Creating an Authentic Past

The compromise between using authentic materials and following authentic practices requires finding a delicate balance. Cooper Jon Hallman describes the challenges of representing 18th-century trades as realistically as modern conditions allow.

Learn more: Historic Trades


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Well we’ve talked to masters, journeymen and apprentices on this podcast about how they preserve their trades, but looming over each individual historic trade is the larger problem of recreating an authentic past. There is a tension that exists between authentic materials, authentic practices, and some prevailing myths. Journeymen cooper Jon Hallman is our guest today to discuss 18th century trades in a modern world. Jon, thank you for being here with us today.

Jon Hallman: It’s my pleasure.

Harmony: Well just getting to know you before we get into the meat of this topic, what is your trade and how long have you been practicing it here?

Jon: I work in the cooper shop, so we manufacture wooden stave containers: barrels and buckets and tubs and so on. I’ve been a cooper since 1996, so almost 17 years now.

Harmony: And the cooper’s trade is one of a couple dozen trades that are interpreted here in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. What is the purpose? What is the mission of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg?

Jon: The official mission statement is “To preserve or to maintain a hands-on capability to manufacture historically accurate products using historically accurate materials and means.” A simpler way to put that, and a way I often put it to guests is, “Our purpose is to preserve and present the trades as they were practiced in the 18th century.”

Harmony: It sounds like a simple enough concept to start with, but you started doing some thinking in preparation for a presentation about the preservation and the practice of these historic trades. It all begins with materials, and there are some conflicts there with being a modern society and trying to use source materials that are authentic to the 18th century. Explain what are some of the issues that you run into when you’re looking for authentic raw materials?

Jon: One of the biggest challenges is that in certain trades, particularly in the case of woodworking, but also in the case of blacksmiths working with iron, the materials that were available in the 18th century aren’t available in the modern world, at least not in the same way.

You can, for instance, go out and cut down a white oak tree today the same way that you can go and cut down a white oak tree in the 18th century. The difference is that the trees don’t look the same. When settlers arrived here in Virginia in 1607, they arrived in a country where no one had ever cleared land in the way that we’re accustomed to. You didn’t go out and cut down the trees and leave an open field. And the result was that you had these huge trees that had grown up in a forest that had developed untouched for thousands of years.

So instead of thinking a big tree is a tree that’s a foot and a half or two feet in diameter. Big trees then were four, five even six feet in diameter. And they yielded a quality of wood&ndash straight, clean, free of knots that you just can’t find today, because those trees don’t exist anymore. So when we work with wood today, we’re using timber that comes from trees that aren’t as big, aren’t as straight, aren’t as clean. That leads to a different way that the material works with the tools of the time.

In the case of iron, the material that blacksmiths work with in the 18th century – something called wrought iron &ndash is essentially pure iron, and it’s not produced in the modern world. Everything today is some variety of steel. In the 18th century, steel is much more expensive to produce than it is now, and instead of the varieties of steels that we have today there’s just one kind that doesn’t resist rust like stainless steel does, for instance, or isn’t a structural material like other varieties of steel that we have in the modern world.

So to get the same kind of iron that they used in the 18th century, if our blacksmiths want to work with that, the only way to do it is to go and buy material that’s salvaged from something that was built in the 18th or the 19th, or perhaps the early 20th century. The problem when you salvage materials is that they’ve already been turned into a form that may not be compatible with what you intend to use them for. With iron you can heat it and reshape it. With wood you can salvage 18th century materials from an old house that’s been torn down, but because it was already cut to a certain dimension, you can’t put more wood back on to it to get the wider pieces that you would have needed or used in the 18th century.

Harmony: And this is a quandary that extends into Historic Foodways as well.

Jon: Oh, absolutely. The animals that we use today – for instance chickens would be a common example – are bred in the modern world to yield a large quantity of meat, so that when you go to the grocery store you get these nice big pieces of chicken to cook. In the 18th century, chickens are far more valuable to people as a source of eggs. You keep the chickens around, you eat the eggs, but the animals live with you for years and years and then eventually you might think about cooking them up, but they aren’t nearly as meaty, they’re tougher, they’re scrawnier.

So when our 18th-century foodways staff go to prepare a chicken dish using a modern bird results in something very different than the type of bird that they would have had in the 18th century. It looks different; it cooks up differently because it’s not as tough so it really is very different. It’s not something that would come to our minds immediately, but it makes a big difference.

Harmony: And you point out that the silversmith has the problem of actually being able to get a higher quality of material today then he would have in the 18th century?

Jon: It’s not so much a higher quality as the ease with which they can get the material. Silver in the 18th century is literally money. And the way you measure wealth is by possession of the actual silver, and that’s not true only on a personal level but on a national level. England is wealthy in 18th-century terms on the basis of how much silver, physical silver, is actually in England. If that leaves England to come to Virginia, even though we’re a colony, that makes England poorer. So there are actually laws in place to discourage silver leaving in England. In fact it’s illegal to export silver in ingots, raw bars, to the colonies.

For a silversmith here in the colonies for whom that would be the raw material to make objects, they can’t just order the stuff and import it and make things. They’re relying instead on taking used objects, old silver coffee pots or spoons or even coins that people have in their pockets, and melting them down to make new products.

