Artisans in Early America


Early fire engines were hand made in
small shops by teams of artisans.

Artisans were independent makers of things sold locally. In early America, artisans were a large part of the population. They lived at the beginning of the industrial revolution when technology was still hand or water powered. An artisan often hired a journeyman helper and also trained an apprentice. This apprentice system came to the colonies with European craftsmen. It placed two or three generations together working in small shops. Tricks of the trade were held close and passed down to worthy students. Self improvement was the goal of journeymen and apprentices, to become a master with one's own shop. Moral and social improvement were important to volunteer firemen. Many early American firefighters were also artisans.

In America, artisans were active members of the social order. They were concerned and participated in town proceedings. They organized their lives around their family, which included any apprentice that may be living with them. Most artisans lived within walking distance of their shop. They had a skill learned through apprenticeship and passed on their knowledge to their workers.

America was the most literate country in the world in 1800. Education, imagination and invention were admired by citizens of the new republic. Skill and ingenuity could set a citizen on a path to pursue their happiness. Fire engine construction and decoration at first resembled what was being done with fine coaches. Coach painters striped early American engines with gold leaf, which was usually reserved for fine coaches and carriages. It was an American invention to gild fire engines.

Below you will find George Washington in the role of an artisan, forging a new nation. The young country's freedom and the industrial revolution created a perfect environment for artisans to prosper.

The village smithy as the new free man of America.The village smithy as the new free man of America.



Apprentices were an important part of the artisan system. They did the preparation and cleanup work. Slowly they would learn the trade by watching and lending a hand when needed. A child aged eleven or so went to live with a master artisan for many years while he or she learned the trade. The artisan housed, fed and taught the apprentice, who was under contract for a predetermined number of years. When this time was concluded, the apprentice had the basic skills and knowledge of the field and became a journeyman. At this point they were free to work on their own or for any artisan that would hire them.

In Europe the guild system was more structured than the American artisan system. A journeyman needed to produce a final piece showing their advanced skills. This was delivered to the heads of the guild to be judged. If it met their approval, the journeyman became a master and had permission to start his own workshop. The object that was judged was called a "masterpiece".

The images to the left and below show Benjamin Franklin as an apprentice in the printing trade. Through his life he often mentioned that he was "proud to be a leather apron". This was a term of the times for an artisan tradesman.

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
         William Butler Yeats


Before the mid 1800s, paint had to be made each day. It would go bad after a number of hours, so only the colors and quantity needed for each day's work were made. Dry pigment was ground in oil and then mixed with varnish to make paint. With some pigments the grinding could take hours. The amount of grinding would subtly effect the color of some pigments. A good apprentice would be in the shop by sunrise preparing the materials for the painters.

In the 19th century every town with a few thousand people had a paint shop or carriage shop with a "fancy painter". Each painter had his unique arsenal of skills and styles. When the town's engine was to be repainted, the firemen chose the local painter for the job, and they expected his best work. The repaints were often just as beautiful as the original paint jobs, perhaps in a more up-to-date style. The status of the engine in town demanded the finest craftsmanship possible.

An artisan painter in the 19th century saw new pigments become available through his career. New tools were invented and manuals about painting brought new ideas. The trade of painting was constantly changing. Magazines like The Hub were read by painters in remote towns and big cities. Subscribers shared tricks of the trade and sent in ornament designs they had drawn.

Factory pin-striper with a lot of wheels to paint.

Here is an apprentice at a factory painting stripes on wheels. There are stations set up for nine more painters. All early motor vehicle wheels were pinstriped, just like all coach and carriage wheels had been. Stripes were just an expected part of any vehicle or fire engine.

Seagrave factory painters at work.

This is the paint shop at the Seagrave fire engine factory. The two men on the left are painting scenes in oil paint on engine hoods. The two on the right are adding gold decorations and stripes to a seat and a gas tank. Below is an example of their combined work on a 1921 engine.

1921 Seagrave handpainted gold ornament with an oil painted local scene.

John Ritto Penniman is an example of early American fancy painters. He was born in 1782 in Milford MA. At age 11 he was apprenticed to an ornamental painter in Roxbury. This town was known for clock and furniture manufacturing. Both of these products needed fancy painting on them, and there were many independent paint shops where craftsmen shared ideas and techniques. By the end of his apprenticeship in 1793 he had painted many clock faces and furniture pieces in the new Federal Style. He went to work for Thomas Seymour and other Roxbury cabinet makers. In his free time he painted signs and portraits. He also decorated carriages as well as fire buckets, parade hats and fire apparatus. Below are samples of his work.



John Penniman learned striping, gilding, trompe l'oeil effects, oil painting, engraving, lettering and other fancy painting skills. He learned simple portraiture and sought out further education in this field. Gilbert Stuart became a friend and teacher.

In later years Penniman took on apprentices. Alvan Fisher and Charles Codman trained with him, and went on to become two of the first fine art landscape painters in America. Starting as an artisan, Penniman went on to become a portrait artist. The distinction between fine and applied art was not as great back then. Many famous portrait painters added their skills to fire engines, parade hats, fire capes etc.

Supporting the fire service was a valued activity in early American culture. A young artist could become better known by placing his work on a local fire engine. Penniman worked for several fire companies, though none of these works survive.

Proud workers on left with the carriage they repaired.



Many other artisans, besides fancy painters, were hired by fire companies and engine builders. Each artisan showed off their talents to the public, knowing the engine would be seen often. Many firehouse items and equipment were decorated specifically for the fire service. Shaving mugs were gilded just like the engines. Glass etching and cutting, as seen on lanterns, is now almost a lost skill. Other artisans carved wood, sewed leather, cast silver and more.

Shaving mug on a hose company member. Shaving mug of a steamer company fireman.Shaving mug of a steamer company firemanOil lantern on steamer with cut glass lenses.etched and cut glass on a mirror with trumpets and ivy symbols.Oak and acorn pattern on cut glass lantern.The village smithy as the new free man of America.The village smithy as the new free man of America.The village smithy as the new free man of America.The village smithy as the new free man of America.Cutting through the blue glass to expose the white or clear glass beneath.Cutting through the blue glass to expose the white or clear glass beneath.Name plate from a 19th century fire engine Chelsea.