Preserving Historic Trades

Jay Gaynor explains Colonial Williamsburg’s rigorous trade apprentice program.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  This is “Behind the Scenes” where you’ll meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Jay Gaynor, who runs the historic trades apprentice program at Colonial Williamsburg – and since you have so many 18th-century tradesmen, you would have to have an apprentice program of some sort.

Jay Gaynor:  Well, today, just like in the 18th century, the only way you could really learn a trade was by doing it. And so it’s a matter of getting folks in there who actually spend five, six, seven years, depending, learning the skills that are necessary to preserve those trades and present them to our guests.

Lloyd:  I’m curious, why would someone want to learn an 18th-century trade? I mean it seems to be sort of a limited future.

Jay:  Well, that’s true of some trades. We practice some things that really aren’t practiced anywhere else in the Western world today as far as we know. But I think in a lot of cases it’s people who enjoy doing hands-on work and coming up with a concrete product. It’s satisfying stuff. It’s very different from pushing paper or even working with modern technology where so much of it goes on inside a black box somewhere. This is all pretty straightforward.   

Lloyd:  If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

Jay: Exactly. And you can see it happening in front of you.    

Lloyd: I was talking to a silversmith who was telling me how much he enjoyed using little hammers to beat on silver  

Jay: (Laughs) That’s it. It is the same reason that people spend their Saturday afternoons out in the garage doing cabinet making, or if you’ve got folks who still build models, or people who go into carpentry or finish carpentry work, it’s the same sort of satisfaction.

Lloyd:  What do you look for in an apprentice?  

Jay: Well, we’re a bit different than the 18th century, because of course then the idea was to find somebody who could make as much money for you as possible. With the 18th-century apprenticeship, the idea was to get a kid in there and start him off with fairly menial jobs – I should say “he or she,” although “she” is not nearly as common – and as their skills develop, you put them into more and more productive work. The payoff for the master in return for teaching the trade – and in many cases, supplying room and board and education – is to get a productive laborer in the shop for those last three or four years who can actually turn some profit for him. Our purposes today are very different. Obviously why we’re practicing and continuing these trades is really to preserve them and present them to folks. And that requires…well first of all, we really want our trades people to be real trades people. They are not an interpreter who is just there pretending to put a bucket or a barrel together, or whatever the case might be, they really are professional weavers and coopers and silversmiths and gunsmiths and so forth, and that’s what they consider themselves to be. They pursue it as a profession. But in addition, we of course have a very important educational mission. So, one of the things we try to balance out is a lot of folks that like to work with their hands like to go off in a dark corner and do it by themselves. We need somebody that wants to do it absolutely in front of the world, talk about it continually, and really be almost evangelical about saying what neat stuff it is, and here is the magic, and let me show it to you.

Lloyd: You said something that I had not considered. You said one of the things you wanted to do was preserve the trade. It hadn’t occurred to me, but some of these would have died out, wouldn’t they?  

Jay: In fact, most of them would have died out. There are still blacksmiths, and cabinetmakers, and carpenters out there. Some of the trades that we do are still being practiced commercially, like making barrels for example – coopering. Barrels are still being manufactured for wineries and all sort of other things, but as far as we know we are the only people left in the Western world that are literally doing that process totally by hand as it had been done for centuries. Wig-making is one of those things…

Lloyd:  Not a big demand for wigs…

Jay: ...well there is a big demand for wigs actually…       

Lloyd:  Oh?

Jay:  If you think about the theatre, and you think about folks that are going through medical treatments or whatever. There is still a really large demand for wigs, but none of them are made totally by hand using those 18th-century methods. And that’s true of a lot of the trades that we’re practicing. One advantage that we have as a museum with a supported program, we can go out there and do these things using 18th-century technology. We can take the time to experiment. That is a huge part of what we do – to try to figure out how it was done in the 18th century, to really try to get inside the heads of the guys that were doing this 300 years ago and approach it with the same attitudes they did. That is an expensive proposition. You really can’t earn a living today doing that, you’re just not productive enough.  So we have the luxury of being able to preserve it when very, very few other institutions, and certainly individuals, can do it.

Lloyd:  How many people do you have in the apprentice trades program?
Jay:  It varies over time. Right now the whole department is 90-some people, and we’re operating about 20 different sites, but depending upon how you define the’s true in the 18th century as well. If you are in someplace like London or Birmingham or Sheffield, one of the big English manufacturing centers, most of the trades people are very highly specialized, and you may spend your whole life doing nothing but making hands for watches, or grinding chisels or knives or forks.  When you got over to the colonies, the demand for goods was much less, and two things happened – one, you had to compete with all the specialists in England, and two, your market wasn’t big enough to allow you to do a very narrow range of work. So people over here tended to be generalists. A blacksmith here in the 18th century did a lot of repair work but may have taken on the tasks of what in England would have been 30 different trades. So, it’s hard for us to define exactly how many trades we’re practicing, because our blacksmiths are nailers; they’re toolmakers; they’re hardware makers; they’re repairers; they make agricultural implements – all of which would have been different trades over there, and back to your question, we really like to have an apprentice in every trade at some point, because the whole secret of this program is passing it from one generation on to the next.    

