History; 1800-1860


Appalachian Blacksmiths Association




the deere plow

The Deere plow


A key date in this period is 1838. John Deere (yes, the green tractor John Deere) invented a superior plow made from steel. His design turned the soil better than existing plows. But what made this event significant was the use of steel.


 Deere's plows also had replaceable cutting edges and wear strips. Unlike the hand-forged iron plow which was one piece and wore quickly along its edges, this steel plow lasted longer and the wearing parts could be cheaply replaced. By 1853, Deere & Co. was selling thousands of new steel plows, a significant milestone of technological change--steel vs. iron and manufactured vs. hand-forged. The American steel industry was underdeveloped in 1840 and produced a poor quality product. Deere relied on imported steel from England to make his plow successful. 

In 1839, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the famous poem, The Village Blacksmith. We can assume, then, given the poem's success, that the blacksmith was a revered craftsman. This period may have been the zenith in American blacksmithing. Even today, our thoughts about a blacksmith revolve around this poet's description. But this poem was a fading dream. Even the chestnut tree that Longfellow wrote of later died and the people of the town had a chair made from the wood as a gift to the poet before his death in 1882.

During this era, steam power would change the nation.[3] The first steamboats and packets vastly improved shipping, both on rivers and on the sea. Steam power would begin to replace water power in grist mills and textile plants. No longer would the miller rely on seasonal rains to grind corn meal or flour. And of course, the steam-powered locomotive changed transportation in ways never imagined. By 1860, the South had its Merrimac and the North had its Monitor. And both had railroad networks.

The blacksmith shop was starting to change as well. The bellows was replaced with a rotary fan blower and the drill press became available for small blacksmith shops. In larger shops and some of the fledgling factories, one might find a steam-powered trip hammer.

Americans were also moving westward. Being west of the Alleghenies in 1790 meant you were still on the frontier. But as John Deere invented his plow in Illinois, that alone shows how quickly the westward movement was taking place.

For a perspective of this period, consider Salem, WV. Originally settled in 1792 by Seventh Day Baptist families who migrated south from Rhode Island, Salem was itself an island in the wilderness. The first buildings were a blockhouse and fort to protect the settlers from Indian raids.[4] From that beginning, log houses were built and the settlers developed farms. The town grew and it did prosper as a farming community. Six decades after its founding, Salem would find itself not on the frontier but in mid-America--a rail stop on the Baltimore & Ohio's mainline. And on the town's 100th anniversary, Salem was home to Salem College and sat surrounded by oil and gas wells. 


The sailing ship, the docks, and the factories that sprung up around them were dependent on blacksmiths.  The blacksmith made the spikes that nailed the planks, the ship's rigging hardware, tools, wagon wheels, chains, and the great hinges of the ship's rudder.

But the greatest contribution of the blacksmith may have been the precisely-hammered compass needle.  Without that, Columbus may never have made landfall.


Education  |  Pre 1492  |  1492-1700  |  1700-1800  |  1800-1860  |  1860-1910  |  1910-1970  |  1970- 

David G. Allen for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association 2008


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