Rural building

This study will have to go national in its next life, which inevitably means also talking about rural building. This sign gives much to contemplate. I’ll have to dig up the codes for Luce and Alger County!

Because I am busy writing a chapter, here’s a lazy blog post by way of an amazing poster from 1885. Sent out by the Egan Company, a machine manufacturer from Cincinnati Ohio, ideally this would have been posted up in carpentry shops and mill work factories for easy ordering. As trade and advertising material it was certainly unique. The company’s effort to stand out from its competitors resulted in an intriguing piece of ephemera: measuring a little over 28″x 21″ and featuring 112 machines, its a thing of beauty. My (personal) research notes when I found it: “Oh my god, it’s so big and wonderful!”

It’s now housed at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library and you can look at it in their library (here’s the call number).

Poster, Egan Company, 1885.  Winterthur.

Poster, Egan Company, 1885. Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.

Bringing machines into the nineteenth century shop made sense. Critical mass, particularly in the cities, meant that craftsmen had to meet demand and maintain a competitive edge. One way to do that was saving time and labor (read: money) by doing rudimentary and routine tasks like planing wood, making stock moulding (contemporary spelling), and tenoning door and window parts with machines. Lately I’ve been thinking about these machines in the shops of Philadelphia craftsmen during the 1860s, 70s, and 80s. How much did they cost?  What work did they actually save?  How did people know how to use them?

Jesse Vogdes, a carpenter who operated a shop in West Philadelphia in the 1860s and 1870s, likely had some in his shop.  He often planed lumber for a nearby lumberyard.  He also sold stock parts like doors, window, and molding to local builders.  His ledger is available at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. He likely had a tenoning machine and a molding machine, both of which were commonly used by that time. Craftsmen like Vogdes had a wide range of machine manufacturers to choose from within Philadelphia and further afield.

Although published later, a 1883 catalog from the H. B. Smith Machine Company, available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, provides some indication of the capital investment getting machines into the shop would have been. Based in Smithville, NJ, the Smith Machine Company sold its wares downtown at 925 Market Street.  If a craftsmen like Vogdes wanted to make stock molding, he could choose from a range of machines.  A low-cost, 6 inch moulding machine that cut one side cost $100 in 1883, approximately $2200 today (below, left). A higher-end model, which could cut up to four sides and had larger framing capable of taking larger stock, cost $260, approximately $5700 (below, right). Compared to a journeyman’s wage ranging from $3-$4 a day during this period, the capital necessary to buy these machines and save on the labor was tremendous.

Moulding Machine, H. B. Smith Machine Co., 1883. HSP.

Moulding Machine, H. B. Smith Machine Co., 1883. HSP.


Moulding machine, H. B. Smith Machine Co., 1883. HSP.

Moulding machine, H. B. Smith Machine Co., 1883. HSP.



Unfortunately, I have yet to find any letter, diary entry, or other source describing the experience of acquiring, setting up, and using a machine for the first time in a shop. Most ran with belts, had complicated adjustment settings, and levers and pulleys for controlling the angle, tension, and momentum of cutting. Use of these machines surely required a new set of skills, or at least instruction.

However, I have found a source for assessing the look and feel of these machines. If you’re interested in seeing what these machines look like today, hop over to the Vintage They have an incredible index of manufacturers, with contributors from all over the country who compile company histories and provide photos of machines, some even still working. There are 57 machines produced by the H. B. Smith Machine Company, though none that appeared in the 1883 catalog.


Dining room from 1921 Arch Street. HABS.

Dining room from 1921 Arch Street. HABS.

New chapters mean new case studies, and I’ve zoned in on one that happened circa 1880 at 1921 Arch Street in Philadelphia. The Parry family (including Charles T. Parry, executive at Baldwin Locomotive Works), perhaps bored with their 1871 Renaissance-revival house, hired the Wilson Brothers & Company architectural firm to renovate the interior, including the Aesthetic woodwork, grille and fret work, and ornate leaded and colored glass.

We wouldn’t know anything about this project if it weren’t for a few unique preservation efforts.  Much of the woodwork was salvaged from the house before its demolition, and it is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Here’s the mirror. And another.  Before the pieces were removed, they were also recorded by the Historic American Building Survey.  The entire project is online here.

These kinds of sources enabled a detailed investigation into the woodwork by curator Jennifer A. Zwilling, which was published in Winterthur Portfolio.

This is a unique set of primary sources and secondary research that let’s me dig into the Parry alteration project.  I’m looking at what they did, and how those choices intersected contemporary design trends and modes of commerce in the building industry.

I’ve been thinking about the place of home alteration within the long arc of human history–and how conceptions about maintenance are defined by place and time.  I’m looking for old references to home remodeling.  There’s got to be one in the Bible, right?  Here’s my favorite from Colley Cibber’s 1707 The Double Gallant:

“Old houses mended, Cost little less than new before they’re ended.”

Have your own favorite? Let me know!

Love and Renovation

Perhaps I’m projecting a twentieth-century notion of love as it applies to marriage, but I stumbled across an analogy between marriage and home renovation today:

“To those who contemplate “making over” an old house, the famous advice to candidates of matrimony is supposed to be always pertinent,— ‘don’t.’ But as in the one case, in spite of this prohibitory counsel, the children of men still continue to marry and be given in marriage, so in the other, notwithstanding much apparently disastrous experience, men persist in renovating, remodeling, rebuilding, enlarging and other wise attempting to rejuvenate their old houses.

-From the Builder, 1884

I’ll have to keep my eye out for other examples of this in the future.

(Source: Making Over Old House,” Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture June 28, 1884, 4.)

The power of tools.

cat doorI put this blog on a bit of a hiatus, but its back!

A writing fellowship has me finally fleshing out full chapters. It also means that my nights are spent on projects around the house instead of burning-the-midnight-oil writing sessions. This weekend’s project ended in failure, and it has me chewing over issues of skill, naïveté, and ambition on this Monday.

For a moment, my new jig saw ordered via Amazon seemed like a means for endless possibilities, including this cat door.  However, without guidance and experience, I missed some simple details of this small project. This was the perfect experiment for my newest section, which looks at the development of mechanized woodworking in the late nineteenth century.  I’ll be exploring how people got them, who used them, and how they changed the building industry.

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