Colonial Craftsmen

Colonial Craftsmen

And the Beginnings of American Industry

by Edwin Tunis
Trade Paperback, 152 pages
Current Retail Price: $26.00
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The vanished ways of colonial America's skilled craftsmen are vividly reconstructed in this superb book by Edwin Tunis. With incomparable wit and learning, and in over 450 meticulous drawings, the author describes the working methods and products, houses and shops, town and country trades, and individual and group enterprises by which the early Americans forged the economy of the New World.

In the tiny coastal settlements, which usually sprang up around a mill or near a tanyard, the first craftsmen set up their trades. The blacksmith, cooper, joiner, weaver, cordwainer, and housewright, working alone or with several assistants, invented their own tools and devised their own methods. Soon they were making products that far surpassed their early models: the American ax was so popular that English ironmongers often labeled their own axes "American" to sell them more readily. In the town squares a colonist could have his bread baked to order, bring in his wig to be curled, have his eyeglasses ground, his medicine prescription filled, or buy snuff for his many pocket boxes. With the thriving trade in "bespoke" or made-to-order work, fine American styles evolved; many of these are priceless heirlooms now—the silverware of Paul Revere and John Coney, redware and Queensware pottery, Poyntell hand-blocked wallpaper, the Kentucky rifle, Conestoga wagon, and the iron grillework still seen in some parts of the South. The author discusses in detail many of the trades which have since developed into important industries, like papermaking, glassmaking, shipbuilding, printing, and metalworking, often reconstructing from his own careful research the complex equipment used in these enterprises.

The ingenious, liberty-loving artisans left few written records of their work, and only Mr. Tunis, with his painstaking attention to authentic detail and his vast knowledge, could present such a complete treasury of the way things were done before machines obliterated this phase of early American life.

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  Tunis' Colonial Craftsmen
Herb Lapp of Plowville, Pa, 4/17/2014
I am researching and have written six serious published articles on eighteenth-century Germantown Quaker merchant flour miller Thomas Livezey (1723-1790). Presently I am researching in preparation of writing more articles in this series as I focus on the colonial tradesmen who supported Livezey's Mill from 1750 to 1776 using one of his ledger books where he listed the names and tasks of the tradesmen who completed work at the mill complex. To my surprise very few references exist on colonial tradesmen beyond romantic outlines or early school curriculum outlines on the subject. Much has been written in academic dissertations and academic monographs but tradesmen details are only facets of these works. Several years ago I purchased a copy of Edwin Tunis' wonderful book, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginning of American Industries and just looked at it again. After all the academic technical readings I've done to date, how surprised I was to find that it was not only written as a young person's guide copiously illustrated with his wonderfully detailed illustrations but was much more. The text is clear and well written. He never talks down to any young readers. The amazing thing I discovered is how accurate are the details of what he wrote on the early trades. His work is completely accurate with the scholarly writings I have been reading using more than two dozen references I mentioned above. Tunis may not have thought of himself as a good student but his work in this basic book clearly blows away his self-assessment I read in another bio of him. His work rivals the best scholarly work I've read and his illustrations are 100% accurate. Let me be specific on a colonial trade level. I have made more than three dozen Windsor chairs and researched several hundred and published two articles on my findings. In areas related to chair making and milling, wheelwrights, etc, I found that he achieved the highest level of understanding I've found on such a broad level. I recommend his 1965 copyrighted work with absolutely no reservations regarding its historical accuracy and the trade's knowledge his illustrations depict. He never talks down or treats the subject as mere child's play. A child can read and walk away with a wonderful understanding of the content but never feel being treated as a child. He/she can come back years later and re-read it still be able to absorb additional details and understandings as he/she grows and develops. I wish Mr. Tunis were alive today to read this as I would have loved to have met and personally shared these regards with him.