Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Iron Working in Early New England

A private collector of ironware shares his knowledge and passion with John Fiske From New England Antiques Journal

The rolling and slitting mill. Sixteen-foot water wheels, each with a sluice, turn the upper and lower rollers, which have to rotate in opposite directions. The water wheels can only turn in the same direction, so two huge gears are needed to reverse the rotation of the upper roller.

We don’t usually think of seventeenth-century New England as industrialized. Of course, it wasn’t, but with one exception, and that exception was huge and important: the iron industry. The Hammersmith Iron Works (later known as Saugus) on the Saugus River at Lynn, Massachusetts (1646-1668) was one of the largest industrial complexes in the world.
The works was the brainchild of John Winthrop Jr., the son of the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had discovered ore deposits in the Boston area, and was encouraged by the Massachusetts government to establish an ironworks as a vital part of its plan to make the Colony as self-sufficient as possible, and, in particular, independent of England and its corruption. In 1641 Winthrop sailed to England to form the Company of Undertakers of Iron Works in New England, to raise the necessary capital from Puritan sympathizers, and to recruit skilled iron workers. The company was granted a monopoly.
After trying, but failing, to establish a works at Braintree, Winthrop was replaced by Richard Leader, who decided that the Saugus River was the ideal spot for his enterprise. At the navigable head of the river, there was a steep enough fall to provide water power. There was ample iron ore in the surrounding bogs, and seemingly limitless timber for fuel.
After its bankruptcy in 1668, the Hammersmith Ironworks fell into decay and all but disappeared. In 1943 local citizens formed an association to recover and restore it. Archeological excavation began in 1948, and by 1954 the site had been restored, the main buildings had been replicated, and the site, now called the Saugus Iron Works, was opened to the public. The collector seated me in a comfortable overstuffed chair before showing me his collection. “You’ve got to have the background,” he said. “You can’t understand iron without it.” He turned his eyes to the ceiling to focus his thoughts. I was taking notes so rapidly that I could do no more than glance at the bits of his collection that surrounded me – a fireplace thickly hung with iron, a hutch table packed with hollowware, a corner cupboard with brass and bronze. There was iron all over the house, in the garage, the basement, just everywhere.

Miniature posnets, probably toys. All with round sprues, thus probably before the 1760s, when the gate sprue became common. The gate sprue was a straight line that was easier to break off than the traditional round sprue. One of them shows the girl’s initials formed by pressing nails into the casting sand.

 Toaster with 11 hearts used for bread or cheese, probably Connecticut, second half of the 18th century. Toasting was a way of preserving bread or cheese to make it last longer. “Did you know that these early iron works were called ‘plantations’?” he asked. “You see, they were like the tobacco plantations in Virginia because they were living-working complexes for as many as 400 people. As well as the iron works, there were cottages for the workers and their families, a plot of land for each family, farm animals and chickens, a church, a one-room schoolhouse (sometimes doubling as the church). blacksmith’s and carpenter’s shops, a pottery, a grist mill, a company store where workers and their families could buy on credit against their future wages (an effective way of binding them to the plantation) and, of course, the iron master’s house overlooking and overseeing the whole complex. It was like a benevolent feudal barony. They liked to keep the iron workers separate from the locals, so an iron works was as far as possible a self-sufficient, self-contained community. A company town, we’d call it today.
“Relationships between the company town and neighboring town weren’t always the best. The iron workers were a hard-working, hard-living bunch of men. Their lives were made up of three things,” he told me. “Working their 12-hour shifts, six-and-a-half days a week; hunting and fishing – their wives and children tended their plots of land – and visiting the town taverns for frolic and jollification of every kind.” His words were tactful, but the collector’s eyes left me in no doubt that what went on under that word “jollification” was much less pretty than the word itself. Disputes, sometimes violent, often sexual, were inevitable.
“Iron workers were a different breed of people and that could cause resentment,” he explained. “To start with, they weren’t Puritans. The skilled workers had been recruited in England and certainly hadn’t come over here for religious reasons. Some 60 of them were Scottish prisoners of war, captured by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar and sent over against their will. They didn’t like the somber clothes of the Puritans, and ignored the sumptuary laws that dictated the proper mode of dress in the Colony. They didn’t like going to church, and got away with it because the furnaces had to be kept “in blast” 24/7, so the General Council of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to allow them to operate on the Sabbath.”
Other causes of friction were more substantial. There was competition for fuel. The plantation’s colliers needed huge quantities of wood for the charcoal to fire the furnaces, and the surrounding forests were rapidly denuded of trees. More than 230 acres of hard-won farmland had been flooded by the dam built across the Saugus River to control the flow of water to the plantation’s water wheels. After heavy rain, this could cause more flooding in local fields and thus cause the farmers to lose their crops. Then there was the constant, deafening noise of the trip hammer, the clatter of the bellows and the roar of the furnace. Most of the Puritans had come from agricultural communities, and industrial life was completely alien to them. An iron works was not the best sort of neighbor, particularly if you wanted a contemplative religious life.
Cast iron figural andirons, late 17th/early18th century. The figure wears a “pilgrimish” sort of cap.

Two spiral broilers. The collector has only seen three of this form, and owns them all.

 Food choppers. The exceptional chopper on the left is for cabbage, the circular one is for vegetables in general. Both are from the mid-18th century. The other two are early 19th century, from Vermont.

