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.


Funeral for a Home

I’ll be honest. In my field, I rarely get to use the phrase “really cool” and the topic of reference actually is really cool. Artists Jacob Hellman and Billy and Steven Dufala at Temple’s Tyler School of Art are pushing preservationists with their upcoming “Funeral for a Home.” Philadelphia admittedly has a vacancy problem, with 40,000-50,000 houses standing silent waiting for their eventual demolition. (If you want to know more about this, Abandoned Philadelphia is a great website) To solve the problem, Philadelphia is developing a land bank to manage the buying and selling of these properties, ideally turning blight into opportunity.

The stories inside those houses will never be told. Enter Hellman, Dufala, and Dufala. They’re working with historians and preservationists to tell the stories of families and houses one building at a time in neighborhoods with some of the worst vacancy problems. It’s certainly a creative twist on the more traditional historic structures report that preservationists are normally writing.

While the story of one house will surely be interesting, the effort will also hopefully remind audiences that, though blighted and abandoned, the houses, the neighborhoods, the city encompassing them, were previously places of vibrant, active communities. This couldn’t be more relevant, as Pew recently released a report saying the city’s Millennial have an abysmal view of the city’s family-friendliness. Can you raise a family here? Will the schools be safe for kids? “Funeral for a Home” presents an opportunity to remind anybody who will pay attention that Philadelphia did provide that, does provide that, and will continue to provide it.

Politics and preservation aside, this exhibit is just one more demonstration that talking about alteration—really, the ways families change their homes over time—is valuable and constructive to a wide audience. Not just historians and preservationists, but neighbors and communities who live in and around the stories of the past every day. I can’t wait to see the project when they finally get it rolled out.

Punch, 1892

Punch, 1892

In the 1880s and 1890s there was quite a bit of questionable building going on, sometimes called Jerry-building by contemporaries. Enabled by a mix of  new building technologies and materials, buildings were going up at a rapid pace by unskilled hands.  Complaints about “jerry-building” sometimes rang with hints of nativisim; the unskilled hands were often portrayed as immigrant workers.  The complaints also reflected the class conflict that peppered the building industry at this time;  according to some, the sloppy work was the result of poorly trained and unorganized laborers, who worked cheaply for greedy capitalists. These tensions applied to new construction and alterations.

In London, facing some rapid development, somebody took a more poetically-inspired approach to their complaints in the October 1892 issue of Punch.  The author’s concern about building up the previously green parts of town with a focus on profits, not on pubic interest, alludes to the underlying class criticism evoked by the Jerry-building phrase. And of course, the Jabberwock is in reference to the same-named character in “Jabberwocky,” a poem from Carroll’s 1872, Through the Looking Glass. Borrowing heavily from the original piece, it uses the same iambic tetrameter style and four-line stanza format.  But, for complaining about problems with city planning, even Jane Jacobs had nothing on this!  Below, the full poem, titled “The Jerry-Building Jabberwock.”
Maybe this is a sign for a spin-off blog on architecture and literature…

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”—
Ah, Carroll! it is not in fun
Your song’s light lilt we snatch.

Our Jabberwock’s a real brute,
With mighty maw, and ruthless hand,
Who ravage makes beyond compute
In Civic Blunderland.

Look at the ogre’s hideous mouth!
His tiger-teeth, his dragon-tail!
O’er Town, East, West, and North and South,
He leaves his slimy trail.

And where he comes all Beauty dies,
And where he halts all Greenery fades.
Pleasantness flies where’er he plies
His gruesomest of trades.

He blights the field, he blasts the wood,
With breath as fierce as prairie flame;
And where sweet works of Nature stood,
He leaves us—alums of shame.

The locust and the canker-worm
Are not more ruinous than he.
“I’ll take this Eden—for a term!”
He cries, and howls with glee.

“Beauty? Mere bosh! Charm? Utter rot!
What boots your ‘Earthly Paradise,’
Until ‘tis made ‘A Building Plot’?
Then it indeed looks nice!

“O Jerry Street! O Jerry Park!
O Jerry Gardens, Jerry Square!—
You won’t discover—what a lark!—
One ‘touch of Nature’ there!

“This handsome Villa Residence’ [walks:
Means mud-built walls and clay-clogged
And drains offensive to the sense,
And swamps whence fever stalks.

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