Blacksmiths as Community Builders: Then and Now
From the moment blacksmiths divined a method of forging iron to make stronger weapons and tools, the chosen few who could wield this skill became critical members of the community. Everyone from farmers to carpenters to soldiers relied on their village blacksmith for the tools they needed for daily life. When the industrial revolution came along, tools, hardware, and other staples of the blacksmithing craft could be built en masse in factories. Eventually, the need for the village blacksmith largely disappeared. As the trade faded, so did the importance of the local blacksmiths who were forced to abandon it.
Thankfully, blacksmithing is seeing a resurgence. But what about the role blacksmiths once played as community builders -- both through their physical products and the resilience that comes from local production? We at Wicks Forge have been thinking a lot about how we can have a positive impact on both our environment and our community-- similarly to those who founded this trade.
Keep reading to learn about the history of blacksmiths, the impact they had, and how Wicks Forge is trying to continue that legacy through our work.
Then - A Brief History of Blacksmithing
The art of Blacksmithing can be dated all the way back to 1500 B.C., when it was discovered that iron tools and weaponry offered a level of strength and durability that had never existed before.
The discovery and mastery of metalworking was an essential turning point in human history, but it wasn’t until the Medieval era that blacksmiths became knowledgeable in the scientific properties of iron. Previous ancient blacksmiths lacked this understanding, which resulted in weapons that were often brittle, soft, and easily broken.
The level of knowledge and technique involved in medieval blacksmithing meant that these tradesmen were essential to daily life. Their shops would be located in an important and central part of the village, where they could be accessible for everything from weapons, to nails, furniture, locks, horseshoes, and armor. They were also responsible for repairs of these items, since iron for new products wasn’t easy or cheap to purchase. As an example, it wasn’t uncommon for old homes to be burnt down, simply to recover the nails within!
Blacksmiths were relied on to produce and maintain the tools needed to survive. Because of their skills and intellect, blacksmiths were usually highly regarded within their local villages. They often held roles of leadership within their community and were looked to for their knowledge and wisdom.
Note: Some villages accused blacksmiths of witchcraft because there was a lack of understanding of their work. Admittedly, forging tools out of metal and fire can sometimes seem like magic. These blacksmiths weren’t so well liked, but for the sake of this piece and the message we want to communicate, we’re going to look past this.
The importance of blacksmiths faded out with the industrial revolution, when mass production and machinery took over. Things that were made exclusively by blacksmiths in the past, were suddenly cheaper and faster to make with assembly lines and automation.
The trade became almost entirely obsolete over the course of the 20th century, remaining only essential for farrier work (horseshoe making) since each horse has specific design and sizing needs. Existing blacksmiths were forced to change careers and their roles in the community disappeared along with the craft.
This downward trend slowly began to reverse in the 1970s, and a further resurgence in the craft is happening today. This time around, blacksmiths aren’t seen as essential to human survival-- instead they’ve been recognized for their skills as artists and praised for the level of detail and personal touches that they include in their work.
Now - A Modern Take On Blacksmithing and Its Role in Community
Many of today's blacksmiths combine traditional and modern tools and techniques to create intricate iron gates, railings, and other beautiful and functional items. The beauty of metal work--compounded with the durability of these pieces--mean that they make beautiful additions to any home and can be passed along through generations.
Blacksmiths are no longer essential to our survival.. But what role, if any, do they have to play in strengthening our communities and enhancing connections in our daily lives? What value do functional handmade goods still offer when more expedient, often cheaper wares abound? Questions of what community really means and how to maintain connections in an increasingly disconnected and globalized world became front and center this last year. Having been locked away for the better part of a year during the pandemic, separated from our friends and family, we were all forced to rethink our understandings of togetherness and community.
At Wicks Forge, we can appreciate the resurgence of old school crafts (it’s what we do). But what we’ve witnessed firsthand is the value folks derive from our products goes beyond the pieces themselves, as these items come to represent something special and unique for each family-- fostering important connections along the way.
We all have experience (some would say way too much experience) using Zoom to stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues during lockdowns. But, many also turned to old school letter writing. Letter openers became our biggest seller of last year by far. This simple item was often gifted between family members or friends who were unable to see each other because of the Pandemic. It became a way to show support, stay connected, and let someone you cared about know that while we were forced to stay physically apart, we were still connected.
Every time someone purchased a letter opener, we saw first hand how people were using old school snail mail to keep in touch with the loved ones they weren’t able to see. We received messages and reviews from customers explaining to us that the letter openers helped them feel connected to the past and to their families across borders.
We know blacksmiths don’t shape and lead communities anymore, but it’s nice to see what our work can do to help people feel connected and bring them together--especially when they can’t physically be together.
With the hope of an ending pandemic and the possibility of gathering once again, we at Wicks Forge have been thinking a lot about how we can continue to foster togetherness in families, friendships, and communities.
We’re excited about summer cookouts, weddings, and Thanksgiving dinners-- having everyone gathered in the backyard around a fire or sharing a meal at the table. We love the idea of creating artful and practical products to be used in these moments, especially ones that can be passed down along generations.
We’ve created BBQ tools for flipping burgers on the 4th of July, a Camping Cooking Pan for the annual family camping trip, Fire Pokers to help with warm winter nights around the fireplace, and our newest creation, a Copper and Steel Pie Server, perfect for grandma's homemade pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.
The Wicks Forge story is one of family and tradition-- and now we’re handing that off to you. We hope our products can help bring you and your loved ones together, whether it be through warm decor in your home, kitchenware used to serve food made with love, or anything else our hand forged work ignites.
Let us know in the comments below how you stayed connected with the ones you love the past year or how you’re reconnecting with them now. We would love to hear what you think togetherness means, especially if Wicks Forge plays a part in it.