American Traditions Series: Tin Lamps

Cathy Zimmer

Colonial Tin Accent LampIf you are familiar with Treasured Country Gifts and read our blogs, then you know that the products we offer you reflect our desire to share the beauty and history of American-made items. Many products, while visually appealing, also tell a story of an earlier time when Americans crafted objects out of necessity. We feel these objects are an opportunity to learn a little about our history and to blend this history with new traditions of our own.

Over the next few months, we’ll be selecting items to explore. With each selection you’ll get a little education and a lot of craft, decorating, and entertainment ideas that we hope you’ll want to share with your family and friends.

Traditions Series: Whitesmiths, Tinsmiths, and Tin Lamps

Rustic Tinners Lantern Tin LanternMost people are familiar with the idea of a blacksmith, but many have never heard of a whitesmith. In colonial America, whitesmiths worked primarily with cold metals, as opposed to blacksmiths who worked with hot metals. A tinsmith is a kind of whitesmith. A tinsmith, also sometimes called a tinker or a tinman, is a person who makes household goods like our lamp out of tin. Because pure tin is very soft, traditional tin items are produced from an alloy, which is a combination of two or more metals. The most common alloys in colonial times were made with tin and copper to create bronze or with tin, lead, and copper to create pewter. Modern tin is a combination of tin and steel. All forms of tin are valued for their rust-resisting properties.

One of the most appealing features of any traditional tin lamp is the way it displays light through the holes punched in the shade of the lamp. As you may have read in our previous blog, tin lamps were used in colonial times as a way to carry a lit candle and protect the flame from blowing out. The shade was then altered to include holes to allow the lamp to provide more light. This punched hole feature became known as tin punch or pierced tin. Once people witnessed the mesmerizing way the light was emitted from the holes, they began to create designs and patterns that further enhanced the beauty and function of the lamp.

Old Designs, New Ideas

Tin lamps were originally made out of old cans, stove pipes, or recycled metals, and this has inspired many modern crafters to do the same with soup cans and soda cans. Tin punch craft projects are a great way to express your creativity while preserving a bit of the past. Tin punch projects are also quite simple, as they typically require only a small number of readily available supplies, such as tin cans, a nail or awl for punching holes, and an optional hammer to assist.

Punched Tin Hospitality LanternTo make your own tin lamp, you can begin by looking online at common colonial patterns for inspiration, or you can let your imagination take the lead and design your own. One design idea you may find fun, especially if you’re working with children, is to create a family symbol to punch into the can. This idea is inspired by the theory that colonial families created unique tin punch designs that allowed them to be identified in the dark when traveling with a tin lamp. Some historians have tested this theory by conducting simple experiments in the dark using different tin punch patterns. While most believe the theory is false, as it was not possible to discern one design from another at a distance, that doesn’t mean you can’t conduct your own experiment and test the theory yourself with family and friends. Each person can create a unique family design to punch into the can, and when nightfall comes, you can try them out in the backyard for a wonderful historical game of guess who.

For more tin lamp craft ideas, check out tin can lights on Pinterest

To learn more about tinsmiths, explore the Tin Shop at Colonial Williamsburg.