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Tin Plate and the Tinker

Updated: May 15, 2023

Examples of stretching. Photo by Mary Earle Gould.

Excerpted from The Chronicle, Vol. 4 No. 2, April 1951

by Gillian W.B. Bailey

Although the manufacture of tin plate had -long been a monopoly of Bohemia, about 1620 the industry spread to Saxony where it achieved such recognition that an emissary was sent from England to learn the process. The English student was courteously received and the full process explained in detail, but on his return home the first English attempt to manufacture tin plate failed, due to inexperience and lack of proper financing.

This failure occurred about 1665 but fifty years later the manufacture was revived by Major John Hanbury at Pontypool; the method of rolling iron plates by means of cylinders, said to have been devised by him, enabled more uniform black plates to be produced by him than was possible with the old method of ham­mering, and in consequence the English tin plate be­came recognized as superior to the German.

During the next hundred years the industry spread rapidly; Britain became the chief source of the world's supply of tin plate and has so remained to this day.

There were two processes for the tinning of "black" plates. In the "palm oil" process which is the oldest, the plates after being annealed were scoured with sand and water, and pickled in dilute sulphuric acid, alter­nately until they were bright and clean. They were then washed in water and after being boiled in palm oil to remove all traces of acid and water were dipped into a bath of molten tin covered with oil to prevent oxida­tion. They were then taken to a bath of purer tin than the first. After this they were scoured with a hempen rubber and dipped in a third bath containing the purest tin of all; they were then passed through rolls to finish the surface and regulate the thickness of the coating.

In the "acid process" only a single bath of tin was required. The molten metal was covered with a layer of muriate of zinc which acted as a flux, and by means of rolls the plates were passed through this flux down into the tin to be brought out at another point in the bath where there was a layer of oil on the surface.

The first process was probably the one used on what we now refer to as the "old block tin."

So much for the tin plate used by the tinsmith. His solder was a compound of tin and lead which he made himself usually 50/50, and his flux was usually powdered rosin and tallow. If he also worked in brass he used borax. Most metals had their own distinctive solder and flux.

Tinker's pig or tool box. Photo by Mary Earle Gould.

From early times the Tinker, Tinkler or Tinman as he was called during the 16th Century, was looked up­on as a vagabond and was so classed in the Act of Elizabeth against vagrancy.

We all remember the story of the Buckthorn Inn in New York which displayed a sign reading:

"Four pence a night for a bed No more than five to sleep in a bed No boots to be worn in bed Organ grinders to sleep in the wash house No dogs allowed upstairs No beer allowed in the kitchen No razor grinders or Tinkers taken in."

But however low in social degree, the tinker was a craftsman of no mean ability. His mathematics and geometry were as good as the cooper's or carpenter's and like them he worked with a fixed dimension. The blacksmith, pewterer or silversmith could beat, mold, or spin their metals, but not so the tinker. He was limited by the dimensions of his tin plate, and he had to cut it as carefully as a tailor cutting into an ex­pensive cloth.

Prior to 1738 no tin ware was made in this country, but in that year two Irishmen, William and Edgar Pattison settled in the town of Berlin, Connecticut, and shortly thereafter began importing English tin plate and working it into cooking utensils. A local poetess Emma Hart Willard celebrated their wares by describing the guests at a wedding as clamouring:

"Oh what's that lordly dish so rare That glitters forth in splendorous glare? Tell us Miss Norton is it silver? Is it from China or Brazil or?" Then all together as they ran Quoth the good dame "H's a tin pan The first made in the Colony The maker, Pattison's just by From Ireland in the last ship o'er. You all can buy. He'll soon make more."

The writer is an admirer of much of the work turned out by the American tinsmith and resents the oppro­brium heaped upon the tinker's head by jest and song. All available information gives the distinct impression that when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean the tinker cast off his role of vagrant and undesirable citizen and be­came an honest, industrious craftsman.

Very early – probably English – "Bible Lamp" used for reading Holy Script when the curfew law required all lights to be out. Photo by Mary Earle Gould.

The before mentioned Pattisons peddled their wares for many miles around, and their customers bought more and more until as the business grew and the roads improved they engaged young venturesome men who filled wagons with made up tin ware and took to the road for weeks at a time, exchanging tin ware for linen rags, scraps of brass, wood ashes, or anything else surplus to the household. They were itinerant, they drove a hard bargain, but that is no reason to look down upon them.

Speaking of "Peddler Honesty" Mr. Richardson Wright states in his book Hawkers and Walkers in Early America "Here were hundreds of young men trusted with a stock of goods, trusted with a horse or a team, trusted with bartering and depended upon to make honest reports and honest returns." The business in­creased, the customers were satisfied, and honesty was usually the rule.

In working with tin it is discovered that this metal is no exception to the rule known by all metalsmiths, namely that being formed of a mass of molecules the working of the metal consists purely of moving or translating these same molecules. Hence in molding the tin must be stretched.

Again, in bending for a double seam joint the tin was stretched.

Mathematics and geometry were used by the tinker. Where an arc or bulging occurs the cutting must al­low for the stretching of the metal in order that the seams join accurately.

A twelve-quart milk jug. Photo by the Author.

In crimping, tin was stretched and compressed. In rolling, the tin was stretched and compressed. Even in punching and pricking there is a slight alteration of the size of the cut piece which must be allowed in order to join the edges exactly.

The insertion of wire to strengthen the edges of a finished piece appears to have been introduced during the last hundred years.


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