Burning Brands or Marking Irons
Excerpted from the The Chronicle Vol. 31 No. 3, September 1978
by John R. Grabb
Methinks the realms of England, France and Ireland
Bear that proportion to my flesh and blood
As did the fatal brand Althaea burn’d Unto the prince’s heart of Calydon. (1)
Through past articles in The Chronicle we have noted the importance of identifying marks or stamps on tools, devices, etc. (2) Such articles have dealt mainly with maker’s marks on the fore end of planes and the touch marks of metal objects forged by blacksmith.
Silversmiths, potters, gunsmiths, and other artisans have marked their finished pieces. Myriads of identifying marks have featured combinations of initials, names, geometric designs, or figures of men, animals and plants.
Serious collectors are challenged as they seek to date and identify their newly acquired pieces by marks uncovered in cleaning them.
This essay will mostly concern the marking of wooden objects by the use of the burning brand – sometimes called “marking” or “branding” iron. The word “brand” is from Old English, akin to Old High German brant, and means a mark of a simple, easily recognized pattern made by burning with a hot iron to attest manufacture or quality or to designate ownership. (3)
The word “brand” also became known as a grade of goods or the product of a certain maker. In past articles we have noted that wood planes marked “Scioto Works” were the second grade or brand of goods made by Ohio Tool Company.
Remember the thrill we received as youngsters at Christmas when we received a “brand new” sled, doll, wagon or pair of shoes? In this instance, the indication was that the gift was fresh from the storekeeper or manufacturer and had never been used.
The use of brands or branding goes back to antiquity. We notice it first in the Old Testament (4) when we read of the “Brand of Cain.” “The Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him.” This was the badge of the manslayer.
The Chinese penal code is based upon enactments for which a remote antiquity is claimed, and the earliest system of punishment is ascribed to the “Emperor” Shun (2255 B.C.), who is said to have established the “Five Punishments” that were in vogue to the end of the Chow dynasty (255 B.C.), viz., ( 1) branding on the forehead. (5)
Branding was one of many varieties of corporal punishment. It was used not only to chastise but to identify and stigmatize criminals. The letter used generally identified the crime committed. The practice was common in medieval and modern Europe. It persisted in England until abolished in 1829. In colonial America, petty criminals and runaway slaves were frequently branded, but the practice [of branding criminals] was discontinued before the American Revolution. (6)
While this authority says “the practice was discontinued,” there is record of an instance here in Chillicothe, Ohio, in the year 1804, in which a criminal was branded. A man was tried for murder, but the jury found him guilty of manslaughter only. He was sentenced “to be burned in the palm of the left hand, with a hot iron, so that the letters M S shall be plainly marked thereon, and pay the costs of prosecution.” This man’s name, of all things, was John Brandy. (7) At that date Chillicothe was a frontier town and the capital of the new state of Ohio.
An instance of the branding of a runaway slave is shown by this advertisement :
“FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD
“Ran away from the subscriber, on the 30th January, 1810, a negro named BEN, 17 years old, 5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, branded thus, T.W. on each cheek ( the letters T W joined together) for horse stealing. Any person taking up said negro and bringing him to Thomas Ward in Cabell county, Virginia, near Big Sandy, shall have the above reward. Feb. 14, 1810 Thomas Ward” (8)
It appears that the use of hot branding irons directly on the hides of live cattle came into general use with the beginning of the great western cattle drives, where stock of several owners was commingled and driven to railheads for shipment east.
Because of the many tales written about the cowboy and the spring roundup of stock to be branded, when we see the term “branding iron” we generally associate it with the hot searing of live animals with the iron to mark ownership. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such brands were little used on the hides because they were too valuable to be defaced in such manner. Burning brands were used, though, on horns and hoofs. (9)
Generally the smaller stock, such as hogs and sheep, was identified with ear cuts, described as a crop, a slit, an underbit, a hole, a swallow fork, etc. (10)
From laws long established in England and followed in America, we find that owners of brands were required to register them with county or township officials, and we note this:
“All those who wish their Brands or marks recorded will call on William Niblick, at Mr. John M’Dougal’s Store. — Chillicothe, May 19, 1802” (11)
County officials themselves sometimes required a brand to identify public property. In 1802, it was “Ordered that the inspector for Ross County provide at the expense of the County a branding iron with Ross County on it, at full length & the letters M. W. T. underneath.” (12)
Shortly after the settlement at Chillicothe began in 1796, John McDougal opened the first store. He advertised in a Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) paper that he was “prepared to furnish the very best whiskey, and other things required … ” Monongahela whiskey from around the Pittsburgh area was much prized by the early settlers, who imbibed freely of it. You can be sure that the distiller, anxious to advertise his brand, prominently branded his whiskey kegs.
