In 2003, Russell Crowe starred as British ship captain Jack Aubrey in the film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, depicting a nautical chess match during the Napoleonic wars in France.
What you might not know is that some of the textiles used to make some of the costumes worn in the film as well as accessories were made by Burnley & Trowbridge, a colonial-era textiles company located in James City County.
“Our textiles and accessories have been worn in PBS’ Founding Brothers series, in John Adams, and when Hamilton was off-Broadway, they bought a bunch of buttons from us,” said Angela Trowbridge Burnley, who owns the company with husband James Burnley.
In fact, it was a love of re-enactments that brought James and Angela together.
“I met him at a small living history event. There were four re-enactors and some traders there,” she said, laughing. “We all just bought from each other.”
The two stayed in touch, starting off as business collaborators before finally marrying and joining their businesses — Jim’s textiles, her colonial-era fashion boutique, and their joint love of good research. The union didn’t come without a few playful jabs from friends.
“The joke was, ‘Did you fall in love with Jim or fall in love with his linen?’” Burnley said.
The two entered the living history market as early adopters in 1982, spotting and filling a niche. An excellent example of anachronism, interested patrons can purchase 18th century fabric, buckles, accessories, and sewing tools through the company’s website.
The company offers educational workshops, as well as YouTube videos for those who want to learn historically accurate sewing techniques.
“We saw a need to help those in the historic community understand how to construct clothing in the 18th century manner,” said Burnley.
Of the work she’s done, she’s currently proud of the scarves Burnley & Trowbridge have created and researched — seeing them appear in a variety of different settings.
“They’re showing up in movies, on stage, in museum exhibits, in operas and theatres, and in re-enactments. We’ve always been driven by the consumerism of the 18th century and love seeing it come alive in the 21st century,” she said.
Blacksmith Ken Schwarz
Ken Schwarz was recruited as a blacksmith for its modern utility but found his way into the history of the trade.
“It was simple for me,” Schwarz recalls. “When I was a senior, a museum in town was looking for blacksmiths and they offered a class. I fell in love with the work.”
Fresh out of school, Schwarz apprenticed with a master blacksmith. In colonial times, that would have made him slightly old for a beginning apprentice.
“A colonial apprenticeship would begin at 14, 15 or 16 years old. You were contracted until 21 and then you’re a journeyman, entitled to salary. If you have the money to open your own business you become the master,” he said.
Schwarz has worked at Colonial Williamsburg since 1982, where he’s responsible for operating Anderson Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury, educating the public about the role of blacksmiths in early America.
“Blacksmiths worked with iron and steel. The work touched people’s everyday lives: hardware for buildings, you’d heat your home using iron and steel fireplace tools, you cooked your food with iron and steel utensils, and you made your living and defend your property with iron and steel weapons,” said Schwarz.
Since the opening of the new blacksmith shop in 2013, Schwarz has been a replicating a lot of historic weather vanes, most notably the 250-year-old weathervane on Bruton Parish.
“Iron weather vanes were used to distinguish important buildings: churches, colleges, the palace, et cetera. When people visited town and cities, weather vanes would show which buildings were of high status,” said Schwarz. “When we replaced the weather vane on Bruton Parish Church, it had been there for 250 years. When I think of my legacy, it can be there for the next 250 years. It will be there when my great-great- grandchildren are here.”
Like Burnley, Schwarz’s handiwork is purchased mostly by the historic community and museums. The blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg are nationally recognized for the accuracy of their craftsmanship.
“We’ve done work for Monticello, Mount Vernon, The Revolutionary War Museum in Philadelphia, private owners and the Smithsonian,” he said. Our blacksmiths have a lot of experience you won’t find anywhere else.”
Marshall Scheetz, Master Cooper, Owner and Operator of Jamestown Cooperage
A prominent, but lesser- known trade from the 18th century is cooperage, the making of barrels. Marshall Scheetz, owner and operator of Jamestown Cooperage, started studying journalism but found it wasn’t for him. History suited him better and he started working for Colonial Michilimackinac, a history museum in Michigan, as a re-enactor.
“It’s a mix of culture portraying the colonial time period. I enjoyed living history and teaching history to the public.” said Scheetz. While working at a museum, he found himself in a cooperage shop and, like Schwarz, he became enamored with the work.
“It wasn’t just barrels, but a history of economics,” said Scheetz.
Early American cooperage was akin to modern large freight shipping.
“The technology of coopering has existed for over 3,000 years. Casks were once used to transport precious cargo such as wine, beer, whale oil, tobacco, sugar, salt and coffee beans. While the cask was the king of shipping containers, mundane wooden buckets and tubs were once found in every domestic setting,’ said Scheetz.
Militaries rose and fell on gunpowder supply and it was about cooper barrel supply. “If the gunpowder isn’t kept in dry containers, it won’t combust. It absorbs moisture. The coopers were a part of that process,” said Scheetz, stressing the importance of quality and precision in the craftsmanship of a cooper.
To construct an authentic barrelto colonial specifications, high quality, blemish-free wood with no irregularities, like knots or twists, is necessary. Since he wants to preserve traditional methods, he follows traditional practices and uses locally available wood.
“White oak is the most commonly used wood,” said Scheetz. “I use a lot of white cedar, cypress, chestnut, white ash, and tulip poplar.”
Like blacksmiths, coopers enter into a seven-year apprenticeship. Sheetz served his at Colonial Williamsburg under master cooper Jim Pettengell. Unlike his early American counterparts, who were specialized and built for one industry, Scheetz is a generalist. He builds buckets, barrels, butter churns, and special orders.
“I get requests from individuals, re-enactors and museums to make cooperage, he said. “I’ve had ordersfor places like Mount Vernon, and currently have an order for the Historic Royal Palaces in London.”
With more people visiting museums and historic landmarks each year,its historic trades such as textiles, blacksmithing and cooperage that will continue to teach modern generations the stories of people centuries ago.
Story and photos courtesy of and originally published in The Local Scoop