Costs of Labor

© Bob Heath

published in ANVIL Magazine, January 1998


It is interesting to look at some aspects of the cost of labor 250 years ago here in America. At that time, there were very few white men on the North American continent. If a Chickasaw Indian warrior (living in what is now the northern part of the state of Mississippi) wanted a gun to hunt with, he had to trade for it. The going price for a flintlock trade gun was between 16 and 20 deer hides that the Indian would have to bring in to one of the few trading posts that dotted the frontier trails at very infrequent intervals. The trading posts were at the ends of long supply lines extending back up through the wilderness of what is now Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and western South Carolina. Trade guns were made in Europe - in this case, in England - and shipped to ports on the Eastern seaboard of the Atlantic in the holds of sailing ships. At a port such as Charleston, South Carolina, a merchant would buy some of the firearms and load them on a string of pack animals with other trade items. He and his partners would pack the trade goods over the trails to the most remote trading posts where the local frontier trader bought them to trade for deer hides and furs. The hides were packed and delivered to Charleston for shipment to the leather dealers in England. At each stage of this economic chain, value was exchanged. The Indian brought in his 20 hides and got his gun. The frontier trader got his cut of the hides, the merchant in Charleston got a share, and the sailor who brought the guns across the Atlantic got his cut. By the time the English company which made the guns got its share, the tanned deer hides were down to only four hides per gun. The poor old blacksmith who forged the barrels and made the gun locks got something even less. That seems like an awful lot of work at a forge for only the value of a couple of deer hides, or maybe even less.

The work ethic in Europe at this time was extremely tough, running to 14 to 16-hour days, six days a week. This was a time in England when early industrialization was starting and the owners had a tremendous advantage over their laborers. They worked long hours for starvation wages in some shops - remember Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchett in the story of A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens in 1843?

We can get a better grip of the situation by thinking of how much labor a blacksmith has to put in today to forge a single gun barrel. It can be done in a shop by one man in about six hours. If two helpers with sledge hammers are added, that time can be cut in half or even less, if special tools such as grooved anvils and barrel swedges are used.

If we translate our experience today back 200 years in time, we can imagine a working shop of highly skilled blacksmiths in, for example Birmingham, England. A three-man team of blacksmiths working 10 to 12 hours a day could probably forge six gun barrels for use on the American frontier. That would not include the gun lock or stocking. It is evident from the little we know about the history of crafts that Europeans were receiving very little for their labor during the time blacksmithing was in its heyday. Generally, it took a young man who entered a trade at approximately age 14 as an apprentice about seven years to get to the Journeyman level in Europe. By his twenty-first birthday, an English Journeyman blacksmith could go into his own shop if he had the money. At age 21, he should have gained a working knowledge of his craft.

What about America, though? America was the land of opportunity, just as it still is today for those who have the grit to try diligently. There were very few skilled craftsmen in America then, and their pay was very high compared to European wages. There was always the lure and unlimited opportunity offered by the frontier if a young man had the intestinal fortitude to face the dangerous "way out yonder" among the savages and backwoodsmen. Only a very slight knowledge of iron working at a post beyond the Alleghenies or west of Georgia made a man a local expert in his craft. Instead of spending seven to ten years as an apprentice in his craft, a young man could learn enough of his trade in two years to be very useful on the frontier. Instead of working for 20 years to become a recognized master blacksmith (as was the case in Europe) an American blacksmith could become a recognized master in half that time, depending on the type of work that came through his shop door. The judges of a European blacksmith were his peers or other blacksmiths who were considered master craftsmen. The judges of the American blacksmiths were his customers. They were most interested in his work, if his welds held up under wagon loads, and if he could repair an axe or a plow. In Europe, blacksmiths were improving and enhancing countries that were already established. In America, blacksmiths were helping to forge a new country as well as their iron. American craft was basic, extremely to the point, and almost had to be practical. There was so much work to be done that there was not as much time for frills, although Americans could produce things that are very aesthetically satisfying to view. American wages for skilled craftsmen were high back then, and have remained so to this day.

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