In the past month and a half, we studiers and practitioners of historic preservation and historic trades lost two important people who contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the past. At the end of July, suddenly and without warning, Jay Gaynor, Director of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg died. Jay was curator of Williamsburg’s tool and mechanical arts collections before becoming Director of Historic Trades. In this role, he encouraged Williamsburg’s talented tradespeople to pursue scholarly research into their particular crafts. Their work with others both here and abroad increased their understanding of their particular skills so that they can better share it with the public and also make sure these techniques don’t become extinct. Recently they undertook the casting of a bronze cannon – something that hadn’t been done in a historical manner for at least 150 years or more. To engage even more people in the project Jay and others on the project wrote a blog , recorded podcasts and took video of their successes and failures.
For Jay, both the historical scholarship and the engagement of people with objects from our past were driving forces. He was a long time member of the Early American Industries Association and served on its Grants Committee providing support to researchers studying early American tools and trades. Recipients of EAIA grants have their work published in the organization’s journal The Chronicle which has been a source of information on early American trades since 1933. Jay was a founding member of a similar organization in England called Tools and Trades History Society .
At the end of August, one of those people who used tools and raised the level of our understanding of historic craftsmanship, Don Carpentier, left this mortal realm. One of the first ways people find out about Don is through the book The Preservationist’s Progress by Hugh Howard, where he describes the creation of Eastfield Village. Eastfield is a collection of historic structures that Don collected, moved and restored over the course of his life. It’s not a museum or living history site but more of a laboratory. There, starting in the mid-1970s, people from all walks of life have taken courses to learn about everything from construction techniques used in historic buildings to tinsmithing, and from pottery to textiles. These classes are more than lectures, they are hands-on experiences. Take a course about historic plaster and you will be plastering a wall in one of the buildings. A class about historic interiors includes using a mulling stone to work powered pigment into linseed oil for paint. All the while, eating and sleeping the the historic buildings, (without electricity or running water) and visiting actual 18th and 19th century privies.
Some of the classes Don taught, but many were taught by other scholars and tradespeople, thereby expanding the knowledge-base and creating a network between instructors and participants. One of the many tangible ways Don Carpentier influenced our understanding of the past is through his study of pottery. He had a personal interest in mochaware and creamware, which went beyond studying extant examples. He revived the lost techniques and tools of the trade, making many of them himself, so that he could produce the ceramics himself. This caught the attention of Martha Stewart who filmed Don at work. In the video, Don speaks of the fact that archaeology finds shards of pottery all the time, and that long after he is gone his pottery will survive. In truth, through his workshops at Eastfield, Don has left a larger legacy in the knowledge and skills people have taken with them.