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Today, we rely on modern conveniences like the internet to complete business transactions quickly and compete with a global audience. In the 1700s, life moved at a much slower pace due to the differences in communication. While it might be surprising to realize how far some merchants and other individuals in the 1700s traveled, much of their work was done for their local communities. What would a day in the life of a small business owner look like in the 1700s?

For the purposes of this post, we’re going to imagine a fictional blacksmith working in colonial Philadelphia just before the Declaration of Independence. This person is a good general example because his business life is somewhat typical of the era, as are the various socio-political pressures at play.

Meet the Blacksmith

A blacksmith in charge of his own shop would have gone through a mercantile process to master his craft, even if he inherited the forge from his father. Life expectancy, due to a high infant mortality rate, was only around 35 years of age. Assuming our blacksmith is relatively healthy, he might be in charge of his own forge by the age of 28.

 

Our blacksmith is definitely a white man, as white men legally owned almost all businesses in the colonies at this time.

A Day in the Life

Our blacksmith would rise early, like the farmers. He’d eat three square meals per day, and if he was originally from England, he’d appreciate how plentiful food was. He’d have breakfast, likely prepared by his wife, which would be more of a cornmeal mush than the bacon and eggs we’re accustomed to now. A snack might include bread and jam, which he’d take with him to work.

 

If he lived in the city, he’d share small quarters on a dirt or cobblestone street with his family. If he lived outside of the city, he’d commute in with some of the farmers. A blacksmith’s workstation isn’t exactly portable, and he’d likely be positioned near the stables because fitting horseshoes is part of the job.

 

This small business owner would have learned the trade over four or five years as an apprentice, possibly as an indentured servant who owed work (and learned) in exchange for a journey to the colonies.

 

His forge would be small and dark but well organized. He would have made many custom items beyond horseshoes, including nails, hooks, latches, and sewing tools. Ironworking permeated many other businesses, which included items like nails. In this way, the blacksmith was part of the supply chain for many businesses, similar to how supply chains function in modern times. Those business owners needed to factor the cost of the blacksmith’s products and services into their final products.

 

Additionally, fishing tools, knives, and bayonets were critical survival and defense weapons. The blacksmith was a major part of Philadelphia’s lifeblood. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, bespoke items were often the norm.

Taking Orders (and Politics)

Our blacksmith works and takes orders through the day. With no air conditioning, the shop is small and hot, and he likely has an errand boy (or slave) to fetch his water. The blacksmith might receive orders from a variety of people during this tumultuous time period: a servant in a household who needs more sewing equipment; a British officer commissioning knives and bayonets; revolutionaries quietly raising money to stockpile weaponry and various pieces of muskets.

 

This provides another need for organization for this businessman, especially as his books are concerned. Naturally, the Crown wants its due, and the blacksmith must diligently have taxes ready for the tax collector.

Bartering for Services

Bartering was still a major part of the economy, even in urban centers like Philadelphia. Goods such as furs and food would have personal value to the blacksmith, who might trade for it. Since the blacksmith needed to pay taxes and keep books, he must have been literate — additionally, fire was a huge risk for him occupationally and in that era generally, so he needed to keep those books away from the fire.

 

Bartering created more flexibility for the blacksmith, especially as he was scrutinized while conducting transactions with both British officials and colonial rebels. He may even have needed to manufacture special, custom parts for Ben Franklin’s printing press.

Networking Obligations

Like today, networking would have been key for the small business owner in the 1700s. For our blacksmith, this might mean taking dinner or supper (that’s the meal after dinner) at the city tavern with another businessperson, just like how modern businessmen and business owners meet with potential clients, hold events, and so on.

 

Networking means being present at the marketplace and influential with important members of society, just like how networking is done in modern times. This is also where our blacksmith’s wife is expected to contribute to the business, performing social duties to ingratiate her husband to potential clients. It’s not unlike what is expected of spouses in the business and political worlds of today.

Banking and Leasing

As Philadelphia didn’t yet have a centralized bank, our blacksmith could have expanded by taking out a loan from a private bank or another businessperson he’s cultivated trust with. As for his own workshop, he’d possibly lease that space from a more wealthy business person.

 

Just like today, it’s possible to lease property to own, and many small business owners endeavored to do that. For the colonial blacksmith, the ever-looming prospect of increased taxes with more property, however, became a troublesome burden.

 

In addition to the trials and tribulations of any small business owner, our blacksmith needed to contend with the everyday disadvantages of working in his society. If his eyesight worsens, for example, he wouldn't have vision insurance to get new glasses.

 

Life in Colonial America was turbulent but filled with many of the same challenges small business owners face today. From inclement weather affecting sales to being caught up in the political demands of an era, our blacksmith had to cope with a great deal to achieve success.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.