Hanging out at Old Sturbridge Village

Mowing HayDuring the second leg of our vacation we were able to travel North and visit several spots in Massachusetts, the first of which was Old Sturbridge Village. Having just returned from Colonial Williamsburg, it was fascinating to jump not only the hundreds of miles North of that site, but also fifty years into Williamsburg’s future. The differences were as astounding as the similarities.

Old Sturbridge Village is portrayed, the interpreters are quick to point out, as a rural New England village in the year 1838. The “rural” part of that description is rather important, as if the village were closer to a city life would have actually been much different than was is portrayed. In the early 1800’s New England was rapidly industrializing, and the old world of small towns and family farms was moving out West to better soil and wider lands. Trades which would have been someone’s full-time job and passed on through an apprenticeship in the era of Colonial Williamsburg were, by 1838, passed on to father to son and done when people had to opportunity. The pottery maker made a point to make me aware what I was experiencing in his shop was an end of an era. Factories were making better quality materials and were cheaper even if they had to be shipped from England. The same was true for coopering. By 1838 factories nearer to Boston had replaced much of what traditional coopers used to create. Their biggest holdout was water-tight barrels, which machines hadn’t yet mastered.

Moving to the tin-maker’s shop revealed machines which hadn’t been seen in North America by the time of the Revolution. Machines which handled special folds in relative moments, compared to the painstaking processed tin-makers had to endure fifty years earlier. This migration to more mechanized processes also filtered into shoemaking, where the invention of a machine which created wooden pegs allowed shoemakers to abandoned sewing shoes in favor of pegging them. This made shoes both faster to make and cheaper. Work shoes were still neither left nor right footed, though boots and dress shoes were designed this way by that time.

One of the biggest differences I noticed, however, was in the press room. In Williamsburg, the printing press was a mammoth machine, made out of wood and metal and imported from England. By comparison, the press in Sturbridge was tiny, made out of metal, and manufactured in the Bronx. In fact, the press being demonstrated was an actual period piece from the 1830’s, which blew my mind. Likewise, by 1838 there were factories which were creating typeface right in the United States, making it cheaper to acquire. The press in Sturbridge, in fact, had several typefaces available to customers, and even what we’d now call “clip art.”

Between the time of the Revolution and the world of 1838 North America had certainly been transformed. We often speak of this era’s rapid change, and it is a time of social and technological metamorphosis, but the first 50 years of the United States was a technological and social upheaval every bit as overwhelming as we experience today.

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  1. I am fascinated by the comparison of the change in Sturbridge and Williamsburg and today. The change in our country in just a short time. I lived in the day of “wash-boards” and oil lamps and radios were wires from a transistor stretched to a metal object. What will the next ten year from now?

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