The Fall And Rise Of The Modern Blacksmith

One of humanity’s most important crafts is blacksmithing, with its importance so understood and appreciated that early eras of human history are defined by the metals that were used to construct tools and weapons.

Throughout almost all of our history, the blacksmith has been a vital pillar of many communities, providing high-quality tools, advice and expertise.

However, there was a time, from the closing moments of the 19th century up until the end of the 1960s when the craft was declining at an alarming rate and it was genuinely feared that blacksmithing would be lost like so many other critically endangered crafts.

The story of why this was the case and why this trend suddenly reversed is fascinating, and it starts with the industrial revolution.

Henry Maudslay created the screw-cutting lathe, one of the earliest signs of the impact of the industrial revolution and a symbol of the shift from individual artisans to machinists in mass production factories, a concept accelerated by the transition to interchangeable parts in tools.

This led to many metal-working blacksmiths transitioning into farrier work, as whilst the shoe itself could theoretically be mass-produced, it would still take a skilled blacksmith to prepare the hoof and fit the shoe without injury or discomfort.

The peak of this blacksmithing crisis occurred in the 1960s. The losses of life caused by both world wars, the breakdown of the apprentice system that formerly enabled young blacksmiths to learn the trade and the transition of many farriers to the car industry led to few people in the trade, a lot of people leaving it and almost nobody joining.

The rise of the self-sufficiency movement, as well as the growing concept of “do-it-yourself” work, led indirectly to the revival of the blacksmith as an artisanal craft, with the number of blacksmiths increasing from 30 in 1978 to well over 600 by the 21st century.