Though Howlett’s shop focuses on leather goods, an artificer in the 18th century was defined as any skilled laborer whose work supported the military — a term that evolved from the even broader “skilled laborer” definition that had no specific attachment to the military and has since largely disappeared in the U.S.
Colonial Williamsburg’s artificer shop is a representation of one of the many government-run shops that operated during the Revolutionary War.
Artificers could be found in government-run or commercial shops. They could be enlisted or contracted. They could travel with a regiment or be fixed in one place. They could represent any trade that in some way supported the military, from blacksmiths to wheelwrights to tailors. They could be men, women or children as long as their labor helped to supply the military.
“If you’re going to keep an army in the field all the time, you’re going to have to keep them fed, keep them dressed, keep them housed, keep them clean, keep them maintained,” said Howlett, whose own shop reflects diversity in specialties and gender. “All of a sudden, that army is going to need another army to support them. That other army is the artificers — skilled laborers, men or women, who can get the job done.”
A multitude of trades from both the military and civilian world were called upon to provide for the army, but the supply system was “messy,” especially early in the war, said Cathy Hellier, a Colonial Williamsburg historian. Though the Continental Congress established a Quartermaster Department in June 1775 to oversee the supply system for the Continental Army, it struggled to establish regulations on the transportation of goods and conflicts of interest.