item, you cast it, the metal shrinks a little bit. So it’s a tiny bit smaller that what you copied. So we were able to determine from the archaeology that the Geddys, where I work, were making swords for sale during the war.
So we started researching swords, swordmaking, looking at the parts and going about the business of actually recreating the types of swords that Geddy was making, and we assume selling during the war. We usually cast them in brass or in bronze, the hilt or handle. The actual sword blade itself, we don’t make.
Sword blades in the 18th century, until the war, were not being produced in the colonies here that we know of. They were being imported from England, coming through Germany, Spain, France, into the colonies here. They were working steel. Steel wasn’t being worked in the colonies here. Iron was.
Lloyd: I would suspect that once the Revolutionary War started, importing a sword blade from England could get a little dicey.
Suzie: Yes. So you see a lot of times today people use the term “embargo.” In the 18th century, it was actually a non-importation agreement, like an embargo. The Virginians had signed and agreed not to be buying these things from England. Early on, when you see these non-importation acts, they’re luxury goods. You don’t see tools on there, or even guns or swords very early on. But as you get closer to the Revolution, you see limited things coming from England, especially weapons of course. You don’t want to arm someone that’s about to go to war with you.
So you see tradesmen here having to start to discover how to do work like sword work and cannon work, and work that previously had not been done in the colonies here. You have to realize too, that the colonies had been established for a couple hundred years. There’s lots and lots of stuff here. They had been importing tools for hundreds of years. You could go to a store, you could buy a file, you could buy a hammer, you could buy a saw.
So by the time the war rolls around, yes, you’re not able to have an influx of some of these things into the colonies. You’ve already got the stuff here. You’ve got tradesmen that have been working for generations making items. What I would say differs in trade work in England than here in the colonies is, in England, they have guild halls that regulate the trades.
You have a division of labor with great specialization where the gunsmithing trade is broken up into many different steps. You go into just a brass foundry or a pewter shop where they’re just casting pewter, where here in the colonies, you might come into one shop that’s doing five or six different things. So they certainly had the skills here. They were not specializing though like they were in England.
Lloyd: What are the five or six processes that one guy – well in your case, one woman – would do here that would be broken up if it were done by the skilled people in England.
Suzie: I think you would find the blades being produced in a different location, not in the same shop that the hilt is being cast in. I think the hilt would be cast. When I say cast, meaning a mold is made of the item and the metal is heated to a liquid and poured in to shape it. I think there would be one person that was just a mold maker, and that’s all they did was make molds.
There would be another person that just made patterns. They carved wood, and they made patterns for these objects. There would be another person that cast the metal, and then the finishing might be broken down, where you have a couple people rough-filing. When these objects come out of the mold, the surface is very rough. Most of the work takes place actually after the casting process, when you’re scraping the surface with files and chisels.
There might be one person doing that, and then you might come to another person that’s actually doing the buffing of that. Then there’s probably going to be an assembly area, where people are just assembling them. So, just by dividing the labor like that, you can make it so much quicker and cheaper than it can be done in the colonies where you have one person that goes through that entire process. That’s the way we do it in Colonial Williamsburg, and in the trade shops today – similarly to the way it was done here in the 18th century.
Lloyd: At what point in the war, after the war, whenever, do the people who work in the foundry begin to adopt the English system, where one person does A and a second person does B and then they break it up?
Suzie: I think it’s the very early 1800s when you begin to see that type of work going on. It’s hard for us to document some of the work going on during the war here. You know, tradesmen don’t keep very good records, detailed records behind. There’s a lot of investigative guesswork we have to do as to how they practiced these trades, and what they made the most of, and how they divided the labor up within a shop.
That’s why I bring up the archaeology. That’s a way for us to discover when things aren’t written down, well what was left in the ground? When the archaeology was done at the James Geddy site, we found a good bit of gunsmithing and cutlery work there. I don’t think they did ironwork in that foundry too much, except during the war.
I think the nature of business in the shop that I work in changed during the war. I think prior to the war, they were doing more luxury items and nice things for your home. Then during the war, they geared more towards that munitions type work.
Lloyd: You start to work on a sword. You walk in the door and there’s the material and you start working on the sword. How long will it take you before there is a sword?
Suzie: It’s hard to say. We have produced a few in the last several years, and if I were to take away, it took us a couple of months to produce one sword. But if I were to break that down into hours of work and cut out the stopping and talking and working, I think that we put, I would say a good 80 hours, maybe 100 hours into the sword itself. That’s not counting the making of the blade, because we did not make the blade.
Now today I work a 40-hour week. In the 18th century, sunup to sundown, longer days in the summer than the winter. But I expect they still made things quicker than I did. Their livelihood depended on it again.