Saturday, February 01, 2014

When Writers Visit Forges

We visited Fort Vancouver today.  It's located near (surprise!) Vancouver, Washington.

What struck me the most about the site was the disjointed feeling I got from the buildings and the re-enactors dressing like Oregon Territory pioneers and Hudson's Bay Company.  1840 wasn't really that long ago, and on one hand it feels "modern"; but on the other hand, the technology, the cooking techniques, the ironwork and the dress doesn't feel that far away from the English Renaissance.  And, wow, even on a sunny day, the insides of the houses were dark.

I had a fun time speaking with the volunteers there because, 1) I was asking engaged questions about the drying savory and thyme and the forge (which I think they appreciated) and 2) I was wearing the Great Coat of +3 charisma.

I've been writing about forges, so I took the opportunity to visit with the volunteer smith there.  She told me

  • there is a 1600-era bible with an illustration of a woman smith making nails (which turns out to be the 14th Century English Holkham Bible,) .
  • very early smiths might have used charcoal, but smiths prefer coal because it's the most efficient fuel (and was the ballast in the ocean-going ships of the time).
  • a smith was judged by the tools he or she (although The Hudson's Bay Company didn't hire women) brought with them when seeking a job (her example was a well made hammer).
  • there wasn't an apprentice system in place at Fort Vancouver; the smiths had laborers who did what traditional apprentices did, but the Hudson's Bay Company was paying the smiths to fabricate metal items, not teach.
  • the tools made at the fort were mostly iron, with some high-carbon steel welded in where an edge was needed (hatchet heads) or where the tensile strength needed improvement (springs).
  • women and children could loop chains links at home as a kind of cottage industry.

The forge was smokey, which I didn't really notice because I'd gone into Writer Researching Mode.  I was struck between the fantasy trope version of a forge -- Weyland Smith forging King Arthur's Sword, or Alberich's Dwarves fashioning the Tarnhelm -- and the actual (historically recreated) forge.  This forge didn't have a lot of swords and armor in it, it was filled mostly with nails, rivets and punches; pliers, hammers, and shutter-dogs; and beaver-traps.  I didn't notice it at the time, but there weren't any horseshoes or other ferrier's tools (dang, I should have asked).

Also, the stories that I write which have forges in them either have the forges off-stage or have gauzy scenes of Japanese Samurai Sword forging in them.  I'm hoping to write a scene set in a more common, practical forge.  OK, a forge with singing nuns connected with that world's "Crystal Dragon Christianity"... but still.

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