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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antiques Made From Wood - Part 1

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( Originally Published 1963 )

ONCE UPON A TIME, every man and boy whittled at his own fireside and around the stove at the general store. Their whittling amounted to more than shaving a stick with a good pocketknife. Things like toys and whirligigs and spools carved in the shape of crosses from applewood were not taken for granted 200 years ago because they could not be bought at a store then. Spools might seem a minor convenience, but these oddly shaped ones undoubtedly influenced some people's lives, for young men used to whittle them and give them to girls they admired. Many a young lady estimated her popularity according to the number of spools given her (thread was purchased in paper envelopes and had to be wound on these handmade spools).

Working with wood was not just a pastime. In towns, it was an occupation for the carpenters who built the houses, the skilled joiners who did the finishing on a building (doors, stairs, etc.), the coopers who made barrels and casks, the wheelwright who for so many years made wheels of wood, the wainwright who made the wagons, the cartwright who turned out the twowheel vehicles (at least one nineteenthcentury carriage-making firm could furnish any one of 500 different models), and the shipwright who hammered together the vessels that sailed on voyages lasting several years. Then there were the cabinetmakers, whose specialty was fine furniture.

These men knew their woods. A wheelwright made his choice as carefully as a cabinetmaker. The wheelwright's selection, for example, might be black or sour gum for a hub, oak or ash for spokes, hickory for the rim (felly), because in his opinion this combination made a wheel that was most durable as well as most comfortable for riding.

The average homeowner and farmer knew woods too. Women also knew something about wood, if only which kinds made the best fire for cooking and baking. In the new settlements of the eighteenth century and on the farms that were so numerous well into the nineteenth century, men had to be knowledgeable about woodworking and handy at repairing all of the wooden objects used in the house, barn, or carriagehouse.

Early wooden houses were held together with wooden nails or trunnels (tree nails). Wooden pins or pegs were used for paneling and furniture long after metal nails became plentiful, and pegged floors in old houses that need renovating are such a selling point that in some newly built houses the floorboards are pegged. Trunnels and pegs, incidentally, never cause cracks-probably because they swell and dry out just as does the wood around them. Plain round wood pegs driven into the wall-and not the fancy brasses in the shape of eagles, shells, and the like that are now so popular-preceded closets for hanging coats and clothing.

Wooden water pipes for a house were still being manufactured quite late in the nineteenth century, and wooden pumps to obtain water from wells were still common in rural areas in the twentieth century. The first bathtubs that were not portable were built in place by carpenters and then lined with sheet lead. These tubs first took people's fancy between 1840 and 1850 but remained uncommon until about 1900.

Its surprising how many homes, not far from modern cities, still have one of these old built-in wooden tubs. Some of them were handsomely encased in mahogany or cedar, but most of them were oak. If you have to clear out a house that still has one of these old-fashioned bathtubs, or if you buy a vacation house in the country that still boasts an old wooden pump outside, you may as well resign yourself to the fact that there is no selling market for these two things. You may want to leave the pump as a landmark or a proof of the age of the property. If not, probably the best way to dispose of it, or the bathtub, is to offer them to one of the museums in various parts of the country that collect farm or house equipment, or to an old house that is being restored (the number grows every year in all parts of the country).

Shutters are a different story. There's an amazing demand for all kinds of shutters and louvers. Even early-twentieth-century ones with a few loose slats sell quickly-to be made into folding screens and who knows what else. Nineteenth,-century styles, either those used on houses or the kind shopkeepers put up against their store windows at night, also find a ready market and bring fairly good prices, whatever their ultimate destination.

Wood was used in the greatest amount and in the most varied ways during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in America. By the mid-1800's, other materials started to displace it for many purposes. Wood tools, implements, and utensils as well as small decorative and practical objects that were made during the 1800's are still to be found. You may not recognize some of them, and when they are identified you may find you have no use for them, but they are salable if only for their value as curiosities.

It's important to identify unknown wooden objects and discover what purpose they served. Anything made of wood represents handwork that, except in some of the crafts that are still maintained, is now a thing of the past. Wood was handled in many ways, from simple cutting to whittling and carving, in order to produce essential items. Splints, very thin pieces of wood, were either interwoven as for chair seats and baskets or applied to a solid backing as in the case of sugar buckets and boxes.

Some men so enjoyed working with wood that they not only built cradles for the young ones but also carved the paneled sides. It's also probable that some of the wooden candlesticks common during the 1700's and even a carefully shaped and marked yardstick of the 1800's were turned out by the men of the household.

