Tools of the Trades
By Maxine Carter-Lome
Eli Whitney is credited as saying “We can’t make anything until we make tools.” That’s the take-away from this month’s issue. Every profession has its tools of the trade, and those tools have evolved as our needs have evolved and as technology has guided us. Tracking that evolution through the collector’s eye helps us to appreciate how far we’ve come and what it took to get us here.
We started our research for this issue by taking a road trip to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts to look at the tools brought by the earliest English settlers to the New World. Plimoth Plantation serves as a state-recognized curation site for local archaeology from all over southeastern Massachusetts. Artifacts are used for study, reproduction, and exhibition. It is the work that has been done here starting in 1940 that gives us a glimpse of what the Pilgrims coming to America on the Mayflower almost four hundred years ago saw as essential tools to bring with them from England to build a new life here in the New World. Contributing Writer Erica Lome joined Judy Gonyeau and me for a behind-the-scenes tour of Plimoth’s tool collection unearthed from these digs, and you can read more about what they found and what we learned in Erica Lome’s article on page 30.
Although handmade objects were replaced by machined products as the nineteenth century progressed and we entered the Industrial Age, collectors are more interested in pre-WWII hand-made tools. “Our collection tells the story of the ingenuity of man,” says Bud Bolt, founder of Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum in Oroville, California. The Museum displays over 12,000 ‘hand tools,’ making it the largest documented tool collection in the world as recognized by the Smithsonian Institute. “What we have represented is the evolution of tools and what it took to turn us into this modern, industrialized nation,” says Bolt. You can read more about Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum on page 35.
When we think of pre-industrialized tools we think of the foundation elements of wood and iron. Although iron had been used in the making of useful and ornamental objects for thousands of years, its use in early American life was transformative. “By the time we declared our independence from Great Britain, American iron production and manufacture had reached just about every corner of the former colonies … and transformed the United States from a nation of farmers to one of industrial production,” says Erik Goldstein, Curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in his article, “From Forge and Furnace,” on page 32. Goldstein points out that many of these everyday [iron] tools for living were also works of art, and reflect their makers and users unique tastes and influences. This makes them highly collectible and coveted as adornments in homes today “as they were hundreds of years ago, when necessity was the mother of invention and artful iron tools made the house a home.”
Collectors of hand-made tools say they appreciate the simplicity of and ingenuity behind these early, “primitive” examples of the modern day, production-made implements we take for granted. Take for example Mark Cerel, a collector of vintage and antique hand planes and woodworking tools who was interviewed for this month’s Collector’s Showcase on page 41. What attracts him to these ordinary tools of everyday life is an appreciation for the woods used, the tasks they performed, and the craftsmen who employed them.
Since doing the research for this issue I have been paying more attention to tools, particularly those made of wood and metal from the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I made my first “tool” purchase of an antique cast iron blacksmiths post drill press at the Walker Homestead Antiques & Primitive Goods Show this past June. With its dual crank handles, this ordinary hand-made work tool, still in fine working order after what must be close to 150 years, was designed and hand-made to make a routine task physically easier. Its patina tells the story of a tool needed and used regularly. Replaced today by drills that run on batteries and electricity instead of manpower, it now stands tall as an example of the artistry inherent in the perfect marriage of form and function. To see what I learned about it go to Appraiser’s Corner on page 40.
One of the best places to learn about the evolution of trade tools is to look at the collections amassed in interest-specific museums. Our research for this month’s issue for our Tool Blocks page took us to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, the Camera Heritage Museum in Staunton, Virginia, the New York City Fire Museum in New York City and the Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. These museums, through their collections, preserve and promote the history of specific trades through objects and the stories they tell. They’re a great place to start for inspiration and to learn more about items you are collecting.
Tools of the Trades