History of Ironwork
Blacksmithing as Art
For a period of time, it was thought that the art of Blacksmithing would become a lost art. Even today the skill and knowledge needed to work hot iron is only understood by a few. The topic of blacksmithing is not something that comes up in everyday normal conversation. The rural community better remembers the days when a blacksmith’s talents were a necessity of life. The tools and mechanisms of all the other craftsmen were dependent upon the blacksmith’s abilities. For this reason the Blacksmith was considered the village’s master craftsman. We can thank the age of the Industrial Revolution for the elimination of a blacksmith’s shop in every village.
Before the Industrial Revolution the Blacksmith was the cornerstone of our civilization. Society was utterly dependent on iron for tools, machines, hardware and weapons. The Blacksmith played an historical importance in the development of our civilization as we know it today. Smithing was essential during our pre-electronic age. The development of mass production replaced the traditional blacksmith’s most important function. Gone was the dependence on him to supply the tools needed for civilization and war.
History is littered with many famous persons who are descendants of ironworkers. Sir Winston Churchill has blacksmith descendants in both American and British sides of his family. Richard Sears, founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company was a son of a Blacksmith who had the first surgical scalpel in the Mayo Clinic of his hometown of Rochester, Minnesota. President Dwight D Eisenhower was another descendant of ironworkers. The Eisenhower name means “ironhewer”. His great-great grandfather could be found pounding iron in the forge. Thomas Jefferson had a nail manufacture at Monticello to help with the building of a new country.
Even prior to these great men who built America we had men of honor working at the forge. Richard the Lionhearted, a great warrior, worked in his armorer’s smithy learning and advising. Maximilian the Great was responsible for many artistic and effective armor of his time period. Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, personally worked on guns used by his armies and Louis XVI had his own personal blacksmith shop at Versailles.
To most people, a blacksmith is characterized by his sheer brute strength. They miss the mark when they don’t recognize his mental abilities. The blacksmith’s brain, imagination and visualization are more important than his brawn. In the beginning of civilization, the Blacksmith was among the ancients who worked with all four elements: Fire, Air, Earth and Water. Unlike other hand-craftsman who worked with materials such as wood, bone, horn, stone and copper before the discovery of iron, the Blacksmith applied his vision and imagination to his hand-craftsmanship. He learned to provide intense heat to his material. He developed techniques needed to work the iron into valuable objects for the general population. The Blacksmith invented tools needed to bend the hard steel to his will. These are the reasons that the ancient greeks granted divinity to the Blacksmith.
The 20th century has produced more great smiths worth mentioning. One particular individual was an illiterate teenager from Poland who rose to be the most valuable citizen in his adopted city of Philadelphia. The late Samuel Yellin was a genius as an artist in iron. The present day smiths weld the old and new equipment to create great artworks.
Currently the number of persons involved in blacksmithing as a profession or as a hobby in this country only numbers in the thousands. Millions of people have not been exposed to the art of Blacksmithing. The basic knowlege gained at today’s art universities generally serves only to stimulate more questions and a lifelong pursuit of the art. Quite often, blacksmithing is found to be a self-taught artistic artform.
In 1973, the American Blacksmith Artists of North America was founded. It’s remarkable growth and active support proves blacksmithing has a long life ahead. Young people are keeping blacksmithing alive. Today’s young art students are being taught techniques that are based on experience in forging items and they in turn are applying the principles to making an entirely different item.
The art of blacksmithing is not dead or dying. In fact it is having a surge of interest from young generations to make a living by shaping iron with forge and anvil, hammer and tongs. Many of these new smiths are staying traditional and crafting functional items. These new smiths are a reflection of an older generation, but several young smiths are using their talents to create beautiful pieces for a newer contemporary art form.