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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Yankee Whittlers

( Orginally published 1950 )



There is an old New England saying that if you call on a neighbor you need not say good night until he begins to whittle shavings for the morning fire. Although whittling may seem an idle pastime, it was a Yankee institution that produced much skill and many inventions.

Elias Ingraham, the clockmaker of Bristol, Connecticut, while on a voyage to South America to sell his clocks, whittled from a block of wood a design for a shelf clock that became enormously popular. This was the so-called "Sharp Gothic" pattern. Unfortunately, Ingraham neglected to patent the design, probably because he did not realize he had a best seller, and it was widely copied by his competitors in the clock trade. Another Connecticut inventor, Samuel Colt, also while on a sea voyage, whittled the first model of his "revolving pistol." In view of all the whittling done in New England, it is not surprising that the country's first factory for the manufacture of pocketknives should have been established in Connecticut in 1843.

According to Samuel G. Goodrich, who wrote many juvenile books under the name of Peter Parley, there were several reasons why whittling was indigenous among New Englanders. In the first place, the country was full of a great variety of woods, many of which were easily wrought and invited boyhood to try its hands upon them. In the next place, labor was dear, and children were led to supply themselves with toys or to furnish some of the simpler articles of household use.

I can testify [he said] that, during my youthful days, I found the penknife a source of great amusement and even instruction. Many a long winter evening, may a dull, drizzly day, in spring and summer and autumn-sometimes at the kitchen fireside, sometimes in the attic, amid festoons of dried apples, peaches, and pumpkins; sometimes in a cosy nook of the barn; sometimes in the shelter of a neighboring stonewall, thatched over with wild grape-vines-have I spent in great ecstasy making candle-rods, or some other simple household goods, for my mother, or in perfecting toys for myself and my young friends, or perhaps in attempts at more ambitious achievements.



These occupations, Mr. Goodrich went on to point out, were instructive. The mind was stimulated to inquire into the mechanics of things, while the hand was educated to mechanical dexterity.

Why is it [he asked] that we in the United States surpass all other nations in the excellence of our tools of all kinds? Why are our axes, knives, hoes, spades, Plows, the best in the world? Because-in part, at least we learn, in early life, this alphabet of mechanics theoretical and practical-whittling. Nearly every head and hand is trained to it. We know and feel the difference between dull and sharp tools. At ten years old, we are all epicures in cutting instruments.



Whittling was not just a childish thing which one put away upon becoming a man. What one learned in boyhood was only the beginning and one went on, almost as a matter of course, toward perfection. The inventive head and the skillful, executing hand thus became a general characteristic. It was a pleasure to watch a Yankee perform the simple act of sharpening a pencil, since it was usually one of the first things he learned to do properly with a knife. As when carving meat at table, he did it quickly and expertly, without waste.

Among the things which New Englanders liked to whittle were butter molds. These were usually round stamps with a handle for imprinting a pat of butter. The design was cut intaglio into the face of the mold. The wood was generally maple or cherry, now and then pine. Often a bridegroom would carve one for his bride, perhaps with her favorite flower. Birds and animals, especially the eagle, were popular. Some old ones have the letter of the family name, like J for Jones. Sometimes there was a design to suggest the name. Sidney Stewart, the antique dealer of Needham, Massachusetts, who has a large collection of butter molds, possesses one with a hand that belonged to a Mr. Hand. There were also rectangular box molds holding a pound of butter with the design cut in the top piece. Print butter, as it was called to distinguish it from butter in a crock or firkin, always sold for more than bulk butter. One old-time Yankee had a special mold with the letters D.P., which he used when his wife made butter that did not turn out very well. The initials, he said, stood for Damn Poor. A mold before being used was generally scalded and then dipped in cold water to prevent the butter from sticking to it. Eventually they were made by machinery, but it is the hand-carved ones which collectors generally seek.

Salt boxes, some with slanting lids, likewise engaged the attention of the Yankee whittlers, who liked to carve the top part around the nail hole where they were hung on the wall with a sunburst or shell design. Tall, narrow boxes with open tops in which to stand the long clay churchwarden pipes, with a drawer below for squills, were similarly carved.

