Colonial tin shop unearthed at Williamsburg

The discovery of a Revolutionary War-era tinsmith shop in Williamsburg, Va., has been confirmed by archaeologists reconstructing a site in the historic Virginia locale.

The find at the James Anderson Armoury project has led Forrest Mars Jr. to provide an additional $500,000 for reconstruction and endowment of the tinsmith operation.

When complete, the Tin Shop will be the only working 18th-century tinsmith operation in the US, according to the Virginia Gazette. Historic trades artisans will demonstrate tinsmithing as practiced during the American Revolution once the site is restored.

“The work will complete the most important Revolutionary-era military site in Williamsburg, offering guests an entirely different perspective on the role of the capital during a critical moment in the history of the Commonwealth and the nation,” said James Horn, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president for research and historical interpretation.

The tin produced at the site was actually tinplate, a thin sheet of iron coated with tin, according to the Colonial Williamsburg website.

Iron was used because pure tin is too soft for use in the manufacture of utensils and other goods. Iron, on the other hand, while much stronger, oxidizes readily and deteriorates rapidly when produced in thin sheets. 

“Applying tin to the surface of thin-sheet iron protects the iron from exposure to oxygen, preventing oxidation while creating a shiny surface,” according to the Williamsburg website. “Tinned iron is strong, light, corrosion resistant and easy to clean. Flat sheets of tin can be formed into three-dimensional shapes by cutting, seaming, bending and soldering.”

 Tin plate was produced in standard-sized sheets, most often 10 inches by 13-3/4 inches, and was normally shipped in wood boxes containing 225 sheets per box. Product forms were developed to make most efficient use of material, allowing the workmen to cut out components while minimizing waste. 

By the 18th century, English plating mills had developed the process of rolling wrought iron into sheets thin enough to be tin coated and worked cold into three-dimensional shapes. The English trade centered in regions which had a well-established iron industry, sufficient deposits of tin and adequate transportation networks, according to the website.

Until tinwork was introduced at the Armoury it’s unclear if any other tinsmiths were working in Williamsburg.

Having a tinsmith operation in Williamsburg at the time of the American Revolution would have been crucial to the colonists’ efforts to break away from Great Britain.

Tin’s properties make it an ideal material for a number of military uses, with it being relatively strong, light in weight and relatively cheap.

Forrest Mars Jr. is director emeritus of Mars Inc., and former chief executive officer of the company. Mars provided a gift of $4.5 million for the James Anderson Blacksmith and Armoury reconstruction project currently underway, and funded the $5 million reconstruction of R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse completed in 2009.

He was elected to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 2010.

Reconstruction of the Tin Shop will follow completion of two other key buildings in the industrial complex, the Armoury and the Kitchen, which will open to the public in the spring of 2012. The Tin Shop is scheduled to open the following year.

(HT: A Blog About History)


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