Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When Samuel Yellin opened his Arch Street Metal worker’s Studio in Philadelphia in 1920, most who shared his ancient craft had abandoned their tools in favor of other pursuits. Yellin was a blacksmith – he insisted on calling himself that, although clients flocked to him for his sculptural and artistic skill, rather than to have horses shod or plows mended. From his shop poured the monumental iron­work that graces dozens of cathedrals, institutions, public buildings and private resi­dences designed by the na­tion’s premier architects during an age of great opu­lence. Samuel Yellin was un­doubtedly one of the finest blacksmiths who ever worked in America.

The medium of the black­smith is iron, heated until it is elastic in a forge fired with wood, coal or gas, and ham­mered to shape while it is pliant. Traditional country smiths undertook a variety of agriculture-related work: re­pairing or fabricating farm equipment, forging hardware, putting iron rims on wheels and sharpening tools, in addi­tion to shoeing horses and oxen. In the city there was a greater tendency to specialize. Samuel Yellin specialized in architectural forgings. His fires turned out massive gates and iron screens, miles of decora­tive iron railing and bannis­ters, hinges, latches and lighting fixtures. If an architect specified wrought iron for anything inside or outside one of his commissions, Yellin ironworkers would fashion it.

His work was distinctive, unlike that of most American forges. A regard for the shapes of nature was the paramount characteristic of Yellin’s iron­work. Many of his gates are so fluid, so organic, that they seem nearly to have sprouted from the soil. As in nature, Yellin avoided repeating an iron element in a project ex­actly. The horns may twist slightly differently on each of hundreds of dragon-like fi­nials, or the veins in a ham­mered iron leaf will differ from its neighbor’s.

Samuel Yellin was a master at disguising strength as beauty. His interlocking iron scrolls combine to form a sound yet flowing structure. His screens and gates were never simply a collection of iron shapes put together to merely decorate a space. “I will not have in my work anything that is for show; it must be real,” he insisted. Indeed, each detail in a Yellin screen is im­portant in the overall structure and unity. The pattern itself becomes the physical strength.

Philadelphia enjoyed a long established heritage of fine ironwork long before the seventeen-year-old Yellin ar­rived. Much colonial ironwork, notably the grills and balconies at Independence Hall, testified to the skill of the city’s eight­eenth century artisans. In villages and towns throughout Pennsylvania, blacksmiths crafted hinges and fittings for Conestoga wagons (now rec­ognized as much for their beauty as for their utility). The Pennsylvania long rifle, an­other product of these early forges, was a weapon of fine craftsmanship and exquisite design that was also accurate and effective.

But it was not to the work of these Pennsylvania artisans that Yellin turned for inspira­tion. He was a master by the time he arrived in the United States in 1906. Born in Poland in 1885, Yellin began his ap­prenticeship at the age of seven at the forge of a Russian blacksmith in the tiny village of Mogiler. His Russian men­tor was a strict taskmaster who often boxed his young charge’s ears. Imbued with a burning desire for excellence, Yellin himself would later be as de­manding of his own employ­ees, insisting on nothing short of perfection in their work.

As a journeyman in Europe at the close of the nineteenth century, Yellin traveled exten­sively for five years, earning his way with hammer and tongs. “He looked for work wherever he heard the sound of a hammer,” his son, Harvey, recalled many years later. He spent three years in Belgium forging armor and copying gothic ironwork. After two years in England he emigrated to America. He had little for­mal education, but a decade at the anvil gave him a thorough understanding of his material, a deft hand with the hammer and a solid grounding in Euro­pean ironwork design and execution.

Yellin’s first job was with a Philadelphia factory which manufactured ornamental bedposts. By way of a job interview, he was asked to make a copy of a grotesque iron finial, which he com­pleted in a matter of minutes. When the foreman com­mented on the speed of his hammer, Yellin snapped that the work was better done fast “or not at all.” His impudence did not stand in the way of his securing this job or many others in later years when he dealt with leading architects and wealthy clients with his characteristic impertinence.

America was, during the first three decades of this cen­tury, in the midst of a sweep­ing revival of interest in the arts and crafts. The English Arts and Crafts movement had begun fifty years earlier with the work of William Morris, and Yellin inevitably benefited from this rejection of things machine made and mass pro­duced. Shortly after settling in Philadelphia, and before open­ing his first shop, Yellin began teaching at the Museum and School of Industrial Arts, as artistic ironwork was experi­encing a resurgence in popu­larity.