John McDougal was also a heavy buyer of pork for which he executed “Pork Notes.” These were agreements by which hog raisers promised to deliver so many pounds of fat hogs between the 10th of December and the 15th of January. McDougal would give “Cash and Merchandise in advance for good Pork.” (13) He also advertised that “A contract will be entered into for the building of Orleans Boats.” (14)
Orleans Boats were flatboats, as much as 90 feet or longer, which were built of white oak in the winter season and loaded with the rich produce of the Scioto Valley – mainly pork, beef, salt, corn, flour, whiskey, skins, pelts, and ginseng. Upon the arrival of the spring freshets the loaded boats floated off on the long voyage clown the rivers to New Orleans. Such ventures were fraught with danger on the flood-swollen rivers and many wound up wrecked. The remains of one such wreck found on a gravel bar in the Scioto River 52 years afterwards contained a couple of barrels of mess pork that was distinctly branded McCoy & James. (15)
In the early 1800s, Chillicothe was an important frontier town where artisans made all sorts of other wooden articles besides pork barrels and lard kegs. Craftsmen stood behind their work and were proud to brand such products as cabinetmaker’s case pieces, chairs, smith’s bellows, ladders, looms, churns, well buckets, tubs, washboards, measures, pumps, apple and salt barrels, tobacco hogsheads, beer and powder kegs, tool handles (Figure 2), wooden planes (16), cigar boxes (Figure 3), and many other wood products.
Chillicothe had four known spinning wheel makers: Joseph Hopkins, Joseph Lemun, Henry May, and James Howard, and they may have brandedtheir work, but the writer has never found a marked wheel with the name of any of them. Joseph Lemun’s spinning wheels were “justly esteemed the best in the state.” (17)
Weavers were busy at their looms supplying the settlers with coverlets, rugs and coarse cloth. The shops of Evarard Harr and M. & W. Simpson turned out weavers’ reeds. The latter were proud to announce “all reeds sent from the shop will bear the brand ‘M. & W. Simpson.'” (18)
You might wonder where a branding iron might be obtained in territory so far removed from a metalworking center such as Pittsburgh. In 1818, James Brown and son set up a shop in Chillicothe where they “. . . established a manufacture of sundry articles of Hardware suitable to the country. … ” Branding irons were included in a long list of edge tools, scale beams, etc. which the Browns advertised. (19)
Chillicothe was a supply station for General Wm. Henry Harrison’s troops during the War of 1812. Local miller and distiller John Crouse shipped a large quantity of both wet and dry goods during that era (see Figures 4 and 5).
In 1823 the Navy Commissioner’s office advertised in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Alexandria, Norfolk, Kentucky, St. Louis and Chillicothe newspapers to ” … receive proposals for furnishing for use of the Navy of the United States, 1500 barrels of Beef (Figures 6 and 7) and 1000 barrels of pork. . . . These provisions must be of the best and most approved quality, well salted, and salt petred. The barrels must be of seasoned heart of white oak, and fully hooped. . . .” This area of Ohio was a very important meat packing center as evidenced by this notice in the Chillicothe newspaper. (20) All of these barrels would have been branded to identify the packer when opened up and “duly inspected.”
By 1819 steamboats were in general use on the Ohio River, ladened with all sorts of boxes, cases, and barrels. Such shipments received rough handling and were often stacked on deck where they were subject to the elements. Paper labels were not practical under such conditions so branding and stenciling were mostly used to identify the shipper and consignee.
Often these wooden barrels and cases were reused and the original brand or stencil was removed with the box shave. (21) Oldtime storekeepers always had a box shave among the tools used in their stores.
A teamster who worked for mines in Arizona in 1869 wrote about his experiences in hauling explosives. (22) “The heavy boxes were branded ‘Nobel’s Blasting Oil’ and when handled and jolted, there sifted out of the cracks of the boxes a fine white powder, like flour.” (23) It’s clear that no chances were taken with paper labels coming off or stencils being smeared. Recognition of such dangerous contents had to be positive.
