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A metal of a reddish color, ductile, malleable, and tenacious. It is among the most elastic and sonorous of the metals. It fuses at 2000 degrees of Fahrenheit, and has a specific gravity varying from 8.8 to 8.9. It is found native, and also in various ores, of which the most important are copper pyrites, copper glance, red oxide of copper, and malachite. Copper mixed with tin forms bell-metal; with a smaller proportion, bronze; and with zinc, it forms brass, pinchbeck, and other alloys. — Webster, 1882

The strips of copper across the toes were so glittering that Laura wished she were a boy. Little girls didn’t wear copper-toes. – Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 10, “Summertime”

Copper, either in its metallic state or in combination with other metals or minerals, was generously distributed throughout the world during the Little House years. In the world, it was the first metal mined and crafted by man into weapons, tools, pieces of art and adornment, and useful household items.

The first copper pieces were made by cutting, bending, and hammering copper ore with stone tools. Blacksmiths discovered that copper hardens under prolonged hammering but can be returned to its malleable state by heating. Items were tempered through a process of alternate cycles of hammering and cooking.

In the early United States, copper followed only gold and iron in importance. In the late 18th and early 19th century, New York State was a prime exporter of copper, with large quantities also coming from Vermont and New Jersey. As settlers moved west, copper was discovered in Michigan. After copper was discovered in California, combined with silver in such quantities as to make mining profitable, the west became the primary copper-mining region. The government had issued hundreds of permits to copper mining operations, and fortunes were made and lost on a weekly basis.

In the 1870s, a process was developed to draw copper into wire which was strong enough to be strung overhead. Prior to that time, iron wire had been used in the telegraph system. Copper consumption peaked when electricity and telephones were finding their way into every home (late 1800s to early 1900s).

In mining, copper was classed as follows: (1) mass copper, cut with cold chisels in lumps of several tons each, yielding up to 80 percent ore, (2) barrel work, consisting of large pieces packed in barrels for transportation, and (3) stamp work, or ore crushed under steam-worked stamps and packed in casks and barrels. Copper was worked where fuel was cheap and plentiful, so large smelting operations were located originally on the Atlantic coast—at Boston, New Haven, New York, New Jersey, and Baltimore, or in Michigan at Detroit.

The softness and tenacity of copper made it applicable to a large number of uses. It arrived at market in sheets or plates which were hammered into kettles and pots and vessels of all kinds. Combined with zinc, copper makes brass; combined with tin, it becomes bronze, gun metal, or bell metal.

Copper kettles and pots. The Wilder kitchen boasted copper pots and kettle, which would have cost at least twice the amount of similar items made of tin. Since copper reacts with acidic foods, copper pots were used to boil water, for non-acidic cooking, or they were lined with tin. Mother Wilder used her copper kettle for frying doughnuts in Farmer Boy (see Chapter 7, “Saturday Night”).

Copper-toed shoes. According to an article in the 1896 Fort Wayne (Indiana) Gazette, copper-toed shoes were patented in the late 1850s by an inventor who made $100,000 from them; it was later said that he made up to $4 million on the invention. Patent documents state: “In providing the upper on the toes of boots and shoes with fenders of copper, brass, India-rubber, gutta-percha, or any other substance, for the purpose of protecting against grasses, etc., cutting or wearing out the uppers on the toes of boots and shoes, which fender is required to be made so as to fit upon the toe, previous to putting on the outsole, and to extend beneath the outsole far enough to receive the pegs, which are to fasten it on, etc.”

Children’s shoes could be purchased with metal toe coverings in place, or the protectors could be bought separately for about five cents a pair, and applied to finished shoes by a cobbler. In the United States during the Little House years, two companies were rivals in the manufacture of shoe-tips, the National Shoe Protector Company and the American Shoe Tip Company. An 1880 newspaper advertisement for the newer black rubber toe-protectors by the American Shoe Tip Company is shown at right. These were said to be suitable for fine as well as coarser shoes because they blended in better with the shoe color itself, whereas metal toes were highly visible.

Contrary to what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Little House in the Big Woods, copper-toed shoes were indeed worn by both boys and girls.


copper (BW 10)
     copper plate (LTP 16), see copper plate
     copper-toed shoes (BW 10; PG), see also copper-toed shoes
     kettle (FB 7)
     pots (FB 5)