Yellin’s earliest Philadelphia shop was a modest establish­ment. He found a two-room loft above a surgical instru­ment factory, a space so small that when he raised his ham­mer he often hit the ceiling. One of his earliest important commissions, the ironwork for the New York Federal Reserve Bank, was executed in this tiny shop. Yellin forged sample grates and iron grills to enter in the competition for the commission, lugging them himself on the train to Man­hattan. It was an extensive job, one which convinced him that he had outgrown the little garret shop.

By the time he opened the Arch Street works in 1920, Samuel Yellin’s artistry was well known in architectural circles. The architectural firm of Meilor, Meigs and Howe designed a two-story brick building – more Spanish than Philadelphian in style – and its stucco walls were dotted with wrought iron window grills, while the entrance was domi­nated by a pair of huge gothic iron gates. Yellin’s interior was reminiscent of medieval Eu­rope, with high, beamed ceil­ings and leaded glass win­dows. The imposing building still houses a Large forge room, as well as a specialized library on ironwork and a collection of European iron treasures dating to the twelfth century.

During the 1920s, Yellin employed as many as three hundred workers in his Arch Street studio. Blacksmiths, locksmiths and assemblers sculpted work for Yale Univer­sity, the Federal Reserve Bank in several locations, Princeton and Harvard universities, Mercersburg Academy and his most ambitious commission, the Washington Cathedral. Private commissions echoed America’s most influential and wealthy names: DuPont, De­ere, Ford, Astor and Rockefel­ler.

Clients sought Samuel Yellin for his expert craftsman­ship, his innate sense of good design and his unyielding demand for perfection. “A craftsman can never be too discriminating nor too fastidi­ous,” he wrote in a 1925 article for Country Life magazine. “He can lavish as much skill and creative ability upon a little handle costing five dollars as upon a great gate costing fifty thousand dollars.” He believed in honesty of workmanship, insisting on it even if the skill devoted to the piece was hid­den.

“My father preached that art must have some purpose. It must evolve from a back­ground, and his was an inti­mate knowledge of the material.” Harvey Yellin ex­plained years after his father’s death. Samuel Yellin believed that a craftsman’s first duty was to learn the capabilities and limitations of his material, even though he saw little in twentieth century America on which to lavish praise in spite the renewed interest in hand­crafts. “The real feeling for craftsmanship, that of employ­ing materials in a manner suitable to their nature to achieve results for which they are especially well-adapted, is but little understood today,” he wrote.

Yellin’s material was wrought iron, like that made in charcoal furnaces through­out Pennsylvania for two cen­turies. Unlike modern steel, wrought iron is sinewy and grainy. Its grain lends itself to shaping the natural, plant-like motifs he preferred. It works easily when heated to a bright, glowing red and can be welded on the anvil under the hammer when white hot and sparkling. The more it is ham­mered the tougher it becomes. By 1920, however, the furnaces that produced wrought iron in America had long before gone cold. Yellin had to import iron from Scandinavia, bringing it to Arch Street by the boatload.

It was his knowledge of the way wrought iron would react under his hammer that en­abled Yellin to create ornate patterns that were strong and at the same time beautiful. “I love iron. Tt is the stuff of which the frame of the earth is made,” he once said. “You can make it anything you will. It elegantly responds to the hand, and to the bidding of the imagination.” Although his gates appear complex, close examination reveals an under­lying simplicity that is their strength. Often, an element of a railing or grill looks like a vine, leaf after leaf connected to form a long, straight sec­tion. When examined, how­ever, it is obvious that the artisan began with a solid bar; using simple techniques he created the illusion of individ­ual leaves. With this sort of artistic illusion, he was able to achieve both outstanding strength and unforgettable delicacy.

Samuel Yellin was so confi­dent in his knowledge of his medium and his ability to work it that he seemed almost arrogant in correspondence with his architect-clients. He insolently insisted on total control of design and de­manded complete artistic freedom. When asked to sub­mit specifications for a job, he would only respond: “I shall specify that it is to be executed in the best possible way.” He would provide rough drawings in advance, indicating scale, proportion and general layout, but would never commit him­self to details.

Much of this was the result of Yellin’s design technique. He liked to say that he “sketched with a hammer for a pencil and the red-hot iron for drawing paper.” He worked best on the anvil’s face, sketch­ing out designs and solving problems in iron rather than on paper. Yellin worked with architect James Gamble on the Harkness Memorial in Woodlawn, New York. “We had scale suggestions and many detail drawings, but when I began to work them on the anvil they shaped them­selves quite differently from the way they appeared in the original sketches,” he later noted. “The creative spirit that finds expression in iron can never exactly duplicate a pencil drawing.”