In 1884, a New Mexico correspondent of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote about The Branding Iron as the Basis of Fortunes. (24) He told of the gangs of rustlers who stole Mexican stock and drove them to the San Carlos Indian Agency. “Sometimes they stole American stock, when they had to get to work and remove the brands. The plan was simple enough. A piece of blanket was taken and wrung out after being dipped in water. A common frying pan was heated nearly red hot. The wet blanket was applied over the b-:-and and the red hot pan pressed hard against it. The steam generated, scalded the hair clean off, and the job was done. In a few months the hair grew again and a new brand was put on. There again the fellows had a kind of branding iron with which they could change a number of brands.
I once heard a Texan boast of a man in Presido County, Texas, “who started in only five years ago with two old cows and a branding iron and is today worth $100,000.” I told him, “I knew half a dozen men in New Mexico who started in with nothing but a branding iron and are today worth $200,000.” The branding iron has laid the foundation of many respectable fortunes both here and in Texas.”
In the nineteenth century, marking irons were peddled on the streets of London and we find this in Tuer. (25) “The old cry of ‘Marking Irons’ has died out. The letters were cast in iron, and sets of initials were made up and securely fixed in long-handled iron boxes. The marking irons were heated and impressed on a proof of ownership.
“Hence ladders, bellows, tubs and pails/Brooms, benches, and what not,/Just as the owner’s taste prevails, /Have his initials got.”
Germans made up a large part of Chillicothe’s population in the late nineteenth century and how the men loved their beer and cigars. There were quite a few German cigar makers who plied . their trade in shops attached to their homes. They put up their hand-rolled “segars” in mahogany boxes and branded them with their name and revenue district as the law required (Figure 3).
Devotees of early trades are familiar with the stamps used to mark wooden planes and also the marking hammer used to whack an identifying mark on the ends of railroad ties, large timbers, and logs. These devices work well in compressing the end-grain and left a mark that has endured for centuries. Such stamps are not satisfactory on lateral surfaces as they cut and distort the wood fibers. This is where the branding iron does such a good job in imparting an indelible mark. Early house joiners and cabinetmakers often used the wood chisel to cut Roman numerals in their various framing pieces.
- Shakespeare, II Henry VI, Act i (York).
- See Mary Earle Gould, The Chronicle, Vol. XIV, 1, pp. 4, 5. Also Rockwell Gardner, The Chronicle, Vol. XV, p. 16 and others.
- Webster’s Dictionary.
- Genesis, IV, 15.
- Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, ed. Scribners, New York, Vol. 4, p. 269.
- International Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 219.
- Williams Bros., History of Ross and Highland Counties, Ohio. Cleveland, 1880, p. 70.
- Scioto Gazette, Chillicothe, Ohio, February 14, 1810.
- See R. A. Salaman, Dictionary of Tools, p. 106. Also see “Horn Brands” in Figure 1.
- Book of Records, viz., Marks, Brands, Private Roads, &c., Union Township, Ross County, Ohio, John Crozier, Township Clerk, 1816.
- Scioto Gazette, May 22, 1802.
- Minute Book of the Court of Quarter Sessions of the Peace, session of the 4th Tuesday, Sept. 1802. Chillicothe was then the capital of the Northwest Territory.
- Scioto Gazette, Nov. 20, 1809.
- Ibid., Oct. 9, 1809.
- John McCoy & Thomas James were the first to pack pork west of the Alleghenies and they opened the second store in Chillicothe in 1798. Much of the pork was destined for Havana and other West India Islands.
- See The Chronicle, Vol. 30, I, pp. 14-15.
- Scioto Gazette, Nov. 13, 1806.
- The Supporter & Scioto Gazette, Dec. 20, 1823.
- Scioto Gazette & Fredonian Chronicle, April 3, 1818.
- The Supporter & Scioto Gazette, August 9, 1823.
- See R. A. Salaman, Dictionary of Tools, p. 180.
- Scioto Gazette, March 30, 1881.
- Nobel’s Blasting Oil was no more nor less than nitroglycerine. That was the name it was used under for a time after its discovery, or, rather, its practical application to blasting, by Alfred Nobel, in 1863.
- Scioto Gazette, Oct. 22, 1884.
- Andrew W. Tuer, Old London Cries and the Cries of Today (London, 1885). For more on these peddlers, see Crabb. ”The Knife Grinder,” The Chronicle, Vol. 30. 3, pp. 37-40.
John R. Crabb is a retired letter carrier and is now engaged in cabinetmaking and as an archivist at the Ross County Historical Society, Chillicothe, Ohio, where he pursues historical research.
Editor’s note: Mr. Crabb died in 2010 at the age of 95. You can read his obituary here.