A Collection of American Implements

From The Chronicle, Vol. 1. No. 12, July 1935

by William B. Sprague

Author’s note – The publication of the following article in Old Time New England in July, 1933, contributed in such large measure to the birth of our Association that, in response to many suggestions and requests, it is hereby reprinted by the kind permission of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. 

The collecting of industrial implements is by no means a novel enter­prise. For at least a quarter of a century the historical societies of vari­ous communities, more especially in Pennsylvania, have recognized the indisputable fact that the preservation and exhibition of these homely articles is important from the historical and educational standpoint. Probably due, however, to the efforts of several large museums, recently established in some of the leading cities, to secure repre­sentative showings of this class of material, there seems to be just now a general awakening of interest in early American industry, in the home and shop and on the farm, to the extent that the editor of Old-Time New Eng­land has expressed the belief that a description of a private collection of this character, however far from com­prehensive, will be of interest to his readers.

As the late Dr. Henry C. Mercer, author of Ancient Carpenters’ Tools, and founder of the great industrial museum at Doylestown, Penn., used to point out, if our learned archaeol­ogists, who industriously explore the ruins of the eastern hemisphere, would give but passing attention to the pre­-factory tools of this country, they would readily find the solution to many problems which cause them sleepless nights and precipitate them into bitter controversies. For example, a dispatch from Jugoslavia [sic], appear­ing in the New York Sun of May 13, 1931, stated that a recent discovery of Roman ruins revealed several reaping sickles, which, in common with other Roman sickles found in that region, “are all made to be used with the left hand,” and proceeds to the deduction that the district must have formerly been populated by a “tribe of left-­handed persons.” Obviously, the sa­vant who drew this conclusion was misled by the fact that the bevels of the blades were uppermost, when the sickles were held in the left hand, whereas every early American grain sickle was constructed in exactly the same fashion, but was swung in the right hand, bevel underneath.

The “museum” consists of a hay barn, about fifty feet long by twenty wide, early enough to be constructed with hand-hewn timbers, its well-mel­lowed siding making an attractive and appropriate background for the ex­hibits. In the main room, occupying about three-quarters of the area of the building, thin board partitions, three on each side, project at right angles from the long walls to about one-third of the width of the room, leaving suf­ficient space in the center for passage and for the placing of articles too bulky to be accommodated in the al­coves. These partitions serve the double purpose of separating unrelated groups from one another and of substantially increasing the wall space on which to hang the smaller things. The remain­der of the ground floor, originally the cow stable, is walled off from the large room and is partitioned in half, one part being used for the handling of new acquisitions and stor­ing of duplicates, and the other part, through which one enters the building·, serving as a small display room. Here is shown the equip­ment of the sportsman – powder-horn, bullet-making imple­ments, shot pouches, an ancient fowling piece, decoys, traps, an outfit, almost complete, for snar­ing the passenger pigeon (extinct for fifty years), fishing tackle, spears and torches.

Included in this group is the one “non-American” item in the collection, in the shape of a Spanish powder-horn, elaborately carved and dated “Ano 1658,” the condition of the horn con­vincingly testifying to its age, and found by the writer in an abandoned house on Long Island. Who brought this to America? The Spaniards’ mili­tary activities never extended to that part of the continent. Was it a Dutch immigrant who took it from a Spanish soldier during an invasion of the Low Countries, or an English privateers­man who looted it from a Spanish gal­leon, or – perish the thought – mere­ly an American tourist who bought it in Spain as a curio?

Closely related, in the realm of out­door pastimes, and placed nearby, are the sleds, snowshoes and skates. On the opposite side of this small room are shown the instruments of the doctor and the dentist, including the crude blacksmith-made surgical instruments, bleeding knives and cups, and the vicious ”turn-keys” for tooth extrac­tion. Nearby is a group of toilet ar­ticles, featuring a primitive shaving kit, curling tongs, bootjacks and the like, equipment for inclement weather, such as umbrellas, ice creepers, a pair of pattens – apparently a relic of the eighteenth century – and miscellane­ous articles pertaining to indoor amuse­ments and education, hand-made toys and games, slates and ancient school­books. Also in this room are displayed devices for measuring weight, dis­tance, volume, time, etc. (except those which are designed especially for some particular industry and which are included with the tools of that industry) – a puzzling item here being a steel­yard laid off in units of seven (one-­half a stone weight).

