Williamsburg Stories and Tips

The Trades of Williamsburg

Shoemaker Photo, Williamsburg, Virginia

During a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, visitors have the opportunity to watch tradesmen create items necessary in 18th century Virginia in the same manner as those who did the work some 300 years ago. It was especially important for the community to have local artisans to reduce dependence on English goods. In Williamsburg you can watch the tailor, weaver, wigmaker, blacksmith, cabinetmaker, basket weaver, shoemaker and saddlemaker at work. You can also learn more about how bricks, jewelry, wheels and pewter goods were made during colonial times.

Many of the buildings that house these trades are the original buildings from the early 18th century in Williamsburg. Stepping through the doorway of such shops is truly taking a step back some 250-300 years in American history. We spent quite a bit of time in three of the trade shops which I will feature in this review.

The Shoemaker was a man who appeared to be perhaps in his early '40s. His hands as rough and leathery as the shoes he crafted. Today he was making a pair of shoes for one of the performers in Colonial Williamsburg. When we entered the shop he was working on the heels, hammering the wooden nail that would keep the heel tight to the sole of the shoe. Throughout his shop were wooden molds used to cut the leather for a variety of shoe styles, leather, and tools of his trade. There was also an interesting tub of murky water which was used to soften the leather to mold and sculpt the shoe into the proper shape. He also told us that softening the leather allows greater ease when hammering in the wooden nails.

In the Wigmaker’s shop, there were a number of beautiful pieces of the period, both for men and women. We learned that wigs in Colonial America were made from the hair from horses, goats and humans by a craftsman actually called a "perukemaker." Wigs were as much a fashion statement of social status as anything since only the aristocrats of Virginia could really afford them. Wig wearers of the day had their head shaved bald for the best fit. At this particular shop, local residents could also come for a shave or bath. But beware...the bath water is only changed once per day so arrive early to get the cleanest bath. If however, you must come later in the day, the good news would be that the prices go down throughout the day as the water becomes more filthy from bathers during the day.

Entering the Harness and Saddlemakers shop the first thing we noticed was the strong, almost overpowering smell of the leather. Today the craftsman was working on a leather saddlebag. He was hand stitching the pieces that would form the pockets. Here we got to learn more about how most of the Colonial Williamsburg artisans learn their individual trades. As one might expect, skills are taught and passed down while serving an apprenticeship often right here in Williamsburg. Once a trade has been learned, the individual becomes the next in line to have rights to the job when the senior tradesman retires or dies. This was largely the way it was back in the 1700s in Colonial Virginia, although often trade skills were passed down within a family through the generations.

Admission to most of the Colonial Williamsburg museums and historical buildings are included in their single and multi-day passes. The best value would be the annual Independence Pass which currently costs $79 for adults and $39 for kids ages 6 to 17. Included is admission to all historical sites, museums and the evening programs.

More detailed information on purchasing admission passes for Colonial Williamsburg may be found on their website: www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/visit/planYourVisit/ticketPlans/.

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