by Anne Pyburn Craig
Handmade is in, big time. Crafters, makers, and artisans of all sorts are coming back into a richly deserved spotlight as the creators of beautiful and durable things that are artifacts of a whole different dimension than the mass production items that come to us packaged in hard plastic and wire, the better to survive being shipped from an anonymous factory somewhere in China—where, our consciences nag, things probably aren’t very much fun.
Early American Industries Association member Billy McMillen,
master tinsmith at the anvil in Eastfield Village, East Nassau.
Once upon a time, of course, handmade was not a trend but a necessity. Before the Industrial Revolution hit, you got your threads from a tailor or you made them yourself or you didn’t get ‘em at all. Furniture and household goods of all sorts weren’t stamped out on an assembly line, they were the product of hours of loving care backed up by years of learning.
Despite some of the junkier mass production it has brought about, the Industrial Revolution has its upsides. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever go back to buying every last towel, thumbtack, or drinking glass from makers. Yet just as there is enormous pleasure in owning a beautiful handmade creation, there’s a deep nourishment in the concept of hands-on creation.
It’s that nourishment that’s being passed around and nurtured among the 1,500 members of the Early American Industries Association, founded in 1933 in a historic tavern in Northampton, Massachusetts. The pub owner Lewis N. Wiggins was a vintage tool collector and liked to decorate Wiggins Old Tavern with his favorites.
“One summer day as he was installing part of his collection, Stephen C. Walcott of Virginia introduced himself and struck up a conversation about tools and his acquaintances that collected them,” reads the group’s official history. “He proposed forming an association for ‘mutual aid and pleasure’ in furthering their interest and knowledge.”
Wiggins was delighted and suggested that Walcott come back and bring his tool-minded friends, and thus the EAIA was born. Members of that inner circle lost no time in putting together their knowledge and collections, taking a collective inventory, and publishing the first interview of their journal the Chronicle to let their fellow tool-ophiles know that they existed. The response from collectors, antiquarians, museum curators, and just plain fascinated folks was strong, and soon the EAIA had achieved the status it still holds today as the leading repository of expertise on early American tools and trades.
“Early American industry is a fun subject,” says Executive Director John H. Verrill of Maryland. “Technology can do a lot of things as well, but it’s not as much fun and it doesn’t call for anything like the same level of craftsmanship.”
Verrill, 68, says he became fascinated and started collecting early American tools back in the 1970s. “My grandfather was a lobsterman, and he built his own lobster traps. He left all his tools to my father, who left them to me. They’re not especially valuable collector’s items, but they’re practical and useful things. And to me, of course, they’re priceless. I love to touch them and hold them and be connected to him using those tools and the memories of helping him.”
Verrill’s grandfather’s tools may not be high dollar, but a recent blog entry on the EAIA website describes an auction at which collectors gathered to buy and sell their gems, some—such as an antique rosewood plane—fetching thousands of dollars. “The highest price ever paid for a molding plane was $675,000,” says Verrill. “For something you can hold in your hand. Molding planes are one of the most avidly collected items. I don’t think most of the people who buy at that level are buying the tools to use—but a Brazilian rosewood plane that sells for four or five hundred is craftsman-made, and if it were used, it would do the job extremely well.”
|EAIA members collect tools like this tonguing and Beading
Plane from Stanley Model Shop. This tool was used to make
the bead board paneling, or wainscoting, so popular in the
Victorian era. Photo courtesy of EAIA.
High end items aside, many collectors do more with their vintage hand tools than decorate and contemplate. “Just recently I built a log home for a friend and I think I used just about every tool in the garage,” says EAIA member Tom Gordon of Kingston, a former IBMer “I was always inventing my own tools to do this or that,” he says. “They missed having those tools around after I left.”
“It often happens,” says Gordon, “that friends give me a call, ‘Hey this weekend we’re going to do my roof, could you come and bring your stuff?’ I say, ‘Sure, you’re starting at 6, I’ll see you at 9, show up with cool old tools and we’ll go to town and have some fun.’ The power tools are fine for the rougher stuff, but finish something with a hand plane and you’ll have something to look at.”
As Gordon points out, you can’t find this caliber of tool at Home Depot. And for housewrights, fine joiners, and restorers, nothing else works. “All of the ornate molding we see in historic houses can’t be duplicated by modern machinery,” says Gordon. “Those hand planes have different angles in the heel, so you can slowly plane a piece of wood away to the perfect thickness.”
Old-school tools have a vital place in renovation and in high-end new construction as well. Home Enrichment, run by master housewright Josh Rich of Hopewell Junction, still crafts entire houses by hand, taking a year or two, costing up into the seven figures and creating stunning results. Brian Kennedy’s Historic Housewrights Inc., based in Accord, specializes in taking apart historic architectural marvels and reassembling them piece by piece, preserving vital heritage. “We currently have three early to mid-18th-century houses stored and ready for restoration,” says a note on the company website. Pairing the results of hand joinery with modern energy efficiency tactics creates a splendid and livable dwelling.
“I’ve been on job sites where only hand tools were being used,” says Verrill. “The difference is phenomenal—it’s a whole other atmosphere. Just the sound of a saw cutting through a piece of wood by hand is something many people today may never have heard, but it’s a lot gentler than a power saw running.
Those who collect and use early tools share a reverence for wood, and both Gordon and Verrill refer to the work of Eric Sloane as having fueled their early fascination. Sloane, born in 1905, was a meteorologist and a prolific painter and author with a love for Colonial-era folk culture. (He was also quite a character, who started out working his way across the country as a sign painter and married seven times.) Sloane’s Reverence for Wood could be considered the holy writ of those who love the old ways.
The EAIA isn’t solely concerned with the building trades. Early metal trades like tinsmithing and blacksmithing, furniture making, bookbinding and fiber arts are also held in high esteem and researched with passionate intensity.
“We give grants to people who want to study various aspects of early American industry, and I just heard this morning from a grant recipient who’s studying an 18th century potter,” says Verrill. “Talking about sugar drips. Now what the heck is a sugar drip? It turns out they used them to mold sugar. I can’t tell you how excited I get when I read about stuff like that. It’s fascinating, I learn something every day.”
Fiber arts is one of the organization’s newer subdivisions. “I’m trying to steer more men to that one—it’s fascinating, and the tools are amazing,” Verrill says. “We had a loom come in that dated from about 1800. We put it together and it worked wonderfully; a weaver made beautiful things with it.”
This spring, members of the EAIA will gather at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky for their annual meeting, bringing prize possessions, works of research, and stories to swap. Members will have full access to the museum’s extensive collections and get behind-the-scenes tours, communing with the relics of the pacifist and abolitionist sect that made their homes there. Regional meetings happen more often, mostly in northeastern locations where the majority of members reside.
In the meantime, though, they commune in cyberspace—putting their heads together to analyze a registry of 18th-century house wrights, carpenters, and jointers, or the merits and features of the Stanley #75 Bull Nose Rabbet Plane.
The variety of subspecialties is virtually endless. “We have a member from Germany who has written four books about plumb bobs,” says Verrill. “Who’d think you could write four books about plumb bobs? But they’re fascinating.”
In reaching back to a bygone era of craftsmanship, early industry fans believe they are helping to preserve the essence of something that should not be lost. And over the last 83 years, they keep gaining momentum. “A collection of Eric Sloane’s first editions went for thousands of dollars not long ago,” says Verrill. “His writing and art are outstanding. He shows you how the tools were used in a way that’s easy to understand. He inspired a lot of people of my generation, and I think that if young people read him, they’ll be inspired too.”
For more information visit earlyamericanindustries.org.