Passing into the main room, the first group encountered are the tools for lumbering (felling and shaping wood for building material) including the complete equipment of the shingle maker, frows, frow clubs, shaving horse, and draw knives. Among the axes the most conspicuous are the Pennsylvania “goose-wing” type, truly of mediaeval appearance. Perhaps the rarest tool in this division is the hand forged, two-man “pit saw” or “whip saw,” worked by the “tiller man” on a scaffold above and the “pitman” in a pit below, to saw balks of timber into boards, prior to the advent of saw mills.

The next section, that of the wood­worker (the carpenter, wheelwright, turner and others) contains over two hundred items and naturally cannot be described in detail here. The massive mandrel lathe, with its solid wooden flywheel fully twelve inches thick, runs smoothly with the slightest pressure on the pedal. There are boring and ream­ing tools in large variety, including bit-stocks made entirely without metal, and the pump drill and bow drill, twirled by the winding and unwinding of a thong, suggestive of savage fire­making implements, draw knives with peculiar and engaging curves to their blades, hatchets for hewing, lathing and shingling, hammers and mallets (including one with head of beech and handle of oak, which defies explanation as to how the two were joined) and tools for sharpening, clamp­ing and measuring, especially an iron square, fashioned, dated and “signed” by one I. Titus in 1809. Brother Titus evidently took great pains with this job, but was confused about his figures ”4” and faced them all to the right instead of to the left! The coopers tools, most of which are highly specialized in char­acter and mysterious in appearance to the uninitiated, are given a corner of their own, together with a few barrels, buckets, tubs and even wooden canteens, for everything that is constructed of staves and hoops is the product of this artisan.

Leather working occupies the next compartment. A few tools for gather­ing tanbark and for tanning, currying and staking (i.e., stretching and soft­ening) leather are shown, but this sec­tion is far from completion and by no means tells a comprehensive story. The shoemaker’s bench, lasts and patterns, well-worn leather apron and various tools, principally handmade, as well as a few pairs of old-fashioned footgear, brass-tipped and otherwise, are grouped closely with the harness maker’s bench and vise – the latter’s tools, with few exceptions, being similar to those of the shoemaker. The glover’s imple­ments range from the hundred-year-old method of marking out the parts from wooden patterns and shaping them with shears, down to the later nineteenth-century process, now super­seded by machinery, of cutting the leather on a peculiarly constructed wooden block, with heavy steel dies, struck with a ponderous burl mallet of unique type.

A good sized compartment across the end of the room has been devoted to husbandry – the rearing of crops and live stock, tending them and mak­ing them useful. On the agricultural side, among the larger pieces, are plows with wooden mould boards (ob­solete before 1830, and one of them many decades earlier than that), a “flop-over” horserake, of mid-nine­teenth-century vintage, a grain-bind­er’s wheel-rake, probably of 1830 to 1840, suggestive of a trunk cart but with iron-shod tines projecting in front to scoop up the cut grain, an ancient horse-drawn cultivator with hand-forged teeth, a number of corn­ shelling machines, including the very early type consisting of a hollowed­ out tree trunk with wooden rods passed through to form a grating, “dug-out” mortars and pestles for pul­verizing grain, huge winnowing trays of wood and of basketwork for toss­ing threshed grain into a current of air to blow away the chaff, and their successor for the same purpose, the fanning mill, enclosing a paddle wheel turned with a crank, invented about 18oo and factory-made up to modern times. Among the less bulky objects are reaping cradles, scythes and sickles, including the extraordinary Pennsylvania-German scythe, which the user kept fit by tapping out the nicks on a pocket anvil, clumsy shovels, spading forks, hoes, mattocks, and grub hooks, seeding devices, including a complicated and ingenious machine, entirely home-made, which runs on wheels and automatically drops the seed at regular intervals, and harvest­ing forks, some of them made by split­ting the end of a hickory or ash pole into three parts and then, by means of wedges, splaying out the split ends into a graceful trident.