It was only a step from making such things for the home by hand to turning them out wholesale by machinery in small woodworking shops. Rolling pins, meat mauls, lather boxes, butter paddles, faucets of all sizes, buckets, spice boxes, cheese boxes, and thousands of broom handles at a cent apiece were made. The cheese box is believed to have originated in C=oshen, Connecticut. One shop in Maine used to make millions of toothpicks for the Chinese, who, though they could have bought them cheaper from the Japanese, preferred those made in America. All kinds of woodenware are still made in Maine, where is located the oldest and largest wooden toy factory in the world. And well back from the seaboard is a factory where thousands of pairs of different-size oars, mostly of ash, are turned out.

The New England cabinetmakers and chairmakers, who laid the foundations for their careers as youthful whittlers, had at hand a ready supply of a variety of woods with which to work, and they studied the nature and quality of these native growths with the greatest care and affection. Those most frequently used were pine, maple, poplar, cherry, black walnut, white oak, beech, and birch. Mahogany was easily obtainable from the West Indies, where the best kinds grow in Cuba and San Domingo. This Spanish mahogany, as it is some times termed, was used for furniture in this country before it was in England. It was first employed about the beginning of the eighteenth century.

New Englanders were not sentimental about oak, as were the English. Walnut, which began to displace oak in England at the time of the Commonwealth, and which brought about many changes in design during the Queen Anne period, was popular in New England, where the native black walnut was well suited to furniture making.

The colonial joiners and chairmakers were particularly partial to maple and exploited it as it never was exploited in England. From the knotty sections of the common maple and the sugar or rock maple comes the so-called "bird's-eye maple." What we call "curly maple" is derived from the sugar species of the tree. A lot of veneering was done with it. Maple furniture of all kinds was in great favor for a long time.

Cherry was also extremely popular, especially in the Connecticut Valley, where many pieces of furniture richly colored by time have been handed down for generations. Eliphalet Chapin ( i 741-1807) of East Windsor, Connecticut, and Aaron Chapin (1751-1838) of Hartford, worked in cherry with singularly successful results. Their highboys possessed original features, particularly in the design of the bonnet tops. Like maple, cherry can be highly polished, and in other ways is well adapted to cabinetwork.

Although hickory is a tough wood and was generally used for the slender spindles in the backs of Windsor chairs, it was not otherwise used to any extent in furniture making, owing to its sensitiveness to moisture and heat, which detracted from its lasting qualities. The English furniture trade was quite unfamiliar with this American wood.

The work of the cabinetmaker was similar to that of the carpenter, but greater nicety and exactness were required. His business was to make furnishings to go into the houses built by the carpenter. Tables, stands, bureaus, sideboards, desks, bookcases, sofas, and bedsteads were among the household furniture made in the cabinet shops. Sometimes the cabinetmaker was called in by the carpenter to carve some of the interior woodwork of a house. Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) of Salem is famous not only for his furniture, but also for his carving of mantels, cornices, and doors, and for his work on the exterior trim of houses. He even made urns for gateposts. His carving on furniture is considered the finest ever done in America.

While the cabinetmaker made certain kinds of chairs, particularly mahogany ones with upholstered seats, ordinary wooden chairs were made by the chairmakers, who did nothing else. In constructing chairs, the specialist in these articles undertook several at a time, from a dozen to two or three times that number, cutting up a quantity of wood for the seats and the different parts of the frames before he began assembling them. Sometimes he purchased the parts already turned from a turner.

In making a bureau, the old-time cabinetmaker used pine or poplar for the frames and drawers, facing the parts exposed to view with thin layers of mahogany. After marking out the several pieces for the frame and drawers, he cut them out and reduced them to the proper form and dimensions. He then fixed thin pieces of mahogany to the surfaces of the parts requiring it. In preparing the solid wood for the mahogany veneer, he cut small, contiguous grooves into the surface with a little plane having a cutting edge composed of small notches and teeth. Glue was spread over this prepared surface and also over that of the veneer, and the two pressed together with hand screws. Before the screws were applied, the surface of the veneer was covered with a heated board called a "caul." Overlaying a plain piece of wood with a thin veneer of other wood was not done then as it often is today to cut costs. Wood was cheap in the days of the hand craftsmen and veneering was solely a method of decorating a piece of furniture with beautifully grained woods in a way that could not have been done by using solid pieces alone. Old veneer which was sawn by hand was thicker than the paper-thin veneer produced today by mechanical means.

