By Eric S L A N E

inding an ancient tool in a stone fence or in a dark comer of some decaying bam is receiving a symbol from another world for it gives you a particular and interesting contact with the past. Men used to build and create as much for future generations as for their own needs, so their tools have a special message for us and our time. When you hold an early implement, when you close your hand over the worn wooden handle, you know exactly how it felt to the craftsman whose hand had smoothed it to its rich patina. In that instant, you are as close to that craftsman as you can be—even closer than if you live in the house that he built or sit in the chair that he made. In that moment, you arc near to another being in another life, and you are that much richer.

Why an ancient tool should be closer to the early craftsman than a modem tool is to a modem workman is not readily understood by most people. Even the ardent collector is sometimes unaware of the reason an ancient tool meant so much to its user. But reason there is. Henry Ward Beecher said it nicely when he explained that "a tool is but the extension of a man's hand." Whereas today's implements are designed with the idea of "getting the job done quickly." there was an added quality to early workmanship, too. For, like the nails on a beasts paws, the old tools were so much an extension of a man's hand or an added appendage to his arm that the resulting workmanship seemed to flow directly from the body of the maker and to carry something of himself into the work. True, by looking at an old house or an old piece of furniture, you can imagine the maker much more clearly than you can by beholding anything made today.

The early implement was also a piece of art, as much as the work it fashioned, for the worker

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designed his tools, too. In early America, the ironworkers forged only the cutting blade; they gave no thought to the design of the wooden handle and the rest of the finished tool. Plane blades and even knife blades were hand forged and sold like ax heads, and the craftsman was left to make his own wooden "hand" to hold the "fingernail," or cutting part. A small hand needed a small handle and a big hand needed a big handle; the man who used an apprentice had notches in his big plane that enabled the apprentice to help push it along with a stick.

A man whose architectural creations followed the Greek or Roman tradition would find it natural to include Greek or Roman artistic touches in the ornamentation of his implements. Decoration on the early tool, however, sprang from the pride of the maker rather than from any custom.

The feeling that certain tools had souls of their own was not unusual; an ax might be marked "Tom" or "Jack" simply because the owner felt it was a companion worthy of a pet name. All this sounds strangely superstitious. Yet. today motor trucks are often named "Sally" or "Babe;" boats almost always have names; even large machine tools such as presses or bulldozers are graced with pet names.

The religious man probably felt that sacred initials or Biblical quotations might have their acr&J //¿/¿JaJs oh

¿/ate o/t t£//e effect upon the work done by that tool. Perhaps, mindful that the carpenter Jesus once worked with such tools, some of the early woodworking implements have crosses carved upon them.

One of the finer pieces in a recent showing of modem art was a piece of steel that curved like a bird's wing. It was set into a square block of wood and its title in the catalog was "Number 1760." The artist had an even more honest sense of beauty than a sense of humor, for if you looked closely and with an informed eye, you could recognize the piece as the head of an Early-American "goose-wing" broad ax. In the back of the blade, the year 1760 had been marked, which of course, explained the title. To many it was, at first, the most beautiful piece of art there, but when they learned that it was only an old ax head, they felt as if they had been hoaxed. How, after all, could an ax head be considered a work of art!

The Civil War period marked a turning point in tool design as it did for so much Americana. Before that time, the word tool meant an implement that could make one thing at a time; mass-production tools then entered the scene, and the word tool, which had meant only "hand tool," took on many new meanings. Finally, the word tool came to mean any

item having to do with the production of an item; it could be the machine and also the building that housed the machine. Even the salesmen, the advertising gadgets and the business offices are "tools of the trade."

Generally speaking, hand tools made after the Civil War period lacked the simple beauty of those of the antebellum period. Things were made to sell quickly, things were made in large quantities so that they could be cataloged identically, and handmade implements began to disappear. Wooden handles became "fancier," more curved and ornamental, but the severe beauty of folk art and primitive usage was lost. Saw handles became "trickier;" they were designed to appeal to the eye instead of to fit the hand. Ax handles, which had almost always been straight as a good club should be, took on curves such as the "fawn foot" and the "scroll knob." By 1885, handles on axes and adzes had become almost too curved, but by the 1900s, they'd settled down to a sensible and standard design such as that of those you can buy now at the hardware store.

Before the Civil War, most ax handles (like the handles of all tools) were made by the man who would use the ax. A pattern was cut from a piece of flat wood and saved as the model from which future handles would be fashioned. Ax patterns (which you can still find in old barns) were so subtly curved and proportioned that they were as distinctive as a man's signature; you could take one look at it and say, "This tool belongs to Jones" or "That tool belongs to Smith." Very often an ax-handle pattern was handed down from generation to generation, and it was considered counterfeit for another family to copy it.

While we are on the subject of old tools, I would like to point out that the collector should understand something of the philosophy about the connection between the workman's hand and that part of the tool that he touches. Most modem workmen will scoff at the idea, but any fine craftsman will tell you that the right wooden handle (let us say, on a hammer) helps you along with your work. A metal or plastic handle or even an incorrect wooden handle can feel "dead" and not "spring back" against pressure, thus causing blisters and slowing your work. The proper handle's "feel" or "heft" is the uncxplainable quality that a fine violin has to the musician. The Oxford History of Technology quotes Christian Barman's comments on an exhibition of early hand tools: "Everybody who appreciates the qualities of materials loves wood, and here was wood formed into a special kind of tactile sculpture made to be felt with the hand. I remembered that old craftsmen, when thev buv a new set r m>

of modem chisels, throw away the handles and carefully fit their own. These handles, polished bright by a lifetime of use, became pan of the owners' lives."

Aiwa)« in the fine art of working with wood, the old-time craftsman's laboratory was in his head and his hands and his heart. He called it "knack;" some now believe it was a "sixth

c/*o/I Knob sense" or an extrasensory power. Elusive as this "knack" may be, it is the most important part of those small differences that distinguish the master craftsman from the good workman.

When we consider tools, we are dealing with human benefactors of the most primary sort. Tools increase and vary human power; they economize human time, and they convert raw substances into valuable and useful products. So when we muse on historic tools as symbols, we are always analyzing the romance of human progress.

Although Early-American tools were traditional in design to such an extent that one can usually tell the nationality of the maker, there are almost always subtle differences and decorative touches in design that equally identify the region ol American countryside from which the tool came. A collector can easily tell a piece coming from Pennsylvania from one originating in Connecticut. This distinctiveness was often intentional; the early American's urge for identification was bom of pride both in himself and in his time. An extraordinary awareness of life and time |)ermeated our early days; when something was made and the maker was satisfied, it wasn't complete until his mark and the date were added.

Nowadays, things arc almost obsolete before they leave the drawing board. How lucky we are that so many of the old tools and the things that were made with them were dated and touched with the craftsman's art.

Reprinted with permission from A Museum of Early American Tools, by Eric Slowie (1964. Random House. 201 E. 50th St.. New York NY 10022.)

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