I’ve heard the question posed “Why are cobblers, who shoe humans, comical figures in history while blacksmiths, who shoe horses, are heroic figures?” There’s a very simple answer to that.
Blacksmiths. Don’t. Shoe. Horses!
There, I’ve said it and it feels good to say it too.
Blacksmiths are heroic figures because they made the tools, weapons and machinery that made our civilisations possible for thousands of years. Without us the world would not have the tools to build and farm in the way we have, other crafts wouldn’t have tools and so on. Because of this blacksmithing was always known as “The King of Crafts” and the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in London has as its motto “By the hammer and the hand, all arts do stand”.
So why the confusion? Why is blacksmithing so deeply linked with shoeing horses in the minds of the general public when we don’t shoe horses?
Firstly, we must establish that people who shoe horses are farriers and they rightly have a very proud tradition as a craft in their own right. But a farrier’s skill is in his knowledge of horse’s feet and their care, not in their knowledge of steel and iron and its manipulation which is the blacksmith’s skill base.
Before roughly 1850 the two crafts were completely separate in the minds of most people. Farriers worked much like they do today, in that they mostly were not fixed in a workshop. They went to the horse rather than the horse coming to them. The only difference back then was that farriers had a round that took them about four weeks to complete. Four weeks is roughly how often a working horse needs to be shod. So, the pre-industrial revolution farrier went from one district to another, set up the forge in a local farmer’s barn, shod the horses in that area and then moved on to the next. In the winter when most farm horses had less work to do they were left un-shod so the farrier used this time to make shoes for the coming season and to repair and make his tools.
The blacksmith in contrast worked, as is the case today mostly although not exclusively, in a fixed workshop or forge in rural areas. Their work consisted of mostly tool work: shovels, hoes, hammers, chisels, ploughs and so on. More than likely the forge also supplied all the nails and bolts for the area, a job mostly carried out by the apprentice. Also, some smiths were lucky to have the patronage of the nobility or clergy which allowed them to specialise in decorative work.
The fact is both crafts, Blacksmith and Farrier, were far too busy to be the Jack of all trades as portrayed for the past hundred or so years.
Where the crafts seem to be confused with one another is once the industrial revolution started to push out into the countryside. As the railway rolled out it had two major effects for both crafts. Firstly, there was less work for horses and as a result a reduced need for horses, meaning less work for the farrier. At the same time mass-produced tools and hardware could be easily and cheaply supplied to the public which had a huge effect on the blacksmith’s income. Within a very short space of time both crafts found themselves in decline, as did most crafts at this time. It was not long before farriers and blacksmiths started sharing premises in a bid to economise. Further, they found sharing the costs of an apprentice helped them both. And so, in less than a generation skills in both crafts in rural areas declined; they could only afford to teach the apprentice whatever work came in the door, there being no colleges at this stage.
The final blow came with mass media which naturally portrays what it sees and by this time it saw a solitary person mostly shoeing horses or making the odd hinge and repairing a plough or two. This can be best illustrated by a quick online search for images of the forge. There is almost a complete divide at around 1850: pre-1850 paintings and illustrations of the forge depict three or four people forging tools or weapons, while in the post-1850s era it has become a solitary man making horse shoes.
The Forge Francisco de Goya y Lucientes c.1815-1820
The Forge Joseph Crawhall – circa 1885
The situation continued like this until the 1950s when the two crafts began to separate out again. At this time the larger middle classes kept more horses which meant more work for farriers and with the invention of the automobile it meant they could now go directly to the customer again which enabled them to see more customers in a day, thus making it more profitable. The blacksmith, while not seeing a revival in the need for tools, did however see a renewed interest in decorative hand-forged architectural work, thanks to some of the early twenty first century’s leading designers and architects with their innovative uses of forge work. These people such as Victor Horta, Gaudi and Charles Macintosh helped renew interest in the blacksmith’s skills as an art form and from the 1950s onwards a new generation began to experiment with the forge.
And so, we come to the present day, blacksmiths create craft items for the home, art galleries, public sculptures, monumental architectural iron work and, in some specialized areas, tools and machinery still. If you take the time to look around you, you’ll find a blacksmith in your area. We’re everywhere! And I can almost guarantee that any smith you find is not shoeing horses!