The early iron ore came from bogs. Using long-handled clam shovels from small boats, workers would dredge these bogs sometimes as deep as 15 feet to obtain the iron-rich mud. Incidentally, the collector told me, most of today’s cranberry bogs in New England and New Jersey were once iron bogs. “Bog iron” was used until the mid-eighteenth century when it was exhausted in New England, and was replaced by ore from mines. The first commercially successful iron mine was dug in Salisbury, Connecticut, in 1731.
The dredged mud, which was 35 to 50 percent iron, was dried by roasting to leave lumps of bog ore. It was critical that all water was expelled, because steam could explode in the furnace, causing immense damage. The lumps of bog ore were then crushed in the stamping mill, along with flux, which was basically a calcium carbonate that helped the production of slag. Slag, the non-ferrous part of the ore, melted first (at about 1300 degrees Celsius) and could be drawn off to leave the pure iron ore. This melted at 1500 degrees, and dripped into a crucible, a sandstone pot about four feet wide and two feet high. The furnace had to be kept “in blast” 24 hours a day, if it cooled, or went “out of blast,” the iron and the slag solidified into a useless “salamander.” This clogged the furnace, and removing it could be difficult. In the worst cases, part of the furnace had to be dismantled and rebuilt.
Once every eight hours or so, the crucible was tapped to allow the molten iron to flow down troughs scraped in the sand floor of the furnace shed. Some of the iron was allowed to cool in cylindrical molds with small channels on either side. The smaller molds, of about 40 pounds, were called “pigs,” and the larger ones, up to 300 pounds, “sows.” From above, the cylinders of cooled iron looked like sows suckling their piglets, hence the names. “Pig iron” cast in this manner was very hard and brittle.
Some of the molten iron was directed to molds shaped in the sand floor to “puddle cast” objects such as firebacks and the uprights of andirons. Other molten iron was carried in ladles to the “flasks,” the two-part wooden or clay molds used for making hollowware in the adjoining casting shed.

Much of this cast iron, however, went through more processing to turn it into wrought iron. First it went to the forge, or “finery,” where it was heated again to get rid of any carbon from the charcoal. It was heated enough to turn it spongy rather than molten, and in this state was called a “loop.” The hot loop was put on an iron plate and hammered with sledge-hammers to expel impurities. It next moved to the trip hammer, or “helve,” a huge, 500-pound, water-powered hammer that pounded it into a square block known as a “bloom” that was, in turn, worked and shaped into an “ancony” that resembled a large dumbbell with square ends. The ancony went to the “chafery” where it was again heated and pounded into wrought iron bars, roughly four feet long, three or four inches wide and an inch or two thick. Wrought iron is softer and more malleable than cast iron, and has a fibrous structure, often clearly visible, that enables it to be bent in a way that cast iron cannot. These wrought iron bars, known as “merchant bars,” were sold all over New England. Blacksmiths used the merchant bars to meet the local demand for everyday items such as broilers and toasters, horse shoes, farming tools, mending iron, or hinges and door latches. These utilitarian objects showed little stylistic variation, so it is often impossible to date them with any precision or to tell which part of New England they came from.

Four flesh forks used for broiling meat. Toasting forks (for bread) are of much lighter gauge iron. The lower two are from the first half of the 18th century, the upper two from the second.
Spatulas and a fork. The upper spatula is initialed “WS” and is dated on the handle “1704” making it one of the earliest known; the lower is dated 1791. The fork is mid-18th century.
About ten percent of the bar iron went to the rolling and slitting mill, one of only 12 in the world. Rollers flattened the iron into plates that could be cut with shears and sold as sheet iron for the manufacture of dishes, tools and utensils. Slitters were disk cutters that cut the plates into strips. One important product of the slitter was nail rod that went to “naileries” for the production of the cut nails that replaced hand-forged rose-head nails late in the eighteenth century. Even before mass-produced cut nails displaced the rose-head, nail rod gave the makers of rose-head nails, often farmers keeping themselves busy in winter, a better product to start with. Nails were not made at Hammersmith: labor costs in England were much lower, so it was more economical to ship the nail rod to England and then bring the nails back to Massachusetts!
By the time I got up from the chair to view the collection, I’d become fully aware that something as basic as iron was the product of a technologically advanced and capital-intensive industrial process. It consumed huge amounts of raw material; bog iron in New England lasted for only about 100 years. Mines solved the problem for a time, but during the eighteenth century, they had to be supplemented by ore imported from Sweden, Scotland, Russia, Spain and elsewhere.
The process also required good water power. The original ironworks needed nine or ten water wheels (Saugus today needs seven) to power all the heavy machinery. There was, of course, a serious drawback to water power in New England: the streams froze in winter, causing the works to shut down for the winter months.
Iron making required a large and varied labor force. At its peak, Saugus employed more than 170 men. The cocks of the roost were the 35 to 50 highly skilled workers who operated the furnaces, foundries and forges. Supporting them were wood cutters, colliers, teamsters and boatmen, carpenters, molders (who made the two-piece molds for hollowware), and laborers. Lower in the hierarchy were the women. With the help of the children, they kept house, tended the animals and grew the vegetables, and sometimes worked at the least skilled jobs in the iron works – smoothing and cleaning rough castings and so on. Perhaps Hammersmith was too big for its own good; its debts piled up and its investors did not get the returns they’d hoped for. But there was a silver lining to its closure; its skilled workers spread across New England and into New Jersey taking their skills with them, thus establishing the iron industry that was to become one of the powerhouses of American wealth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Saugus Iron Works is open every day except major holidays. Entrance is free. For more details call (781) 233-0050, or visit Our thanks to Curtis White, Chief Interpreter at the site.

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