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An iron block, usually with a steel face, upon which metals are hammered and shaped. — Webster, 1882

While celebrating the Fourth… [the blacksmith] was badly burned by the explosion of a quantity of gunpowder with which he was charging an anvil. – Michigan newspaper, 1882

Appearing only in Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that on the Fourth of July, the Ingalls family could hear the loud “boom” of gunpowder “exploding under the blacksmith’s anvil” several miles away in De Smet (see Chapter 8, “Fourth of July”).

The anvil was a heavy, solid iron piece with a shaped projection at one end, called the horn. Usually fastened to a wooden block to raise the work surface to a comfortable height, the anvil provided a surface upon which a blacksmith could shape horseshoes or fashion iron into a multitude of products, including tools and hardware.

Unlike the town of Malone in Farmer Boy (see Chapter 16, “Independence Day”), De Smet didn’t have a cannon to fire in order to replicate the “bombs bursting in air” during the fight for America’s freedom and independence, but the citizens wanted to make a celebratory joyful noise just the same.

Anvil firing. What Wilder describes is firing or charging an anvil. It is a traditional sport of blacksmiths, and while early anvil firings may have only shot the anvil a few feet into the air and were mainly for the noise and white smoke, there are fierce competitions today where a hundred pound anvil is projected hundreds of feet into the air. For a celebratory firing, an anvil is placed on a level surface and a second anvil is placed face down on top of it so that two smooth faces are touching, with a small amount of gunpowder between the anvils and a fuse trailing away with which to light it. Boom! Click HERE to see an anvil firing in action.

It’s possible that what the Ingallses heard from their homestead — multiple booms — was a competition between the four blacksmiths in town! Note the anvil (circled in red) secured to its block in the photograph below, and the horseshoes scattered about.


anvil (LTP 8), see also blacksmith