The late Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, was once the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Harry Fuller was the former, and long-time, village president here in Oswego, Illinois. My friend Tom Fletcher is a retired history teacher and former member of the Kendall County Board.
What does each of these people have in common? Each has a last name that is descriptive of a trade that is, largely, lost in the mists of time.
Once upon a time, even here in our area of northern Illinois, individual craftsmen (and women) worked to provide residents with the things they needed to live comfortable lives. Unlike today, people living in the 19th Century did not go to a huge department or hardware store and purchase things like shoes, clothing, tools, or other necessary items. Instead, they went to individual craftsmen and women, who in turn, made each item by hand. These craftspeople, working in their specific trades, each had a name that described their profession, a name that was eventually given as a surname to the descendants of those who first engaged in those trades.
The best-known of these professionals were the smiths. Since there were so many kinds of smiths—coppersmiths, tinsmiths (also known as whitesmiths), and blacksmiths to name a few—there are a corresponding large number of families with the name of Smith.
While blacksmithing is still commercially practiced today, it is a much more limited trade than in the past. A century and a half ago, blacksmiths, doing business in every crossroads hamlet and town in the country, manufactured and repaired the tools that built America, as well as turning out more mundane things such as nails, bolts, and hinges that literally held homes and businesses together. But early on, blacksmiths did not shoe horses, mules, and oxen—that job was done by the farrier. Gradually, however, the term blacksmith came to mean, in common speech, someone who shoes horses, even though those tradespeople are still officially farriers. Today’s modern blacksmiths, like my friend Tom Korthauer, specialize in sharpening, repairing, and sometimes making tools.
Another smith, the gunsmith, spent his time making and repairing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Before guns came into wide usage, English archers became feared for use of their longbows (made by boyers) that fired arrows with shafts a cloth-yard in length. Those arrows were made by fletchers.
Meanwhile, the cooper was busy making barrels, pails, panikins, piggins, and other wooden containers while using the specialized drawknives, pod augers, and kerfing saws of his trade.
Even coopers specialized, however, and white coopers, for instance, usually found in larger towns, made mostly round grain measures, firkins, sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of basswood or poplar shaved thin with sharp drawknives.
Wrights also derive their names from a wide variety of skills. Housewrights, not surprisingly, built houses. More specifically, housewrights were responsible for the framing and all the materials of the shell— the four walls and roof. The inside of the house, the woodwork and built-in cabinets, were finished by joiners who, again, worked their creative magic with specialized tools.
Millwrights were the jack-of-all-trades specialists who not only built the mill buildings, but who also were experienced at the critical work of siting and building dams and manufacturing mill machinery. Professionals who only operated mills and who were responsible for maintaining and sharpening the millstones were known as millers, a trade that has become another common surname.
Cartwrights built two-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles while wagonwrights, or wainwrights, built wagons and other four-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles. They build the wagon running gears and boxes before making use of the output from the local wheelwright. Of the two—wagons and wheels—wheels were far more complicated to make and good wheelwrights were worth their weight in gold.
In order that hides from either wild or domestic animals could be used, they had to be tanned and softened. Hides were tanned by the tanner, a process that dried and chemically preserved the leather. After a hide is tanned, however, it is very stiff (rawhide). In order to make it pliable and give it a good surface finish, the leather had to be processed by the currier.
Instead of buying their clothing, pioneers made their own. They grew the sheep that were sheared for wool and the flax plants that could then be spun into woolen and linen yarn. The spinning was often done by older unmarried female family members, thus the not particularly kindly term spinster. The spun yarn was then made into cloth by the weaver.
After wool was woven into cloth it had to be fulled to cleanse it of oil and dirt and to compact its fibers and raise the nap. At first, this was done at fulling parties where neighbors sat in a circle and stamped on the soap-saturated cloth with their feet. This was neither efficient nor very effective, however, for large-scale wool making. So, fullers built and maintained mills that did the work with wooden machines powered either by animals or by water.
Shoes were made by the shoemaker, who was sometimes called a cordwainer until the early 18th Century. Shoes were repaired by the cobbler.
These and other traditional crafts have provided the basis for a good deal the names in modern phone listings. Tailors made clothing while chandlers made candles and tinkers repaired metalware such as pails and basins. Carters drove carts and wagons while baxters (or bakers) produced baked goods. Parkers maintained parks while foresters maintained forests. A collier mined or sold coal while a sherman (or shearman) trimmed the nap of freshly woven woolen cloth.
For those of us interested in history and how things came to be, it is noteworthy that something as commonplace as a phone listing carries clues to the way our culture has developed and changed during the past 400 years.