Many of the old wooden candlesticks were tall enough to stand on the floor. They consisted of a crossbase supporting a turned pole so that the crossbar that held the candles could be adjusted to various heights. Many of the wooden candlesticks and candleholders made during the eighteenth century were cleverly worked out in the ways the light could be adjusted and the holder carried or set down safely. Some of them could be taken apart and put together again easily, perhaps becausein that century travelers usually carried a candleholder in their luggage since only the finest inns provided illumination for their patrons.

Indispensable to bedrooms in both country and town during the eighteenth century-and sometimes still found in dusty corners-were patter paddles and wrench. The wooden wrench, sometimes amusingly carved, was needed to tighten the ropes of a rope bed. Patter paddles with handles that slant to one side instead of extending straight outward were used to pat and pound the featherbed (it needed this treatment after every night's sleep on it). If a pair of patter paddles is initialed and dated, they were probably an eighteenth-century wedding gift.

Bed steps, two steps high, were needed to climb into the high four-poster beds, and night caps and slippers were stored in them. These steps can be as useful elsewhere in the house today.

It's quite likely that anyone would recognize wooden nutmegs, which presumably were carved in Connecticut and were foisted on unsuspecting housewives by nineteenth-century peddlers. However, a bootjack might be puzzling, since most people now have no need of one. The bootjack-a V-shaped device for pulling off boots -was essential up to a century ago, when travel by horseback was general and farmers and other men wore boots as protection against the weather and wet land.

Woodenware or treen, as it is sometimes called, was used in many households, especially in rural and newly settled areas, until well along in the nineteenth century. The word "treen," the ancient plural of "tree," is correctly applied to plates and dishes made of wood. Trenchers, which were wooden plates or platters on which food was carved, served, or eaten, were used far longer than most people imagine. In their simplest form, they were merely flat pieces of wood or board, either round or square.

The plates, platters, and bowls classified as treen were a little more elegant and showed finer work than trenchers. Also common in nineteenth-century households were wooden mugs and dippers, all kinds of spoons, ladles, rolling pins, and cutting and pastry boards. These were used long after wooden plates and platters had been discarded. Cookie molds and molds for butter were popular in some regions of the country. Measures and sifters, perhaps with splint sides, were common in both kitchens and barns.

The trouble with finding a spoon rack is that it's hard to tell whether it is antique or merely a battered reproduction from the last fifty years. Wall brackets and corner shelves, however, are identifiable by their lines. Classic simplicity marked eighteenth-century examples, but those of the Victorian era showed carving, often naturalistic, and curlicues. These small shelves were important during the 1800's both for shelf clocks and bric-a-brac. Hatracks that could be folded up like an accordion and newspaper racks, both to be hung on the wall, were other Victorian contrivances. Much more attractive are the wooden tiebacks that were whittled or carved in the early years of the century to hold back curtains and support mirrors or pictures.

Churns, washing machines, spinning wheels, and looms were needed for the never-ending chores of making butter, doing laundry, and providing the clothes for a family. Churns and spinning wheels are highly salable items, although both are sometimes converted to odd uses.

Although cranberries are harvested in only a few relatively small areas of the country, the cranberry scoop is a wellknown tool. So great has been the demand for these scoops that they are being made and sold currently in quantity for decorative purposes. Many a scoop that has never touched a cranberry vine holds pipes, plants, or the like. An oxbow, which is equally easy to recognize even though few people have seen oxen hitched with one, is fast reaching the popularity status of the cranberry scoop.

The utmost skill shows in the whittling, shaping, and joining of the innumerable tools that were made entirely, or in large part, of wood for so many years. A man took such great pride in the tools he fashioned for himself that, until the early 1800's, he often marked them with his name and the date. Such tools, of course, bring a better price in the antique market than similar ones unmarked.

Handles for various kinds of axes, augers, and frows (an L-shaped tool for splitting shingles or cleaving) and the handles or frames for saws and other tools with essential metal parts were carefully fashioned to fit a man's hand. A good handle was shaped to fit so precisely that it was almost a work of art. Essential tools made entirely of wood include clamps, the carpenter's square, the mallet, plane, and brace, and a good many others that usually have a somewhat familiar look to those who know their present-day counterparts. Quite a find would be an architect's compass, which is exactly the same shape and works the same way as modern ones made of metal.

It is not always easy to figure out the purpose of all the tools unearthed in a dilapidated barn or the cellar of an old house. To cite one example, all old-fashioned hayfork with three long curving tines reinforced near the haildle by two wood crosspieces looks very different from contemporary hayrakes.

Sugar buckets covered with splint are considered primarily a Vermont product. However, similar buckets, if not exactly the same kind, were used elsewhere in New England as well as in New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and wherever maple sap became a spring harvest. Where sugar maple trees do not grow, it might be worthwhile to look for other styles of wooden buckets that are typical for certain products or chores of the region.

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