Blacksmiths

by Sara R. Aitken, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

(c) 2017 Sara R. Aitken.  All rights reserved.

Prang’s aids for object teaching. Blacksmith. , ca. 1874. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003663923/.

Beginning in the Iron Age, the art of blacksmithing expanded throughout Europe. In Ireland, blacksmiths were revered for their skills and products such as wheels, nails, and horseshoes.

In Celtic mythology, Goibniu of the Tuatha Dé Danann was a superhuman smith who made deadly arrows, spear tips, armor, and even the spear that was thrust into Balor’s evil eye [1]. Such power in Celtic mythology translated to practice in that blacksmiths, who provided the tools for warfare, were held in high esteem. In the subsequent centuries, the forge became a fixed establishment in the majority of Irish towns and a place where many Irish families passed down their craft across generations.

An excerpt of a tale of a romance between an Irish blacksmith from Killarney and a Jewish woman. A ROMANCE OF THE FIVE POINTS. 1878. New York Times (1857-1922), Sep 05, 1878.

New York City provided a multitude of opportunities for the skilled working man, from the cobbler to the carpenter.During the nineteenth century, in contrast to specialized artisans such as shoemakers, blacksmiths were skilled in making a multitude of products, providing the metal objects that kept New York functioning [2]. The century was marked by a shift from

small scale blacksmith shops to mass production of supplies in factories at its conclusion [3].

Many Irish men were employed in foundries and ironwork, often in the shipbuilding industry[4]. Out of 2,159 recorded foreign-born blacksmiths in New York City in 1855, the Irish constituted 1,339 of that number, or 62%[5]. Two of those 1,339 Irish men were Michael Walsh and Michael Drohan on Ward’s Island. The 1845 Doggett’s New York City directory lists hundreds of independent blacksmiths as well as larger shops such as Dunn & Clarkson at the back of 52 Madison street[6]. On Ward’s Island, blacksmiths were employed in several institutions, including the lunatic asylum and the Emigrant Refuge and Hospital. Salaries were dependent on experience and skill level. At the Asylum for the Insane on Ward’s Island, wage disparities were immense between a novice blacksmith and his master.

Blacksmith’s Shop. Ink on paper on supporting paper – Wood engraving by J. Goulden. Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord. M930.50.7.469. © McCord Museum

William Couglin, master blacksmith, earned a large salary of $1000 per annum [7], equivalent to $21,500 per year in modern day[8]. On the other hand, John Fay, earned a meagre $120 per annum [9], equivalent to $2,740 per year in modern day[10]. John Fay’s salary reflects the average hourly wage for a blacksmith, $1.64 an hour in 1860 [11].

As the horse and cart became increasingly important over the course of the nineteenth century as a power source and transportation method, blacksmiths were relied on to create materials such as horseshoes[12] For the Asylum, blacksmiths would be responsible for forging items such as making horse shoes, hoes, bolts, and repairing items such as shovels[13]. Essentially, before mass manufacturing of metal objects became the norm in the city, blacksmiths kept New York City and Ward’s Island running through the metal tools necessary for labor and transportation.

[1] MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. London: Penguin, 2006. 43-46. Print.

[2] Atack, Jeremy, and Robert A. Margo. “Gallman Revisited: Blacksmithing and American Manufacturing, 1850-1880.” (2017). p3

[3] Ibid 16

[4] Ernst, Robert. Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 73.

[5] Ibid 214

[6] Doggett, John, 1809-1852. Doggett’s New-York City Directory, For. New-York: J. Doggett, Jr., 1845. 116.

[7] New York (N.Y.) Board of Aldermen. Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen. Vol. 131. New York: Board, 1874. Print. Pp128.

[8] Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2017.

[9] Croswell, E. Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 6, Issues 50-106. 1876. Pp90.

[10] Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2017.

[11] Long, Clarence D. “Wages by Occupational and Individual Characteristics” in Wages and Earnings in the United States 1860-1890. Princeton University Press. 1960. Pp94.

[12] Sweeney, Hilary J. 2014. “Pasture to Pavement: Working Class Irish and Urban Workhorses in Nineteenth Century New York City.” American Journal of Irish Studies, 2014. 125. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed May 17, 2017). Pp139.

[13]New York City. City Record, Volume 18. Part 2. Published 1890. Original from University of Chicago. Digitized Jul 26, 2013. Pp1709