The Virtual Tinsmith Shop

Fig 1. Tenement in 1776 – A fence divides lot 17 from 18.  The building in the background is the Anderson kitchen.  Note the area behind the kitchen is probably fenced-in kitchen-garden.

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


  1. jackie says

    what kind of work is going on at the courthouse? when is the expected completion of the tinsmith project? thankyou

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      Jackie- The Courthouse is receiving a new roof. The project was delayed slightly by all of the rain that we received last week.

      We anticipate that the tinsmith shop will be complete by April of this year, and should be staffed and operational some time this summer. We will announce the operational date once we have staffing in place.

      • Rick Brouse says

        So, the Court house needs scaffolding completely around the whole building for anew roof?? Hmmm…..And what is the schedule for siding the tin shop.

      • Kenneth Schwarz says

        Rick- Scaffolding at the Courthouse allows workmen to remove concrete composite shingles that were applied in the 1930’s, and perform a complete inspection and repair on roofing substructure before applying new concrete composite shingles. Full scaffolding makes the job safer and easier, and also allows easy access to the cupola, which is also receiving new shingles, inspection and paint.

      • Kenneth Schwarz says

        Sorry- as for the tinsmith shop siding, that will begin later this week or early next week, with completion of the building anticipated by mid-April.

  2. Meredith Poole says

    We’ll look forward to seeing you on Memorial Day weekend! Think you’ll be surprized by the progress we’ve made since your last visit. And while I know you’re a loyal webcam watcher, a true sense of these buildings really does require the sounds, the smells, and a healthy dose of interaction with our Historic Trades people! See you in May!

  3. says

    DONE DEAL…..Memorial Day weekend booked! Huzzah! Looking forward to “finally” seeing the finished B-Smith Shop in person. And perhaps the finished Tin Shop by then. See “ya’ll”!

    • Meredith Poole says

      The 1842 fire burned all buildings on the Armoury Block (“Block 10”, to us) with the exception of the Barraud House, located on the southeast corner. It is recorded in a variety of sources, never in enough detail to satisfy (!). Among those sources is a letter from Mrs. Hannah W. Anderson, widow of Leroy Anderson and a sister-in-law of Robert Anderson, who was living in Alabama. In writing to her brother-in-law on April 28, 1842, said: “I was much shocked and concerned to learn by an article in the Phenix that your dwelling house and store had been burned down, together with some other houses … I hope, indeed I feel pretty certain, that the house and property were insured …”

      Family papers include additional mention. The Galt Papers, for example, contain the following note: “1842
      April 4. A Great Fire occured at 2 oclock last night it originated in Mr T. Sands burnt Mr Robert Andersons house Mr. G. Southalls office Nelly Bollin’s beverly Rowzies on the other Miss R Mr R Andersons large Store on the opposite side of the Street, Sally Jeffersons house on the Back Street the old Coffee house occupied by Mr Hurt and another temement.”

      The Land Tax records are another source of information. The land on which the Tinsmith shop will stand dropped in 1843 to a value of $25 in 1843 (and the buildings on it, to $0) with a note that the “Buildings [were]totally destroyed by fire in 1842.”

      • Meredith Poole says

        One of my favorite mental images of “Block 10” (where the Armoury now stands) comes from a manuscript written by John S. Charles called “Recollections of Williamsburg at the time of the Civil War.” In it, he describes the town of his childhood, saying about Block 10 : “There were, when the war began, no more houses on this square fronting on Duke of Gloucester Street; but instead there were immense brick gable-ends of houses that had long since been destroyed by fire. These foundations were often filled with water that afforded the small boys rare sport-boating in the summer and skating in winter.” What a great image… skating and boating at the Armoury!

  4. Dave S says

    It is interesting to read how the use of the site evolved over the years. The current use of the site is evolving as well. What was the latest use of the site, before the tin shop was discovered?

    • Meredith Poole says

      Good morning, Dave,
      You’re right…everything at the Armoury (and adjacent properties)is evolving rather quickly. The Tinsmith shop (known as the Mary Stith Tin Shop) was reconstructed in the 1940s based on archaeologically discovered foundations. That reconstruction served most recently as the blacksmiths’ office/break room. The Anderson property next door (lot 18 on the virtual rendering in this post) is where our Historic Trades Blacksmiths have worked since the mid-1980s. Prior to that, the Anderson property served as a residence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *