If like us you have a Yorkshire heritage, you might know a thing or two about the history of the metal industry. If you don’t., we’re sure your parents or grandparents do! BUT if you’ve never been to Sheffield, you might never have heard the term “Little Mesters.” Those who are familiar with the area and with the metalworking industry know that Little Mesters have long been an integral part of the industry in this area, and that though this trade has declined in recent years, there are still Little Mesters who play an important role in Sheffield’s metalworking. Read on and learn more….
The Early Years
The cutlery and tools made in Sheffield were (and still are) known around the world for their quality and design. This made them extremely popular, and as word spread throughout the 1700s, the demand for these products became higher and higher. As the industry grew, it became more and more difficult for individual craftsmen to keep up with the demand by himself. This led to the creation of the first cutlery factory, which opened in early 1823. Over the next thirty years, five more factories opened, in order to keep up with the demand.
This did not, however, put the individual craftsman out of business. In fact, he was often employed by the factories in order to help them keep up with the demand. These craftsmen came to be known as Little Mesters, which each Mester being involved in just one aspect of the production process, from forging to finishing. They worked on a contract basis, with the work being carried out in their own workshops and with their own tools.
The Good Times
After the 1840s, when this system of big factories contracting craftsman finally took hold, life was good. The cutlery and tools made in Sheffield were in high demand, which meant that the craftsmen were in high demand. The factories saved money by hiring only the craftsmen they needed, when they were needed, and as the middle class grew not just in the UK, but around the world, more and more people were buying cutlery for their homes. Even as inventions surfaced that could make cutlery much faster than craftsmen could, most factories viewed the products as far inferior to what their Little Mesters could create.
The Bad Times
By the late 1880s, however, many factories had begun to employ the use of machines, eliminating the need not just for many of their workers, but also for the Mesters. In the 1960s, far Eastern countries began producing the same kind of cutlery and tools, at a far lower price (and usually quality), and the tradition of the Little Mesters all but ceased to exist.
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