4 Aug 2017

Birmingham Manufactures:
Women’s Work at Elkington & Co.

It might not look like much, but this box of tools offers an important insight into women’s work in Birmingham at the start of the twentieth century. The tools pictures here are part of a much larger collection of tools donated to the museum in 1972, and were used for burnishing – which is a bit like polishing – and was a vital part of the manufacturing process for a variety of metals.

Tools like this were used to push the rough surface of an unfinished metal surface into alignment, and create the smooth polished shiny surface of the metal products Birmingham was known for. The tops of these tools are made of agate, a semi-precious stone which was used because it is extremely smooth and hard wearing. These were expensive to buy, and because every burnisher was expected to own their own tools, they were often passed down through the family.

Burnishing Tools owned by Elizabeth Fisher, prior to 1918
Burnishing Tools owned by Elizabeth Fisher, prior to 1918, (Accession numbers: 1972F246 and 1972F244).

Unlike machine burnishing, which was thought of as a masculine job, hand burnishing was overwhelmingly done by women. Burnishing was a very skilled job, and was taught at home by members of the family, or, less usually, by formal apprenticeship. Burnishing was thought to be a good and respectable trade for women to get into it. It could be completed at home, and unlike many trades, would often be continued after marriage. An article published in 1906 said that burnishing was typically ‘learned by a more refined class of girls’ and that it was ‘light and healthy’ work.

A chalice - An example of the type of item that Elizabeth Fisher might have burnished, made by Elkington & Co, 1870-1910
The type of item that Elizabeth Fisher might have burnished, made by Elkington & Co, 1870-1910 (Accession number: 2012.0038.2)

We know a little bit about the owner of these tools from information provided when these tools were acquired by the museum. These tools belonged to Elizabeth Fisher, who lived in the Broad Street area until she was married. We know that Mrs Fisher worked at Elkington’s, the famous electro-plating and silverware manufacturers who had premises on Easy Row and Newhall Street. Amazingly, we also know that she was known as a ‘hander’ (a hand burnisher), and that she worked on items such as tureens and large dishes. The donor of these objects also told us that Mrs Fisher would have expected the ‘stones’ in the tools to last a lifetime, but that she bought her other metal tools and their wooden handles from Canning’s or from Hockley Chemical. 

Through the snippets of information provided by these objects, we gain an insight into the life of Mrs Fisher and the other Birmingham women who made a living through burnishing. We also start to understand the manufacture of metals in more detail, and to recognise the many ways in which women were vital to the metalware industries – so commonly associated with men.

W. Canning & Co., 136-7 Great Hampton Street, Birmingham
W. Canning & Co., 136-7 Great Hampton Street, Birmingham. (Image from Grace's Guide)