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.
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 Machinery.org. 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.