Amid the business of government in 18th-century Williamsburg, tradespeople catered to a growing number of consumers as the capital city grew. By the mid-1700s, retail stores lined the streets, selling goods by English manufacturers while silversmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and coopers met the need for custom work and repair. Carpenters and joiners built houses and shops. Tailors, weavers, shoemakers and wigmakers served the fashion-conscious residents and visitors to this busy town.
Today the Historic Trades bring to life a pre-industrial time in our nation’s history when the consumer age began to emerge. Colonial Williamsburg’s trade shops teach us not only about Revolutionary-era economics, politics, craftsmanship and technology, but also about daily life and work in 18th-century Virginia—and the independent American spirit that took hold in this very place.
For nearly a century, Colonial Williamsburg has preserved and revitalized trades that are increasingly at risk of being lost, such as hand molding and wood firing of bricks, shoemaking, wheelwrighting, carriage making, gunsmithing and cabinetmaking. Our tradesmen and women initially serve as apprentices, working side by side with a master to learn their craft, then move on to become journeymen—and eventually masters—fulfilling the Historic Trades department’s mission to research, preserve and practice those vanishing skills.
By re-creating an authentic model of 18th-century production systems and city life, this distinctive and central Colonial Williamsburg program transports guests back in time. Each trade shop and site provides guests with powerful sensory experiences and includes face-to-face interactions with skilled practitioners of the trade.
Historic Trades interpretations enamor both adults and children alike. Colonial Williamsburg donor Roberta Poulton says she was taken initially with the silversmith and the print shop during childhood—sites she still frequents after 60 years. Others reminisce about the smell of the blacksmith’s fire or the cups made by hand at the tinsmith. Guests of all ages enjoy taking off their shoes and treading clay with the brickyard tradesmen during the summer as they prepare to mold thousands of bricks. After a visit here, guests often talk about their renewed respect for the trades—their history, their essential role in the Revolutionary economy and their impact on 21st-century America. We illustrate for our guests the human side of manufacture—all the skill, creativity, beauty and personal fulfillment that comes with working with your hands. Our efforts encourage respect for the ingenuity and technical innovations of our forebears, cultivating an appreciation for America’s early material culture.
But the Historic Trades do not focus only on demonstrations or even guest immersion in history. As in 18th-century Virginia, the trades provide much-needed material products that are used on a daily basis. Hand-made shingles crafted by Colonial Williamsburg’s carpenters are used for Historic Area roofs; blankets woven by the weavers keep the horses warm in the winter; the carriages that transport visitors through the Historic Area are maintained by the wheelwrights; wigs worn by Nation Builders and interpreters are made by the wigmaker, food prepared in the historic kitchens inspires traditional menu items in the taverns and restaurants.
Our most critical area of need in the Historic Trades is staffing and training, in order to continue the tradition of practicing historically accurate craftsmanship in the Historic Area. Hand skills cannot be taught through the written word—they are perpetuated through oral tradition and many years of practice. It is essential that our experienced teams continue to foster new generations of tradesmen and women in order to perpetuate these skills. In modern production, people are often the most costly investment, and that is true for our Historic Trades today. Traditional handwork is an endangered commodity precisely because skilled labor is expensive to develop and maintain.
In addition to Colonial Williamsburg’s full-time apprentices, summer interns also interpret at our Historic Trades sites during one of our busiest seasons, allowing journeymen and masters more time to teach new staff and conduct research—enhancing their work, authenticity and productivity. Junior Apprenticeships are a new way to expose promising young people to handwork by learning alongside Colonial Williamsburg artisans. Through this program—which is innovative in the 21st century yet at the same time quite traditional—local teenagers work a few hours in a trade shop each day as part of their school curriculum. The position offers a realistic portrayal of the apprentice experience in the colonial era, but the motivations for this program transcend historical authenticity. For the thousands of students who pass through the Historic Area in a given year, we open up the possibility of career paths in the trades, both modern and historical, that most may not have considered previously.
All three of these training programs—formal apprenticeships, junior apprenticeships and summer internships—serve to cultivate a new generation of tradespeople who are passionate about history and skilled in their crafts.
The Historic Trades department hired 10 new apprentices in 2018.
The Wig Shop finished several important projects last year,including a judicial wig that took wigmaker Sara Palmer more than150 hours to complete. It is made out of 12 ounces of gray yak hair.
The Joinery and Cabinetmaker Shop spent several months preparing for the very popular annual conference Working Wood in the 18th Century, which took place January 17-20, 2019. One highlight wasMaster Joiner Ted Boscana and his crew of apprentices exploring furniture built at the Monticello joinery by John Hemings, an enslaved craftsman.
Last fall, the Brickyard team fired the first entirely green clampe in Colonial Williamsburg’s recent history. A green clampe is a brick kiln constructed entirely of unfired bricks, with no layer of previously fired brick providing insulating walls around the structure. This was the usual method for firing bricks in the colonies, making this one of the most historically accurate brick kilns at the Foundation to date.
First-year pharmacy students at Hampton University paid several visits to the Apothecary in Fall 2018 as part of their pharmaceutical history unit. Four pharmacy schools already have requested similar programs for their own students in 2019.
For Women’s History Month, the panel discussion Business and Trades examines women’s crucial roles in the colonial economy, through both the formal and informal work they performed in the 18th century.
In the new hands-on workshop entitledLess Talking, More Doing, interpreters from the Public Leatherworks teach visitors basic leather-crafting skills.Participants produce for themselves a high-quality steer hide waist belt. The workshops take place twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.