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Tools & Craft #17: Women Woodworkers in 19th-Century England

I was reading a Chris Schwarz blog entry on his favorite woodworking writer, Mag Ruffman. It reminded me that I have been planning to write an entry about the first woman woodworking writer that I know of. The Handbook of Turning was first published anonymously in 1842, but it is generally considered the work of one Miss Gascoigne of Parlington Park, near Leeds. A very rich woman from a powerful family, when she married, her husband took her last name.

Ornamental turning was apparently her hobby. The book contains all the basics of ornamental turning, was a popular resource, and was both reprinted and pirated for many years. (You can download it for free here, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)

You might be wondering how a woman in 19th-Century England not only found herself in front of a lathe, but learned enough about turning to write a book on it. So here's the short answer: Because she was rich.

Here's the long answer: In the 1840s, furniture making was emerging as a hobby for the upper class. (The middle class didn't yet have enough free time to become do-it-yourselfers.) Ornamental turning was one of the few craft hobbies of royalty and the gentry of the 19th century and earlier. Companies like Holtzapffel & Co. made incredible foot-powered lathes for the purpose. It would have been uncommon, but not unheard of, for a woman of means to turn. The real impediment would have been the considerable cost of the lathe, which is why ornamental turning was the hobby of very rich people.

Which is not to say that the only women involved with furniture building or woodworking were upper class. It's true that down at the trades level, almost any woman who owned, say, a cabinet-making shop would have inherited the business from their husbands or fathers--and would mostly have been relegated to the administrative side of the business. However, at the time there was at least one woman sawyer in London (source: Henry Mayhew), and for all the modern talk about women staying home and raising children in Victorian times, women worked in all the craft industries, usually in jobs that required dexterity but not huge amounts of strength.

Women were typically paid less than men, which was a big incentive for factory owners to hire women, and a reason why the jobs were so segregated. The subject of women in the woodworking trades really requires a detailed study, which I haven't done. But certainly when you research 19th-century industry, it's actually a lot closer to today where most women are in the workplace, as opposed to say, 50 years ago when they weren't.

By the way,  according to the caption that accompanied the picture of the author (up at the top of this entry) was made on the lathe, which is kind of cool. 

Below are some more images from within the book. 

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Tools & Craft #90: Regional Tool Names

It's the early part of the 19th century and you are a traveling salesman selling hammers and other striking tools. You are traveling by horse, carriage, sometimes even by those new fangled canals, and your packs are loaded with sample hammer heads. Being from a major industrial center with water powered trip hammers that forge inexpensively, at high quality, and at high volume, you are pretty confident you will be riding back home with lots of orders.

You stop at the local iron monger and show him your wares. He listens politely, handles the hammers and just when you are about to close the deal he politely says "Those are fine hammers Mr. Smith, but around these parts we use a different tool. Ours is a little more expensive, but the peen is near the bottom of the head, not the top". And he politely hands you back your samples.

This scenario is repeated all over England. A lesser salesman than you might go home defeated, but you are a smart cookie working for a fine up and coming firm. When you get back to the factory you tell your boss the problem, and give them sketches and samples of the different styles of hammers used around the country. The local high price was due to low volume local manufacturing, not the actual design. On your return trip your product is familiar to the local craftsman, at a much lower price, and you get the orders you were hoping for. Within a few years, in a process enabled by the network of English canals, and finished off by the railroad the centralized manufacture of all kinds of tools at low prices, with a myriad of styles matching local requirements, destroys the local trade of the local individual blacksmith. This nineteenth century "Walmartization" of production happened both in England and the US limited only by the cost of transportation. What we are left with today in the tool market is a huge number of different names for what is essentially the same tool.

Off the top of my head I can think of a bunch of names for cabinetmaker's hammers: Warrington, Exeter, London, Manchester, Bath Head or Center Peen, and Lancashire pattern just to name a few. There are differences in the styles, and the styles changed and evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries. The key point is that all the hammers do the same thing: One side is for driving nails, and the other side is for starting small nails. Cabinetmaker's hammers don't have claws for pulling nails because using a claw would dent the wood, but faster starting of small brads is an important feature for furniture making.

By the way - just a few names for carpenter's hammers: Kent pattern, Canterbury Claw, Scotch Joiner's, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and I could go on.

We can nickle and dime the exact designs, for example the main difference between London and Exeter pattern hammers is that the latter had some chamfers. Some catalogs also listed these two patterns as the same item. But the real reason for the huge variety of tools is the response of manufacturer to regional markets. Of course don't confuse the range of multi-named cabinetmaker's hammers with the thousands of other type of hammers used for other purposes. In a quest for hand tool efficiency each trade in many cases had their own group of hammers and other tools - each evolving to suit the needs of the specific trade. In addition a light hammer, similar to an upholsterer's hammer was made just for Gent's (straight claw) or Ladies (curved claw).

This marketing response to local tool requirements were also addressed by the English manufacturers on the international market.


This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.

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