Lesson Plan

The Blacksmith in Society Lesson Plan # 3 - The Cost of Wages

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Eighth Grade
Commerce and Industry, Community, Economics, History, Pioneer America, Slavery, Social Studies
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
National/State Standards:
Maryland Learning Outcomes (MLO) 1.2, 1.3, 4.2, 4.3
Blacksmith, Economics, Industrial Development, Slavery


Blacksmith Shop. Lesson Plan #3 - The Cost of Wages.

The glow from the blacksmith's forge led civilization from the dark ages and brought humankind to the standard of living enjoyed today. The blacksmith was the only craftsman to work with the four elemental substances of fire, earth, air and water, which according to the ancients, were combined to create our world. 

Five lesson plans are available for the Blacksmith in Society.


  • To show that a dollar figure does not represent the true value of wages, especially when comparing wages from different eras.
  • To reinforce the importance of education or technical training to maximize individual earning capabilities.
  • To enhance math skills as students compare wages of several eras, manipulate figures into corresponding (hours, days, etc.) and show relativity to the material costs of the appropriate era.


When using numerical values alone, the wages earned by modern workers seem astronomical in comparison with those of workers of earlier times. However, upon closer inspection, one usually finds that the numerical values are relative, that wages have remained fairly constant as compared to the

overall cost of living. Financial figures used in this lesson are intended to promote the value of training and education by showing that, no matter what the era or dollar figure, skilled laborers earn more than unskilled workers.


1. Financial Declarations of 1850 Blacksmiths in Frederick County, MD (provided)

2. Infirmary hardware price list (provided)
3. Additional Information for Lesson 3, a narrative describing the location and function of the Misty Mount Infirmary.
4. Job Application and Completion Record from Catoctin RDA (provided)
5. Current data showing wages paid to workers in your area. (Figures taken from USA JOBS, found online at www.usajobs.com, provide a good representation.)
6. Current cost of a keg of nails obtainable from a local hardware store.




1. Summarize the "Cost of Labor" article for students, emphasizing that blacksmiths learned the trade through a lengthy apprenticeship program and the number of hours worked on a typical day. Information taken from this article can be used to show how shipping, distribution and the number of holders that goods pass through affect the final price of the product.

2. Distribute the "Financial Declarations" table to students. Using the information provided, have children figure the hourly wage of employees, and the shop owner. To do this successfully, students will take the average number of hours worked on a typical day, multiply by the number of days worked in the month and divide this figure into the monthly wage. It is generally assumed that American craftsmen worked 12 hours per day, 6 days per week. It will be necessary to figure the number of hours worked per year to determine the wage of the shop owner. It is likely that the owner worked at least as many hours as the employees.

3. After determining the average hourly wage for employees and shop owners, compare this to the price of nails as presented in the excerpt from John Benson's ledger. Have students compute how many pounds of nails can be purchased for each hour of work.

4. Distribute the "Job Application and Completion Record" and "Infirmary Hardware" sheets to the students. By using the number of hours worked for skilled, intermediate and unskilled workers, have students determine the hourly wage for each. Using the guideline that a keg contains 100 pounds of nails have them determine how many pounds of nails could be purchased for each hour of work in the 3 labor categories.

5. A hasty evaluation of the results of steps 3 and 4 is misleading. An unskilled worker in the 1930's could purchase more nails with an hour's wage than the skilled blacksmith of 1850. Lead students in a brainstorming session, asking what general changes could have changed the relative value of labor to the cost of nails. After discussion, explain how the value of certain items was deflated by the advent of mass production techniques and improved transportation.

6. Using current data, have students compute how many nails a skilled and unskilled worker could purchase with today's hourly wage. Since transportation and production are similar to the 1930's the number will be somewhat similar to the 1930's. This may be an opportune time to introduce the subject of net and gross wages to older students. Using net income for the modern worker will give a more accurate comparison. The net income was very similar to the gross for 1930's workers.

7. After figures are compared, ask students to deduce whether the relative value of wages has risen, fallen or remained fairly constant for skilled workers over the last 150 years. Conclude the classroom session with a brainstorming session/discussion of economic factors other than the price of nails that may more accurately reflect the relative value of wages.


Follow-up Activity

1. Using the list of economic factors generated in Step 7 above, assign a specific item to each student/group for research. Ask students to determine the average cost of the item in 1850, 1930 and today using the Internet and traditional references. (Cost of a loaf of bread, a pair of shoes or housing are potential topics.) After determining the price, have students recalculate the relative value of wages.
2. After determining the relative value of wages, have students write a short essay explaining factors that may have skewed the comparison, i.e., introduction of foreign labor, taxes, variety of models.
3. Have students develop a computer spreadsheet using the Blacksmith's Daily Ledger provided. The students will recalculate the ledger for 1930 and today by multiplying the 1842 figures by the factors determined in #1, making comparisons in adjacent columns. Additional years can be added to make the project more challenging. A close examination of the depression era will show students that the cost of living can drop dramatically when many people are unemployed and wages tumble for those who are still working.

Additional Resources

Suggested Background Reading

"The Costs of Labor" by Bob Heath, an article outlining the traditional apprentice program for blacksmiths and the relative value of products, found online at www.anvilmag.com/smith/costofla.htm

Additional Information
Lesson Plan 3
The Misty Mount Infirmary

Camp Misty Mount was built in 1936 by Works Progress Administration (WPA), the first of 3 organized group camps that were completed in the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area. Cabins, made of chestnut lumber salvaged from the local area, were clustered in 3 units. The Dining Hall and Infirmary were built in the center of the camp. The camp was intended for summer use. Cabins contained only beds and a single light fixture.The Infirmary, located directly behind the Dining Hall, has multiple bedrooms, running water and is heated. Medical facilities, like the infirmary, were particularly important in the 1930's when polio, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases afflicted large groups of the population. This building had 6 patient beds, a private room and bath for the nurse, a small kitchen and a waiting room. A substantial amount of hardware was required for this building because of its size and complexity. The Map of Camp Misty Mount included in Lesson Plan #5 shows the exact location and relative size of the infirmary.


Last updated: April 10, 2015