The pieces forming the frame of the bureau were assembled with mortise and tenon joints. The drawers were then put together, the four sides being dovetailed. The bottom was affixed to the sides and front by the construction known as "tongue-and-groove" and nailed at the back. Nails were also used to keep the bearers of the drawers in place. The back of the bureau was generally made of pine or poplar, while the ends of the piece were usually solid mahogany. The bureau was finished with four coats of varnish, each of which was rubbed down, and the process completed with an application of a coat of linseed oil. Plenty of "elbow grease" was required to produce a fine surface. And occasional applications of oil and wax are necessary to keep antique furniture in good condition.

There were cabinetmakers all over New England from the time of the Pilgrims onwards. One of the earliest furniture makers, if not actually the first, was Kenelm Winslow (1599-1672) of Plymouth, who came over in the Mayflower. No community seems to have been too small to support a cabinetmaker, and in the large, thriving coastal towns there were many. Salem and Newport had craftsmen of outstanding merit. Samuel McIntire of Salem has already been mentioned. Other Salem cabinetmakers were Nehemiah Adams (1769-1840), Daniel Clark 0768-1830), William Hook (1777-1867), and Elij ah Sanderson (175 i-i 8 z 5 ) . Sanderson's brother Jacob and Josiah Austin were in partnership with him. They made furniture not only for the leading families of Salem, but also for export to the Southern states and abroad. Sometimes other craftsmen mingled their wares with those of the Sandersons to make up a shipment, which the shipmaster to whom it was entrusted was frequently able to dispose of to his own and the makers' advantage.

John Goddard (1724-1785) of Newport, Rhode Island, was a famous early New England cabinetmaker whose work ranks with that of the masters, William Savery of Philadelphia and Duncan Phyfe of New York. Goddard is generally credited with being the first maker of block-front furniture, though some experts believe that the honor should go to another Newport craftsman, Job Townsend (1700-1765). Goddard's cousin John Townsend (1733-1809) also made block-front furniture, but it is not known whether Goddard's son Thomas (1765-1858), who inherited and continued his father's business, made any or not.

Like the silversmiths and the pewterers, the cabinetmakers were often men of prominence in their communities. Stephen Badlam (1751-1815) of Dorchester, Massachusetts, was a brigadier general in the Revolution, and Benjamin Frothingham (1734-1809) Of Charlestown was a friend of Washington and an artillery major in the Continental Army. Frothingham's father was a cabinetmaker, as was also his son. All were named Benjamin.

Throughout the colonial period the New England cabinetmakers led the country in the production of furniture, though during the latter half of the eighteenth century the craftsmen of Philadelphia produced pieces of the highest quality in design and workmanship. Naturally they followed English models. The early cabinetmakers were not trying to develop a distinctive type of American furniture. They held to the traditions they had brought with them. They followed the changes in English furniture design closely, in so far as those styles were suited to the new and altered conditions of life on this side of the Atlantic. They aimed at producing useful wares that would last a lifetime and that they wrought well we know from surviving examples of their work.

But in spite of the fact that they did not deliberately seek to express themselves in a peculiarly American way, they nevertheless modified, changed, and developed the old styles and the new to such an extent that presently they were producing pieces that were essentially American. The American Windsor chair, for example, differed from its English prototype. Lowboys, which were popular in this country, rarely appeared in England. The butterfly table, which is thought to have originated in Connecticut, was as American as the Yankee bean pot, which also had its nativity there.

Influenced as the colonial cabinetmakers were by English modes, they still managed to get a great deal of variety and individuality of expression into their work. Simplification was one of their ruling passions. The purity and restraint of their work fitted the temperament and thought of the people. Severe outlines and simple surfaces resulted in furniture of great dignity. That they correctly interpreted the needs and feeling of the time is evident from the way their productions sold in the face of foreign competition.

Most Yankees in those days were Jacks-of-all-trades. They were used to making things for themselves. They whittled handles for their tools, fashioned yokes for their oxen, and often turned their hands to making simple furniture because they did not have the money to hire a cabinetmaker to do the work. It was an age of handicrafts in which everyone was a handy man. Even cabinetmakers frequently pursued other callings outside their specialty. They had to in order to make a living. In the small towns, a joiner might be a farmer part of the year and turn to making furniture during the months unfavorable to husbandry. But even these part-time cabinetmakers were skilled workmen. Although their productions may be found only in the vicinity of the places where they lived, the greatest interest attaches to them. In supplying the local needs in the furniture line, these artisans who began as juvenile whittlers built up a tradition that is today viewed with keen appreciation.