While Colonial Williamsburg’s carpenters are still hard at work on the Tinsmith Shop, the modeling team in the Digital History Center has nearly finished its virtual reconstruction. In this blog post, we bring you a preview of the building known in the late eighteenth century as the “Tin shop.”
As blog followers recall, the Tinsmith Shop is part of the growing Public Armoury complex and, once completed, will allow guests to explore the Revolutionary War period activities of tinsmiths.
But the Tinsmith shop was not always a tinsmith shop.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the building was constructed sometime around 1760, long before the Public Armoury was a necessity. It was, in all likelihood, constructed as a small, rather unprepossessing tenement, built right up to the fence-line on the east side of lot 17 (Fig.1). Located on the side of a ravine, the tenement occupied a marginal (and not the most salubrious) location. All evidence points to a low status building of cheap construction, with little by way of expensive treatments. The close-up of the reconstruction (Figs.2 & 3) shows how the tenement may have appeared in 1776, before work began on the Public Armoury. The building is a small one-room single-story tenement with very simple sliding shutter windows, and a basic set of steps leading up to the front door (Fig.2).
Within the next three years the building underwent a significant transformation. As Armoury construction began (in 1778) on neighboring lot 18, the fence separating the two lots was relocated, drawing the tenement into the complex for use as a Tinsmith Shop (Fig.4). The virtual reconstruction reflects that change. Larger windows were added to allow more sunlight (Fig.5). The interior images show how work benches were placed under these expanded windows to maximize usable light (Figs.6 & 7). The fireplace not only kept the workers warm in winter, but was used year-round to heat coals for the braziers used in the manufacturing process. The shop’s tin products: kettles, coffeepots, saucepans, and speaking trumpets, were made from sheet metal which was cut with shears, bent to shape, and the joints sealed with solder melted on a soldering iron which had been heated in a brazier.
Incorporation into the Armoury complex also meant greater security for the Tinsmith Shop. It is thought that the whole Armoury complex was bounded by a “secure perimeter” protecting the valuable arms and materials within, and perhaps serving as a barrier to escape by the prisoners-of-war who worked there. A diagonal fence was constructed, connecting the Tinsmith Shop to another former tenement on lot 17, and contributing to the Armoury complex’s secure core. Archaeological evidence indicates that by 1779 steps on the west side of the Tinsmith shop had been removed, inhibiting access to the front door since this entrance was now outside the secure perimeter. This process of controlling access to the site and buildings may help to explain why the Armoury shop was built between the kitchen and Tinsmith shop, rather than on the more open areas of the site to the south.
Removal of the steps then raises the question: how did the workers get into the Tinsmith shop? With the original door closed, and the chimney located on the building’s south side, two options remain. Either a new door was opened on the north side or an opening was cut on the east side, connecting the Tinsmith Shop directly to the Armoury building. Both hypotheses have their merits, their drawbacks, and their supporters, and unfortunately no definitive archaeological evidence has survived for either possibility. We have elected, therefore, to physically reconstruct the Tinsmith shop with a door on the north end–the configuration that allows our guests the easiest access from Duke of Gloucester Street, and our historic trades people the best traffic flow through the shop. In the virtual model, however, we will show the alternative interpretation, with access through the Armoury. That’s the beauty of the virtual world: we can visualize multiple hypotheses and the evidence supporting them! (click on images below to enlarge).
Contributed by Peter Inker, Digital History Center