Curious Objects: A Fireback from Hell—Ironworks and Industrial Labor in the Antebellum South, with Torren Gatson

Benjamin Miller Curious Objects

Scholar Torren Gatson, guest editor for the current edition of the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, comes on the pod to talk about an iron fireback (a metal plate protecting the back wall of a fireplace) produced at the Vesuvius Furnace in Lincoln County, North Carolina. Established by revolutionary war veteran Joseph Graham, the furnace depended on slave labor—oftentimes quite skilled—as well as that of freedmen and white women. Gatson’s research paints a compelling picture of the unique work culture this state of affairs produced.

Cast iron fireback, Joseph Graham’s Vesuvius Furnace, Lincoln County, North Carolina, 1792–1810. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, gift of Frank L. Horton; photograph courtesy of Torren Gatson.

Torren Gatson is an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A native of Wilmington Delaware, Gatson, received his BA and MA from North Carolina Central University and his Ph.D. from Middle Tennessee State University. Gatson is a trained public historian and a scholar of US Southern history, with an emphasis in nineteenth and twentieth century African American built environments. He is a historic preservationist who conceptualizes the impact of African American material culture on the physical and cultural landscape. Gatson works with communities to build lasting public products that reflect the dynamic and difficult aspects of African American history.