Friday, May 11, 2012

When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Turner


It is coming down the to the time of year when young ladies and gentlemen will be graduating and moving on to the next stages of their lives, be it more schooling or an apprenticeship or the military. A young gentleman I know has aspirations of being a chef; another wishes to be an architect. Nineteenth century lads could have aspired to those positions as well, but they had a few others we might be hard pressed to find today.

For example, he could long to be a button-maker. Buttons in the early nineteenth century were more often decoration than fasteners, but they grew in popularity and usefulness as the century wore on. Of particular interest were the stamped metal buttons, made primarily in Birmingham, according to one career guide for young gentlemen. Metal was cut to size in a foundry and then sent to the button-maker, who used a special machine to stamp a pattern into the button. He then soldered on the shank. And then women had the glorious task of polishing them. Regina Scott, button polisher. Hm, I think I’ll pass on that profession.


A young gentleman might also decide to be a glass blower, creating bottles or vases. A glass blower heated the right materials in a special furnace until they melted. Then he used a long thin hollow rod to draw out some of the material and blow into it. Blowing created an opening in the glass material; turning the material on a wooden stool shaped it to the correct size. A nineteenth-century career guide cautions that this profession can only be practiced in the cooler months because of the excessive heat. As I prefer to have enough income to eat all months of the year, this one probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea either.


But there was always the turner. A turner used a spinning lathe like the one here to create a variety of tools, decorations, and toys. Small lathes were spun by pumping a treadle. Larger lathes required two men to keep the wheel spinning while the turner worked. A journeyman in the profession could take home as much as a guinea and a half a week (around $125 today). If you had the dexterity to work on smaller projects, like toys, you could made a great deal more.

Regina Scott, toy turner to the king. I like the sound of that.

5 comments:

Jane Charles said...

Fascinating. I watched a glass blower in Williamsburg a long time ago. Not a job I could ever want.

Donna Hatch said...

I never heard of a turner. That's a fun tid bit of trivia. I wonder if that's where the name Turner came from.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, Jane and Donna. Jane, I used to love to watch the glass blowers, who would come every summer to our local fair. I have quite a collection of little glass animals (some now missing limbs!) I bought back then. But I agree--I wouldn't be brave enough to handle that molten glass!

And Donna, I wondered the same thing! So I just checked, and according to Ancestry.com, that is exactly the origin of the name. :-)

veedham said...

I knew about what a turner does, but my first thought on seeing that heading was of the painter. Bit of an impossible ambition though in that case, as he is surely the greatest of English painters. Unless of course the ambition was to be an actual painting ...

Regina Scott said...

Definitely an impossible ambition, on either count. I have no calling toward painting, and I'd rather be a writer than a painting (although as a Turner painting, I would certainly have longevity!).