August 16, 2023

The Book of Trades

         I’m always fascinated by depictions of jobs, especially current jobs I’m not familiar with, and historical jobs that were done very differently in the past, or that are no longer done at all.  You can see a previous post that looks at some historical depictions of various jobs here, or words for some archaic trades here.  I recently came across another book of trades, this one from 1827, and illustrated with very pleasing wood block prints, unfortunately by an anonymous uncredited artist.  The book was originally published in 1804, but was considerably revised in about 1818.  You can tell by the number of new editions and updates that it was a very popular book.  It seems to have been intended at least in part as occupational guidance for youth, and presumably also as general education.
        I’m certainly interested in the descriptions of the various trades from a historical standpoint, but for purposes of this blog I’m focussing on the wood block prints, which are high quality, with plenty of detail.  Perhaps my favorite is the carpenter, with the scene of the roofers in the background, the array of tools and lumber against the wall, and the curly wood shavings in the foreground.  From the accompanying article I learned that “deal is the wood of the fir-tree.”  (Deal wood is not a word I have ever encountered outside of a book, so while the general gist has always been clear from context, I never knew the actual definition.)
        The illustrations of the Apothecary and the Confectioner both hit my love of the magical, mysterious, cluttered shop interiors.  I’ve loved the look of old shops since my childhood visits to the recreations in Western Reserve Historical Society.  In the Confectioner’s shop the bottles and boxes are carved a little faintly so that they melt indistinctly into the background.  The Apothecary’s goods, on the other hand, have blacker blacks, shadows of their own to accent them.  I also enjoy these people’s fashions.  The article on the Confectioner also includes two recipes for gingerbread - both quite different from modern gingerbread recipes (although closer to biscuits than sweet bread).
        Next are two woodcuts that show some interesting carving techniques.  In the illustration of the Plumbers I particularly admire the way the smoke is depicted, with glowing white highlights above the fire, shading darker and darker as it rises.  The article about the Plumbers is really all about refining and working lead, and the reminder of the sheer amount of lead to which people were exposed in daily life in 1827 is quite horrifying.  The author does, at least mention that “the health of the men is often injured by the fumes of the lead.” He concludes, “We recommend earnestly to lads brought up to [this trade]… that they never on any account eat their meals or retire to rest at night, before they have well washed their hands and face.”  The Button Maker shows very clearly how this wood engraver uses wavy lines instead of straight for all the different surfaces.  I don’t know why they’ve chosen to carve this way.  On the whole it’s certainly effective, although I wonder whether it wouldn’t be even more effective if some areas had straight lines for a variety of texture.  I would also have thought that straight lines would be easier.  Regarding buttons, we learn that “It is unlawful to import foreign buttons; and buttons made of, or covered with cloth, cannot be worn, without 
subjecting the wearer to very severe penalties.”
        Finally here is an idyllic pastoral illustration of the Lace Maker, sitting outside her romantic cottage, surrounded by flowers.  I like the way the flowers are actually modern-looking, loose squiggles enough to suggest them.  This is certainly a pretty picture, but the author notes that even though lace is very expensive, because of the time and attention required to make it, the women who do it still make very little money.  He also notes that it’s not uncommon to see women sitting outdoors making lace in good weather.
        Some other interesting trades covered in this book include Cork Cutter, Soap Boiler, Pin-Maker, and Wire-Drawer.  There’s also another suite of trades that are especially interesting to me: printmaking, of course.  So we’ll be back next week to see what printmaking trades looked like 200 years ago!

[Pictures: The Carpenter, The Apothecary, The Confectioner, The Plumbers, Button Maker, The Lace Maker, woodcuts from The Book of English Trades, and Library of Useful Arts, 1827 (Images from Internet Archive).]


Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

You made me curious. I wanted to see the soap maker. Thank you for this rabbit hole.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Glad you enjoyed it - And in case you didn't notice, the link in the citations at the end will send you to the book where you can see the soap maker for yourself.