The Swafford-Kelly Tinsmith Shop, ca. 1850
Tinsmiths, also called “whitesmiths” to distinguish them from “blacksmiths,” arrived with the colonies. The tin plate from which their wares were made was called “poor man’s silver.” In the backcountry, this suited the need for pots, pans, canisters, and light fixtures among other such items. Lightweight, silver-colored, and easily worked to hold its shape after hammering, tin plate is a blend of steel and tin. The steel is pressed thin at a rolling mill and then dipped several times in molten tin. The early tinsmith required only a few tools: mallets, shears, and molds with which to beat and shape metal. Later, he acquired some simple machinery such as rollers, crimpers, edgers, and foot-operated shears.
The Hart Square tinsmith collection is as thorough as any. A Charleston tinsmith came to demonstrate at the festival in the late eighties and let Bob know of a master tinsmith in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was retiring and auctioning his shop. To the delight of both Phil Kelly and Bob, Hart Square houses this nineteenth-century collection intact. Phil wrote to Bob in July of 1990: “All of these tools are in good to very good condition and are fully usable. The two wood-base machines are exceptional and probably the best I’ve seen in thirty years. The small 1” by 16” Pexto slip rolls are a rare and valuable item (size and type). All in all, you have a fine group of tools. When I started collecting tools for my first shop forty years ago, I’d have given my eyeteeth – and probably yours too! – for a lot of tools like this in one place at one time.”