Highlighting Some Weird and Wonderful Early Gadgets
Exploring Antique Technologies
By Kary Pardy
As a collector, chances are good that you’ve run across several items in old homes, flea markets, or antique stores that boggled the mind. These objects from past eras seem irreconcilable with our own and often end up displayed rather than being put back into circulation as tools. When faced with these primitive mystery objects, our questions of “What?” and “Why?” are closely linked. Early inventions solved problems that we typically don’t need to deal with today and their foreign uses, and foreign looks, can be quite appealing to collectors. This month we’ll dive a little deeper into the “Whats?” and “Whys?” of some of our favorites.
Cranberries grow on vines and early harvesting involved handpicking, a slow and labor-intensive process. In 1872, engineer W. T. Cosgrain solved this problem by proposing a flood; his method filled the marshes with water and made it possible for workers to use a rake to sift and collect the suspended berries. Workers would swing the rakes back and forth to comb the berries from the vines and production almost doubled. The first cranberry rakes were made entirely of wood. Later editions incorporated metal around the teeth.
Today’s cranberry farms use the “wet” method by pumping water into the bog – a water-based system to dislodge the berries, which are then corralled in a mass, transferred into a container, and shipped out for processing.
Object: The Bogardus Trap
In the early years of American sport shooting (mid-1800s), Boston’s Charles Portlock suggested a deviation from pigeons as targets to something more uniform and more easily standardized – the glass ball. The contest involved two shooters taking turns and each hitting as many glass targets as they could within a set period of time. Unfortunately, live birds had made for fun, erratic targets, and some of the challenge was lost with the new method. The first glass ball traps were only released balls straight up into the air.
Enter the Bogardus trap, the eponymous invention of champion shooter A. H. Bogardus, that catapulted glass balls into the air along a long arc. Both the Bogardus trap system and his branded patterned glass balls are quite collectible today. The glass balls come in a range of colors and patterns.
An essential piece of 19th century fashion, the busk most commonly appears to today’s collectors as a decorative item and its purpose can be hard to place given its nondescript form. In fact, busks are the lingering bones of an outdated women’s accessory, remaining in antique stores long after their associated item, the corset, has disappeared.
Busks, made most often of wood, ivory, or bone, slipped into pockets in the front of women’s corsets and provided shape and support in keeping the garment upright. They were critical touches to the finishing of a look, much like modern cufflinks, and as such, were often given as gifts from men to the women they cared for and could be carved quite decoratively. They are most popular as collectibles when carved and are often categorized with scrimshaw pieces.
Object: The Mangling Board and Roller
You’ve got a flat paddle with a handle, sometimes even inset with what looks like an oversized rolling pin. They are not tools for baking, but instead were the primitive version of the clothes iron. The mangling board and its accompanying roller originated in Northern Europe pre-17th century and are still in use in some areas of the world today. This laundry staple was used by wrapping the slightly-damp fabric around the smooth roller and placing it on a table. One then pressed the flat board down on the pin from above and rolled it back and forth, the pressure smoothing away any wrinkles.
Sometimes mangling boards had handles, and often they were carved with designs or inscriptions on one side. They have a history of being presented as courtship gifts and could be display pieces when not in use. The corresponding rollers, however, had to remain as smooth as possible. The board’s decorative elements make them desirable to folk collectors, though the real find is a pair complete with a pin, a much harder attribution given the roller’s necessarily plain appearance.
Object: Log and Log Chip (Ship Log)
This plain wooden triangle is deceptively simple. It’s an important piece of maritime history and is closely associated with the nautical speed designation “knots.”
The triangle itself is called a chip, or a log chip, making the entire system a log. Other sources today refer to it as a ship log. Sailing ships were equipped with a sand hourglass that measured a short interval, and a log chip and line. The weighted chip was tossed overboard at the ship’s stern and as the line pulled out, a sailor would count the number of uniformly-spaced knots that passed until the time ran out.
Earlier forms of this same technology measured the time it took for an object dropped overboard to move between two points on the deck, but this knot-based version prevailed with the invention of the nautical mile as a standard unit of measure. The knots on the log line sometimes corresponded to one nautical mile; seven and eight fathom intervals were also widely accepted.
With variables like currents, wind, and operator error working against them, wooden logs gave way to mechanical measuring tools in the 19th c., but they still make unique and historical finds for collectors who are in the know.
The colonial American kitchen revolved around the hearth and incorporated a variety of iron tools both hanging and freestanding by the fire. From toasters, skillets, and roasters to an assortment of cooking utensils, these hand-forged pieces seem even more exotic in our current time of mass-production and drive-thru’s.
For collectors of American primitives, most are straightforward in their appearance and are familiar enough for us to connect them to cooking. The kettle tilter, however, when found outside of the kitchen context, can be a little more misleading.
18th and early 19th century kettles would hang beside the fire to warm, hooked to a trammel so that one could regulate the heat by adjusting the height of the kettle. A kettle tilter would be connected directly to the kettle with two hooks that wrapped around the handle and one upper hook to suspend everything from the trammel. You could then use the handle to tilt and pour from the kettle without ever removing it from the rack.
The kettle tilter makes our list because of its hand-made beauty, and because its ornate handles are both deceiving to newcomers and desirable to collectors. Kettle tilters with extra flourishes tend to bring anywhere from the low to upper hundreds at auction.
Our last mysterious tool from the past could easily be mistaken for a scalpel, until you look closer. Notice the short, curved blade that ends in a precise tip: this leaf-shape blade was made to scrape ink from a page and the point allowed it to work well in areas that required fine detail. The ink eraser was once a desktop staple, along with the quill cutter, which itself might be mistaken for an early pocketknife.
Though no longer in our working vocabulary, writers and artists were very familiar with these tools a little over one hundred years ago. Today, collectors and vintage enthusiasts alike search out ink erasers and quill knives, particularly sets crafted in sterling silver.
While the ink may have faded on many 18th and 19th century technologies, we continue to be fascinated by the distant and unknown inventions of the past. They are all the more relevant as we race into the future and can tell us a great deal about what was important and what problems needed solving. Do you have any mysteries in your collection? If so, please share them with us! We would be happy to shed a little light on your antique technology!