On the live stock side, the walls are well filled with draught yokes of vari­ous types, including the unusual single yoke, and with various ‘”pokes” and other devices of wood and iron to be worn by unruly domestic beasts and fowls of all kinds. This section also includes tools and machines for han­dling bedding and fodder, the crude instruments of the old-time veterinary, implements to be used in and about vehicles, including a massive wagon jack, clearly elated 1786 by the black­smith who made it, and tools used in the construction of fences, for without live stock no need for the farm fence is apparent.
The next department is that of metal working, of which the blacksmith oc­cupies more than his share of the space, with his gigantic bellows, ham­mers, wrenches, threading tools, hoof­-parers, files, nail-heading devices, and tongs of various sizes and shapes. It is difficult to elate these tools, even approximately, as the blacksmith has always made much of his equipment in his own shop, and crudeness of con­struction and design is here even less reliable an index of age than usual. Only a few tools each for the tinsmith, coppersmith and pewterer have been secured, perhaps the most interesting being a brass mould for casting pew­ter buttons, immeasurably scarcer than the not uncommon “rat-tail” spoon mould.

The set of goldbeater’s tools, all procured from the same source, is not far from complete and carries a particularly interesting story of how the gold foil, by several distinct pro­cesses occupying many hours, is pounded by hand from a thickness (or thinness!) of one one-thousandth of an inch to one three-hundred-and six­ty-seven-thousandths of an inch, and from an area of one inch square to eighteen inches square. This craft is about as ancient as any of which we have detailed records, elating back to the time of Pliny; still no machine has yet been devised to take the place of hand work.

The production of textiles, shown in the next group, is thus far confined to the implements for working wool, flax and hemp. Wool seems to belong to the live stock class, until it is sheared from the sheep. For its subsequent treatment there are the card:; and combs and the great spinning wheel to prepare it for the loom. Flax must be first freed from seed on the ripple comb, and then reduced to spinnable consistency and quality with the flax­break, swingling knife and hetchel, all of which are shown in some variety. The spools of the flax wheels contain many yards of clumsy linen thread spun by the writer. Anyone can operate a flax wheel after a fashion, but wool spinning requires considerably more knack. The implements for weaving include the massive loom with all its appurtenant devices such as the “tem­ples,” “leasing sticks,” and “raddles,” and also the little braid or tape looms to be stood on the table or held be­tween the knees. Reels, niddy-noddies and swifts of course belong here, as well as a few devices for making rope from hemp, for which the preparatory processes were very similar, though not as carefully executed, as those for flax. The interesting equipment of the fuller should be included in this group, but has not yet been found.

The tailor’s outfit, including the shears, goose, and button-hole cutters, together with a sewing machine of the eighteen­ sixties, and other accessories of the dressmaker, round out the textile sec­tion. A book of trades, published in 1827, says of the tailor, that he “ought to have a quick eye to steal the cut of a sleeve, the pattern of a flap, or the shape of a good trimming, at a glance: any bungler may cut out a shape when he has a pattern before him; but a good workman takes it by his eye in the passing of a chariot, or in the space between the door and a coach: he must be able not only to cut for the handsome and well-shaped, but bestow a good shape where nature has not granted it: he must make the clothes sit easy in spite of a stiff gait or awkward air: his hand and head must go together: he must be a nice cutter, and finish his work with elegance,” and of the dressmaker, that she “must be an expert anatomist; and must if judiciously chosen have a name of French termination; she must know how to hide all defects in the propor­tions of the body, and must be able to mould the shape by the stays, that, while she corrects the body, she may not interfere with the pleasures of the palate.”

The hat-making exhibit, principally procured from Danbury, Connecticut, and its immediate neighborhood, seems to enlist the special interest of almost every visitor, and is in a fair way toward completion, conspicuously lack­ing, however, the “battery,” a great kettle of specialized construction. For felt hats there are the seven-foot wooden key-shaped “bow,” the twang­ing string of which chivvied the par­ticles of fur into a flat and even mass for felting, the delicately made “bas­ket” and “walking pin” for forming the felt, the ‘puller-down,” “runner­down” and “slip-stick” (all blocking tools), the “shell,” a hollow sad iron containing an iron slug to be heated in the fire separately, the “rounding jack” and other brim trimmers, and the “foot,” the “shackle” and the “grooves” for curling brims. These latter are all made from choice woods – boxwood, mahogany, and lignum vitae – and with them were secured, from the same source, several half­-finished ones – prima facie evidence, at least, that they were made by the same hand that used them. A separate set of tools for the silk hat maker, and the implements for splitting and flattening straw for millinery, with a variety of hat blocks, are included in this section.

Candle making, next seen, is natu­rally divided into the two distinct processes of moulding and dipping. The moulds include the moderately recent factory-made tin ones, in a large variety of sizes, also the earlier pewter and pottery tubes set in wooden frames. One big dipping machine is designed to produce twenty-four dozen candles at once.

