Early American Tinware: Eastern Colonies to American West

What is Tinware?

Early American Tinware: From Eastern Colonies to The American West

Early Tinware Manufacture

Tinware is any item made of prefabricated tinplate. Usually tinware refers to kitchenware made of tinplate, often crafted by tinsmiths. Something that is tinned after being shaped and fabricated is not considered tinware.

Tinware Properties

Tinware is strong, easily shaped, solderable, and non-toxic. It has a pleasing aesthetic appearance which can be further enhanced by lacquering. The corrosion resistance of tinware, especially against food products, accounts for its popularity for use as cookware and eating utensils such as plates and cups. These properties are due to the properties of tinplate, from which tinware is made.

The emerging middle class of the 18th century wanted to enjoy things traditionally reserved for the upper classes. Upper class amenities emulated in tin reflected this new status. The new world was also a rough and tumble place. The durability (and light weight) of tin allowed for shipping over rough roads and great distances. Tinsmiths, like Edmond Pattison, an immigrant Scot, living in Berlin, Connecticut, emerged to meet this demand. He was colonial America’s earliest tinsmith of record, producing what were probably the first hand made tin plated household utensils produced in the American colonies.[1]

Early History of Tinplate

Tinplate originated in Bohemia in the Middle Ages. Sources differ as to when this happened, ranging from the late thirteenth century to the fourteenth century. The technique for how to make tinplate spread to nearby regions of Germany, and by the sixteenth century Germany was the only source of tinplate in Europe. Tinsmiths throughout Europe were dependent on German suppliers of tinplate, and when events such as the Thirty Years War interrupted tinplate production, tinwares became much more expensive. This caused many European nations, including Great Britain, to attempt to start tinplate manufacturing industries.

Early American Tinware: From Eastern Colonies to The American West

Early American Trading Post

Successful creation of a non-German tinplate industry was hampered by both technical difficulties and the cheapness of German tinplate. It was not until innovations like the water-powered rolling mill founded by Major Hanbury in 1728 that a successful English tinplate industry was created.

British tinplate dominance gives way to American; manufacturing replaces handwork of tinsmiths.

Tinplate became a British dominated industry until 1890, with an output exceeding 13 million boxes of plate, of which 70% were exported to the United States. This may help explain why the United States passed the McKinley Tariff bill, which placed a tariff of 2.2 cents per pound on tinplate. After this tariff (to support U.S. made tinplate), and with other causes, the U.S. tinplate industry became the largest in the world. [2]

Until the first decade of the 19th century, virtually all tinware was manufactured by this “hand process” both in Europe and America utilizing stakes, hammers, mandrels, and molds. Raw tinplate and holloware was imported from the mills of Pontypool near Monmouthshire, Wales. This hot-dipped sheet iron was used almost exclusively until the late 1800’s.

By the 1860’s newly developed companies were offering prefabricated and pre-cut parts which the tinsmith could purchase and assemble into whole items in his shop. While enabling the tinner to increase his production capacity dramatically, this process of prefabrication eventually led to the machine manufacturing of complete tinware items by the late 19th century. Displaced from their traditional profession by the new machines, tinsmiths turned their skills to the heating, plumbing and roofing trades of today.

Early American Tinware: From Eastern Colonies to The American West

Early American Trading Post

Tinware – 18th & 19th Century “Plastic”

Strong, lightweight, resistant to corrosive effects of food products. Most kitchenware items that are made of aluminum and plastic in the 20th and 21st century were made of tinware in the 18th and 19th century. Its uses range from ale tasters and coffee pots, to cooking pots, cups, plates and boxes. There is an advertisement for tinware posted by Thomas Passmore on November 30, 1793 in the Federal Gazette (Philadelphia) that is unique because of the alphabetical arrangement of his tinware goods. 19 letters of the alphabet are represented in this list, showcasing the astounding variety of tinware goods. [3] Over one hundred years later, tinware was featured prominently in the 1897 Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalogue, including many pots, pails, pans, and snuff boxes to name a few. [3])

However, like the glass beads that replaced porcupine quills and shell beads, machine woven cloth that replaced leather, and machine made blankets that replaced hand-woven fibers, and even the tinware that replaced clay pots and woven baskets, in the 20th century, less expensive aluminum and plastic have replaced tinware in the kitchen and elsewhere.

  1. Great American Craftsmen Articles, Tinsmithing by William McMillen, Don Carpentier, and Nicholas Coletto. http://www.greatamericancraftsmen.org/articles/tinsmith.htm
  2. Tinware, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinware.
  3. Kauffman, Henry J. Metalworking Trades in Early America: The Blacksmith, Whitesmith, Farrier, Edgetool Maker, Cutler, Locksmith, Gunsmith, Nailer and Tinsmith. Astragal Press, Mendham, New Jersey. 1995. Pp 142-143.
  4. 1897 Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalogue. Introduction by Nick Lyons. Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.

Learn about caring for your tinware

See Crazy Crow Trading Post article: Care and Maintenance Of Tinware

Early American Tinware – Related Products

The following items are used in the above-article, or may provide added reference and helpful information.

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