Today if our silversmiths want to make something they can just go out and buy silver as long as they have the money and that’s another difference. The speculative market that we have has made the price of silver change, whereas in the 18th century it’s very stable. So on the one hand it’s easier to get because there are no restrictions on buying it, but on the other hand the economics are very different.

Harmony: Well you can see here a bit of a philosophical problem developing that if you want to interpret and create 18th century trades and products you want to start with an authentic material, but that authentic material might not be there. So one of the things you started thinking was, “Is it authentic for us to try to produce some of these raw materials and what are the implications of us producing our own raw materials? What are we teaching?”

Jon: There are ways in which we can do it to a certain extent. In the cooper’s shop we used to buy logs and split them ourselves to get the boards that we work with. In the 18th century, that work is done by farmers as they cut down trees to clear field space. No cooper would ever cut down a tree any more than you would expect to find the blacksmith going down into a mine to dig out iron ore. But for us to get the material processed in the way that it was done in the 18th century, we would have no choice but to do it ourselves. You don’t have farmers out cutting down trees to clear a field and space today and then splitting that wood up by hand themselves and selling it.

The problem is that to produce a useful amount of material, the volume of wood that we would need to produce the number of containers we’re asked to produce, would consume so much time that it would limit our ability to actually make the products that, as coopers, we’re supposed to make.

The same thing would apply for weavers, for instance. It would take about 12 spinners, people working at spinning wheels full time, to produce enough yarn to keep one weaver busy at his loom. Well if our weavers today were to spin the material that they weave up, imagine how much time would take for them to produce enough to make even a foot of cloth much less a full piece of something.

Harmony: So you’re in a real catch-22 here where you’re having to sort of decide or find some compromise between using the most authentic raw materials, but presenting the trade in its most authentic form.

Jon: We are, and it becomes necessary to make a compromise. So in the case of the cooper’s shop we, as I said, have split out some material in the past. Now there was a time when we did an awful lot of that and we have the benefit now that we still have some of that timber around. So the decision that we have made in the shop is to reserve that material for specific projects where it’s really beneficial to have material processed in an authentic manner: things that we know are going to be particularly visible here at Colonial Williamsburg, for instance.

Whereas, other items that we make that may end up as items for sale in the Prentis Store to guests, for instance, while we’re still using the same tools and techniques in the shop to produce the product, we’re using materials that we’ve purchased from the modern world. That’s a compromise that we have to make and I think to a greater or lesser degree every shop has done that.

Harmony: One of the other complicating factors here is that you talk about a sort of prevalent myth that a lot of people bring with them when they visit which is that in the 18th century, or in the past, people would have been making everything themselves from raw material to finished product. There’s this sort of romantic notion of the past that people were more virtuous, more self-sufficient, more self-reliant and would not have sort of gone to the hardware store to buy wood. So when you are actually making raw materials, you’re interpreting something that would not really have been a part of the activity of the past. How do you explain this to guests?

Jon: In much the same way that we explain other things to guests. Another example of that is in the cooper shop. We make in our shop here in Colonial Williamsburg today a far wider variety of items than any individual cooper would have made in the 18th century, and it’s because ultimately our mission is to preserve and present the trades as a whole to the audience. So that’s something that I’m very up front with guests about when they come in is to tell them that we’re trying to show you the big picture here. And sometimes that means doing things like producing materials that we as coopers wouldn’t have done in the 18th century, but that in order to get that particular type of material today we have to do it. There’s no reason why the guests shouldn’t have that understanding of how we’re going about doing what we do today.

But it is an interesting notion that people often come with. I’ve often have guests walk up and look at the buckets that are sitting in our shop and a parent might say to a child, “See, you couldn’t just go to the store and buy a bucket in the 18th century, you had to make it yourself.” Well, no, you would go to the store and buy a bucket. You’re coming into the shop where the people manufactured that product.

Harmony: It’s a shame that it kind of complicates the work that you’re trying to do, but in a way it’s also nice because I think it gives us an opportunity to talk about how complex the international trade, the local trade and the local economies how those really worked and how they’re actually very similar to how our economy and our trade, international and local, works today. That’s not that much different a model for the 18th century than it is for today.

Jon: It really isn’t. And as you, said it does, it gives us an opportunity to address all sorts of different topics. When guests come in with different questions or different notions sometimes it’s easy to give the simple answer, but then you’re missing that opportunity to open up a broader conversation. And I think we should strive to do that; to get people to understand that the 18th century really wasn’t that different from today.

But from the standpoint of the complexity of trade, of goods that are imported as opposed to manufactured here, the simple economics of a situation, the fact that there are more people in England than all of the North American colonies combined, so it’s cheaper to produce a lot of things in England and import them than it is to try to make them here ourselves. Those are the sorts of things that we can easily and should be getting across to our guests so they understand that the world that people lived in in the 18th century is a complex one just like our modern world is. It’s not that foreign.

Harmony: Jon, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for being here today and do want to encourage all of our guests to get through the Historic Area and visit all the historic trades that you’ll see represented out there from the cooper’s trade, which Jon Hallman represents, to all the others out there that are trying to represent the 18th century in the most authentic way possible. Jon, thank you for being her today.

Jon: Thank you for having me.


  1. A valuable discussion for all historical re-creators.

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