His clients understood. When working on ironwork for Oberlin College, Yellin changed architect Cass Gil­bert’s details. The job superin­tendent refused to install the work without Gilbert’s ap­proval. Gilbert, without hav­ing seen the work, wired his reply to the foreman: “If it’s not like the details, it must be better.” Another architect wrote to Yellin in 1925 asking for an estimate: “Enclosed please find a scale blueprint showing an iron balcony. Send us one estimate the way you do it and also an estimate the way the other fellows do it.”

Harvey Yellin remembered that his father’s mind was “fertile with designs. His in­spiration was inborn … He kept a pad and pencil beside his bed and often awoke in the dead of the night to sketch some design for a gate or a bannister or a light fixture.” Yellin himself admitted that, “I can hardJy sleep because my mind is aswarm with visions of all the gates and grills and locks and keys I want to do.” The artisans he employed could follow his instructions, and Yellin taught his workmen to use the hammer and anvil skillfully. None but himself, however, had his artistic sensi­bility.

The work that poured from Yellin’s Arch Street Metalwork­ers Studio was recognized widely outside the architec­tural community. He was hon­ored with membership in the Royal Society of Art in London and awarded memberships in this country ‘s most presti­gious art organizations. In 1925, he received the Philadel­phia Civic Award, a ten thou­sand dollar prize, and praise as the citizen who “made the name of Philadelphia in iron craftsmanship stand for the very best in artistic trade for all times.” The American Institute of Architects presented him with a medal in 1920, a rare distinction for a craftsman.

Among the most personally gratifying for Samuel Yellin were awards that recognized not only his skill with a ham­mer, but also his expertise as a collector and general expert on various forms of decorative arts. He served as a consultant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making important contri­butions to many collections. During a museum trip to Lon­don, Yellin discovered a cache of seven hundred pieces of early English woodcarving that became one of the muse­um’s most fortunate acquisi­tions. Just prior to his death, Yellin was asked to write the section on “Modern Ironwork Technique and Practice” for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Of this he was especially proud; when he came to America in 1906 he could neither read nor write a great deal of English. Samuel Yellin died in Phila­delphia in 1940. If he had a lifetime goal, it was to provide guidance and inspiration to all craftspeople, regardless of the material with which they chose to work. Fifteen years before his death he wrote: “It seems to me if there is any hope of rekindling a real love for craftsmanship, and if we wish to combat the lethargy, indifference and ignorance of the general public, we craftsmen must put forth all our efforts to produce only the very best of which we are capable, so that the layman must eventually, through the cultivation of his mind and eye, learn to be discriminating and appreciative of beauty.” A tall order – imposing standards of beauty and perfection upon a largely unreceptive public.

Samuel Yellin’s work, al­though it was praised as that of America’s finest blacksmith, was destined to be seen by only a privileged few to this day. But his talents at the forge may have helped put him in good stead beyond his tenancy on Arch Street: “I verily be­lieve that I shall take my ham­mer with me when I go, and at the gate of heaven, if I am denied admission, I shall fashion my own key.”

 

For Further Reading

Aitchinson, Leslie. A History of Metals. New York: Interscience Publishers, 1960.

Davis, Myra Tolmanc. Sketches in Iron: Samuel Yellin, Ameri­can Master of Wrought Iron, 1885-1940. Washington, D. C.: George Washington University, 1971.

Gunnion, Vernon S. and Carroll J. Hopf. The Metal Crafts. New York: The Macmillan Company, /942.

Kauffman, Henry J. Early Amer­ican Ironware. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle Company, 1966.

Sonn, Albert H. Early American Wrought Iron. New York: Scrib­ner’s Sons, 1928.

Wallace, Philip B. Colonial Ironwork in Old Philadelphia. New York: Architectural Book Publishing Company, Inc., 1930.

Wattenmaker, Richard J. Samuel Yellin in Context. Flint, Mich.: Flint Institute of Arts, 1985.

 

Ron Pilling, a resident of Balti­more, Maryland, is an account executive with the Pryor Corpora­tion, a manufacturer of data proc­essing equipment. He received his bachelor of science degree from the University of Maryland in eco­nomics, and his master of business administration degree in market­ing from Morgan State College. His interest in decorative iron­work resulted from his restoration of a Victorian-era house in Balti­more. The author’s articles have appeared in numerous magazines on the history of various arts and crafts. Much like Samuel Yellin, subject of this article, he is also a blacksmith.