Downhome Magazine

Remembering Tinsmith Jake Cotter

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The tinsmith trade can be traced back to the building of King Solomon's Temple, when copper and bronze were used. Working with bronze, Tobal Cain was considered the first artificer (craftsman) to apply his skills in the building of the Temple. From the 18th century on, using copper and tin, tinsmiths manufactured all types of household utensils, such as kettles, mixing pans and bread pans. Like other artisans, they learned their trade by completing an apprenticeship of several years, serving as a journeyman and then becoming a master tinsmith capable of employing and teaching others. Very often, the trade was handed down from one generation to the next with the business becoming a family business.

The tinsmith I wish to write about here is my father, Jacob (Jake) Cotter of New Perlican, Trinity Bay. Born in the community in 1904, he left school at the age of fourteen to go fishing with his father. That was the normal thing to do at the time. He remained fishing until, at the age of 26 in 1930, he decided he wanted to become a tinsmith. We're not sure why he made that decision, but it may have been the result of a visit to the tinsmith shop of John S. Rowe & Sons in Heart's Content, the home of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. The story of how he achieved his goal is a fascinating one.

Because we had distant cousins living in Hartford, Connecticut, in the United States, my father decided that he would go there. Then, travelling from Newfoundland, a separate country, through Canada and into the USA was quite an undertaking. The fact is he had never been any further than St. John's in his whole life. He travelled across Newfoundland by train, then across the Gulf, then by train through Nova Scotia and finally, by train again, across the US border to Hartford. It took him close to a week to complete the journey. After arriving and settling in with his two cousins, spinsters Rose and Mable Attwill, he went to work as an apprentice with a tinsmith company - a far cry from the fishing boat in New Perlican.

My father worked at the trade by day and went to school at night, learning what we now call Mechanical Drafting. He did that for six years. Following his apprenticeship, he became a Master Certified Tinsmith. He worked mainly in the construction industry in Hartford, installing copper roofs, copper moldings, and eves troughs on such notable projects as the reconstruction of the Mark Twain's House (Museum) and Trinity College. One very important and skilled part of the trade was soldering all joints that needed to be watertight. These were the days before caulking, so all joints in copper roofs and flashing had to be soldered. Soldering irons were heated in small stoves using charcoal.

Dad returned to New Perlican in 1938 and set up a tinsmith shop in a little store near the public wharf in Winterton. Rural Newfoundland at that time didn't afford many opportunities for him to practice the trade he had learned in the US, so he turned his skills to manufacturing household utensils. On Monday morning he would walk to Winterton (approximately 4 miles), sleep on the workbench that night and walk home Tuesday evening - a schedule he would repeat for the remainder of the week. After a year or so, however, he built his own tinsmith shop in front of the family home in New Perlican. The household items he produced included: bread pans, bread mixing pans, wedding cake pans, bun pans, the very popular woods kettles, and measuring dippers for measuring berries, kerosene oil and molasses, all of which had to be checked and stamped by a government agency for accuracy.

And then there were items he made for smaller fishing boats such as gas tanks, funnels, and ventilation stacks. There were also items for outfitting schooners and large ships, such as the Kyle, which went to the ice. These required much larger household utensils such as 5-gallon kettles, bun pans that would bake four dozen buns at a time, mixing bread pans that would use almost half a sack of flour for one mixing, and baking pans to accommodate the same. Designing and producing such utensils required great skill and creativity. In addition of course there were the usual needs for smoke pipes, elbows, chimney tops, eve gutters, oil cans, and even special cans that fitted the style and size of moonshine sills. From the waste tin he would make felt tins for felt and tar roofing.

I remember my father describing some of the finer things he was asked to do, like soldering broken eyeglasses and repairing stained glass windows using lead to keep the small panes in place. He was even asked to solder the reeds in musical instruments. Years after my dad repaired his cornet, Dr. Otto Tucker told me that "Jake Cotter could solder an arse in a cat." Otto, who played the cornet with the Salvation Army Band in Winterton, went on to become a well-known and highly respected professor at Memorial University. I should add that one of the most tedious jobs I myself remember doing was covering the front door of a house with copper and soldering about a hundred copper buttons on to make it look antique without the solder showing. The door still stands in the house today.

In 1942 my father went to work on the construction of the United States Naval Station in Argentia as Superintendent of the sheet metal shop. He was finally back doing what he had trained for in Hartford, making and installing copper roofs and flashings. After that, he returned to New Perlican to continue the business. Always anxious to explore new opportunities however, in 1951 he opened a tinsmith shop in Windsor with the hope of moving into Grand Falls. This didn't happen, mainly because Grand Falls was a company-owned paper town.

Still not content to stay home, he went to work in St. John's with the well-known sheet metal business of George Phillips & Sons. Due to back problems he was forced to leave and return home. After a year of rest, he got the urge once again to start his own business, this time in Carbonear.

The business opened in 1956. The sign on the building, hand-made from copper, read as follows: J. Cotter, Tinsmith and Sheet Metal Worker. While the tinsmith part of the business continued for some time, the main component soon became the sheet metal work and the heating and ventilation trade. In 1960, I joined the business, and the sign was changed to: J. Cotter & Son, Tinsmiths and Sheet Metal Workers, and later to Cotters Sheet Metal Works.

My father died in 1973. While I kept the business going until 1979, the tinsmith part had largely disappeared because of the mass production of household utensils. I still made the odd woods kettle from stainless steel, but none to sell. I'm very pleased to say that a number of tinsmiths and sheet metal workers learned the trade from my father. They all found him hard working and patient, most knowledgeable and passionate about the business, and always anxious to do the best possible job. They would agree that we were taught by one of the best whose motto was "Take pride in your work: if you can't do it right, don't do it." For twelve years we worked side by side and not once did we have a heated argument. I feel very fortunate to have been part of the tinsmith business that my father started eighty years ago.

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