Pennsylvania’s Equal Opportunity Iron Industry
The decorative circle and diamond cutouts on the face of this spatula are characteristic of the work of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, blacksmith Edward P. Sebastian (1828–1887). Edward and his older brother, Benjamin (1824–1887), were trained by their father and followed him into the blacksmithing business. Census records from their lifetime tell us what this object cannot. The family was likely of mixed-race ancestry. They are listed in the Federal Census with an “M” by their names, which in period terminology indicated they were “mulattoes.”
In Pennsylvania, the materials needed to produce iron tools were abundant, thus creating job opportunities for peoples of all races, including Edward P. Sebastian, who was part of a thriving community of free African Americans throughout the state. In Bucks County, he and his family owned land, established their own blacksmith shop, and were active members in the Host German Reformed Congregation. As members of a largely German church, they may have “passed,” or emphasized their German (or Irish) background over their African American ancestry.
Edward P. Sebastian
Host, Tulpehocken Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania; 1850−1900
Jefferson and Anne Miller Collection 2001.33.57
Acquired by Winterthur sixteen years ago, this Edward P. Sebastian spatula is technically not a new acquisition. However, we have a renewed appreciation for its historical significance thanks to the recent research that revealed the details of Sebastian’s heritage. Previously admired solely as a fine example of early American wrought iron with an identifiable maker’s mark, the spatula now opens a window into the life of a free African American craftsman who lived in Central Pennsylvania in the 1800s.