Lloyd:  Okay, here is a man – I presume a man – and he’s done his apprenticeship – five, six, seven years – what does he do?

Jay:   We hope he stays here.

Lloyd:  Well, you presume he does, but do you get a new apprentice for him? Jay: We try to, in fact, we’re in a position now where a lot of our shops are populated by folks that have been here since the sixties or seventies, and so at some point we’re going to come up against a little bit of an age wall here, and unless…the only way you can learn these trades is by actually doing them.  

Lloyd: …can’t read a book.  

Jay:   You can’t read a book. You can teach yourself, but it’s not very efficient, and you end up reinventing the wheel, literally, over and over and over again.  So, just as in the 18th century, the best way is to start out and work with accomplished people and simply by doing it over and over and over again and broadening your skills and honing your skills, you learn how to do it. There are other museum programs that folks go to. We have a number of people that have been through the program who have gone on to work on their own, it usually means they have to adapt what they’re doing to a little bit more modern production methods. 

Lloyd:  I would think that would be a hard jump to make – from 18th century to 21st.  

Jay:  It is a hard jump, but a lot of the folks are actually working for people that are doing restoration.   

Lloyd:  Oh, okay…

Jay:   I can think of a couple of people off the top of my head that are producing bed hangings or doing upholstery work or doing foundry work or doing blacksmith work for either other institutions, other museums, or individuals that are restoring houses or they are antique collectors that need some restoration work done – that’s the biggest area that people are going into.

Lloyd: Carpentry – I, should think, if you knew restoration carpentry you could do pretty well.  

Jay:   Yeah, you can, but again, you’ve got to trade in your hand saw to a large extent for a Skil saw if you’re going to do that.

Lloyd:  Well...(laughs) have you ever (and you can not answer this if you like) have you ever found somebody who just couldn’t learn?

Jay:  Yeah, yeah, and interestingly they’re dealing with that in the 18th century, too. There is a book written in the 1740s where the guy says so many kids that are apprenticed to trades they are just not suited for end up being an accomplished bungler by the time it’s all over. We have the same thing that happens. The turnover rate is an interesting one because it tends to be in the first couple of years. Either somebody finds they don’t enjoy doing the trade, or they don’t have the skills necessary to do the trade, or they don’t like the public contact aspect of it.

Lloyd:  That, I think, would defeat me.

Jay:  So, folks have to experience that, and we have to experience them, and it doesn’t happen very often, but you know people realize this just isn’t the job for them and go on and do something else. Interestingly once somebody is here for four or five years, they tend to stay here. A couple of years ago, we figured out that among the 90-odd folks in the department we had over 1,300 years of experience with Colonial Williamsburg. Gives you some idea of…

Lloyd:  (Laughs) Nobody came yesterday.

Jay:  Right, well, some people did, but a lot have been here since a long time ago. 

Lloyd: That’s going to be that age barrier thing you talked about. Sooner or later, I don’t care how skilled you are, you get arthritis in your knuckles, and it just doesn’t work any more.  

Jay:  Exactly, so we’ve got to have this constant stream of new folks coming in. We’ve been pretty successful with that lately. We’ve had actually three endowments just in the last few months that have supported in perpetuity apprenticeships in three of our shops – weaving, blacksmithing, and cabinetmaking. That is fantastic, that really is the best news we can possibly get in terms of this preservation effort.

Lloyd:  Oh I bet that is good, those are guaranteed to go forward no matter what. Is there anything you – I don’t know 18th century trades from – is there one you would like to do that you’ve never been able to find a guy to do?

Jay: Well, tailoring is probably a good example, and we’ve at last been successful with that. Tailoring was probably the most common trade here in town in the 18th century. Building trades were probably running sort of a close second to it. We’ve known that historically, but for some reason we’ve just had difficulty over the years getting a program like that going. Finally, finally…

Lloyd: Tailoring sounds like it would be something you could walk out on the street corner and get two guys, but I guess 18th-century tailoring and 21st-century tailoring are not the same thing.

Jay: There are similarities, but there are certainly plenty of differences, and one of them [ is that] in the 18th century, you are sitting cross-legged on a board in front of a window stitching everything by hand and making clothes that to a modern tailor are pretty weird – the cuts and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of comparability between them but, again, the desire to do that and to earn your living doing it takes a pretty unusual individual.

Lloyd: Sitting cross-legged I think would turn me off.

Jay:  The old Sherlock Holmes thing about being able to walk down the streets of London and tell what a people did by their posture and the way they walked really has a lot of truth to it.

Lloyd: Really?

Jay:  There are really a lot of occupationally associated diseases in the 18th century. We think about carpal-tunnel syndrome or carpal tunnel problems today, or whatever, but [they had] all kinds of arthritic problems and muscular problems.

Lloyd: I always thought he sort of made that up just to…

Jay:  Nope, nope, if people spend their whole life sitting cross-legged on a table sort of hunched over their work or filing a device, they end up carrying that with them.

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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