The other manufacturing groups are broom-making, including primitive machines for cutting the stalks from the broom corn and winding and sew­ing the broom, and basket making, with a large copper pan in which to soak the material, a large variety of “moulds” upon which the baskets were woven, a revolving stool on which to turn the moulds, and a “horse” for shaping the handles.

The next section is composed of miscellaneous tools, only a few each, of the sugar refiner, comb maker, tobacconist, slater, undertaker and others. The glass blower, calico print­er, engraver, paper maker, brick mak­er, glazier, plasterer, potter, cutler, bookbinder, cork cutter and many more are thus far not represented at all.

The lighting division contains a few representative lanterns and a variety of lamps, and of course could be ex­tended almost without limit by anyone who found it especially interesting. The heating group includes not only implements for supplying fuel – the charcoal burner’s outfit, the small axe and bucksaw for cutting firewood, and a few tools for harvesting peat  – but also foot warmers, fire carriers, warm­ing pans and small stoves. Refrigeration is represented by a few ice har­vesting-implements. Water supply is one of the most interesting features of the collection, showing a section of log pipe, with the curious tools for boring it and shaping the ends, and canteens and “field barrels” of wood, tin and copper in considerable variety.

The implements used in housekeep­ing activities have been grouped to­gether in a loft over the former cow stable, referred to above. The butter making outfit consists of churns of various styles, including the early “pump” churn, the lever or “wig-wag” type, and a rare kind which is rocked like a cradle to agitate the cream, wooden butter scales, ladles, skimmers, and prints, which latter can be found in attractive designs of endless variety and could well be made the subject of a specialized collection. Cheese mak­ing shows the press and its accessories, and various devices for breaking the curd before pressing. The meat divi­sion contains many kinds of grinding mills, mincing knives, sausage ”guns” for forcing the chopped meat into the casings, saws, cleavers, and hooks for hanging carcasses and joints. Preparation of fruit is an interesting sep­arate class with apple-paring machines in large variety (another chance for a specialist), labor-savers for coring and quartering, cherry-seeders and the like. The culinary department contains over one hundred and fifty articles, most of which would be entirely familiar to the reader, and a detailed description seems hardly in order. The remainder of the housekeeping department is given over to dining-table and laundry implements, brooms, mops, curious vermin traps and other articles handy to the housewife.

The collector of this class of mater­ial enjoys a unique advantage. In spite of increasing competition, he can still experience all the thrills of the antique collector of fifty years ago. He can explore territory which has long since yielded up its last Hitchcock chair and Currier and Ives print to the indefatigable combings of the “an­tiquers,” and discover curious tools and ingenious hand-made machines of the early days, heretofore overlooked or ignored as unmarketable or other­wise devoid of interest, and usually procurable for the proverbial “song.” How long this happy state of affairs will continue will depend on how rapidly the municipalities of this coun­try, in their endeavor to establish in­dustrial museums, to supplement those of military and historical relics, nat­ural history and art, may encroach upon the field.

Editor’s note: Read more about The Farmer’s Museum on the organization’s website. “Sprague’s materials form the core of an extensive collection of 19th and early-20th century tools,” reads the information under “Craft Tools.”

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3 Responses

  1. Gary Hammond says:

    I believe you have mistaken the identity of this collection – the collection described in the article belonged to William B. Sprague, not Henry Mercer. Mercer’s fireproof museum was built in 1915-16, whereas Sprague’s barn was located near Litchfield, Conn. Sprague mentions this fact in his “Author’s Note” introduction to the article where he gives the address of the owner as being 43 Cedar St., N.Y.C. – Sprague’s N.Y.C. address. Sprague’s collection would become the core of the Farmer’s Museum’s collection when they acquired it in 1942.

  2. Richard Mahler says:

    My wife lived in Doylestown and we were married there (over 50 years ago), so I know the Mercer Museum well. Her grandfather, who had known Henry Mercer and his eccentric housekeeper whom he allowed in his will to live in his home and take care of it after his death, arranged a private tour (she was up in years in the late 1960s, would do this only for friends, but she expected a donation! 😁). The house which was situated next to his tile factory, was of his usual cast concrete construction, fantasy semi-castle construction with rooms on staggered levels, lots of fireplaces and some built-in furniture also of cast concrete, lots of decorative tile of course. I was not going to take photos in her home but did outside. This is a great memory not only of this opportunity but of my wife’s engaging and thoughtful grandfather. I have copies of Mercer’s books in my library on antique tools.

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