Tinware of the 18th and 19th Centuries

Robert Wood



Early tinplate was made by rolling slabs of charcoal iron into thin sheets and dipping them into molten tin. The advantage of tin ware was that the tin coat prevented air and moisture from contacting the iron and so prevented rust. Invented in Europe in the 17th century and developed in Germany, this rolled iron tinplate was considerably heavier than what we are used to today. By 1730 tinplate was being manufactured in England, but Parliament passed laws prohibiting its manufacture in the colonies. Since it was a luxury import, there was very little tinware sold in the region during the 18th century. The local German Hausfrau made do with the heavy iron and clay vessels that she was used to.

In the 18th century, English factories began developing  tinware with bright colors applied by artisans with oil paint in  “one stroke” and lacquered to a high gloss. Tole-ware, as it came to be known, was mass produced with each artist applying just one bit of the design. Typical designs were fruits such as peaches, cherries, and apples with brilliant flowers being a perennial favorite. Since each artist applied just his few strokes thousands of times over he naturally became highly accomplished producing designs that were graceful, artistically asymmetrical, and highly crafted. Some Tole-ware was imported to Philadelphia during the 18th century and a trickle may have made its way “upcountry,” but there is slight evidence of that.

After the war, a small quantity of tinplate began to be manufactured in the Pennsylvania Dutch area. Whitesmiths, as 19th century tinsmiths came to be known, began developing their own style which contrasted markedly with the gaily painted, English Tole-ware. Coffee pots seemed to be much in demand, and, eschewing paint, the Pennsylvania Dutch tinsmith decorated his coffee pots with, as one source says, “an unswerving peasant attack on his motif.” Favoring punched decorations, the domestic whitesmith made utensils that could endure hard use on hearth and stove.

Punched designs were not punched through the metal but the design was  produced by lines of tiny dents resembling pin pricks made with a bluntly pointed punch. After the design was executed on a section sometimes a thin film of solder was spread over the whole segment’s  interior before the pieces were soldered together into the whole article.

Pennsylvania Dutch punched tinware designs were almost always traditional: Peacocks, distelfinks, stars, tulips and the urns from which they grow, and universally, the eagle.

The 19th century tinsmiths appealed to their country clientele, in the main, with simple utilitarian tinwares such as wall sconces, lanterns, and  in the kitchen, colanders. Lanterns deserve a special mention since they were perhaps the most important or common article made by the tinsmith. Constructed from a single cylinder of perforated tin with a conical top, the lantern needed many perforations in the tin to let out the feeble light from a single candle.  Here again the tinsmiths showed the preference for traditional motifs by arranging the perforations into hearts, stars, circles, and whirls.

Another common article found in seemingly every farm house was the pie safe or pie cupboard. This joint production of the carpenter and tinsmith provided a ventilated closet for the weekly production of pies. The perforated tin insets in the doors allowed an air flow which retarded mold yet kept out insects and mice. The tin panels were often ornamented with perforations of different sizes and shapes. The tinsmith blended oval punctures of various sizes with round ones. Pie safes with original tins are among the tinsmiths’ most prized collectables today.

Despite what one finds in seemingly every gift shop today, local painted Pennsylvania Dutch tinware is rather rare. Examples tend to be painted in a rather foursquare manner with designs being traditional and symmetrical. There was about this time a good bit of New England tinware, trays and such painted in floral designs, brought to the area by Yankee peddlers.

Of course, one can’t leave the topic of tin without mention of cookie cutters. Early cookie cutters tended to be very large producing cookies the size of saucers or larger. In time the variety of designs and sizes was seemingly limitless. First a wooden cookie-shaped form was carved and the flexible tin strip formed around the wooden mold and soldered in place. Every farm kitchen had a half dozen or more tin cookie cutters employed by the farm wife to bake  an enormous quantity of cookies, Christmas being the heyday for such work.

As the industrial revolution progressed, of course, machines stamped out a veritable tsunami of cheap tin products, precursors to the ubiquitous plastic of today.


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