Little Wooden Boxes

Ink well, New Kingdom, Egypt. H-4.5 cm x L-12.2 cm x D-5.6 cm (1-3/4″ x 4-13/16″ x 2-3/16″). British Museum.

I like to study the everday objects on display in museums and my favorites are the small boxes and containers used to hold all manner of things: keepsakes, love letters, poison, cosmetics and so on.

In ancient Egypt many of the little boxes recovered from tombs were used to hold various cosmetic pastes used by women and men (aka guyliner).

Duck box, New Kingdom, Egypt. H-9.5 cm x D-9 cm x W-15 cm (3-3/4″ x 3-7/16″ x 6″). British Museum.

Boxes were often carved into animal forms with decorated swivel tops secured with wooden pins. The incised wings of this duck-shaped box swing out to reveal the interior.

Plant life was also an inspiration for the shape of these boxes.

Cucumber box, New Kingdom, Egypt. British Museum.

The cucumber still has green pigment in the grooves providing another detail on the amount of work that went into these boxes. The dimensions are: H-3.5 cm x D-7 cm x W-3.5 cm (1-3/8″ x 6.9″ x 1-3/8″).

Middle Kingdom, Egypt. MetMuseum.

Not all the boxes were carved or extremely small. This joined box has a sliding lid and is one of the larger ancient Egyptian boxes in this line-up. The interior has three holders probably for glass vials. The dimensions are: H-18 cm x L-24.5 cm x W-15.5 cm (7-1/16″ x 9-5/8″ x 6-1/8″).

As noted above the boxes from Ancient Egypt were found in tombs and were made to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. They were also items of luxury made of imported woods, ivory and faience.

Round cosmetic boxes, New Kingdom, Egypt. MetMuesum.

Two boxes of similar design: wood on the left, ivory on the on the right. Both with pinned swivel lids and compass-incised designs. The dimensions of the wooden box, including the tabs, are: H-5 cm x W-12.2 cm, base diameter-4.8 cm (1-15/16″ x 4-13/16 cm, base diameter 1-7/8″).

Duck box, all sides, New Kingdom, Egypt. British Museum.

The last box before springing into not-as-ancient times is titled the Trussed Duck. I prefer Resting Duck. It is an extraordinary shape. If I were to order a duck box to hold my mascara, or rather kohl, I would not think to order it in the shape of an entree for dinner. For such a small package it has incredible detail. Dimensions are: L-10.8 cm x W-5 cm (4-1/4″ x 2″).

Greco-Roman or possibly Coptic, Egypt. British Museum.

Another joined (and very petite) box with a sliding lid. Dimensions are: H-5.5 cm x D-4cm x W-4.5 cm (2-3/8″ x 1-9/16″ x 1-1/2″).

Turtle box, 7th-century, Thebes. MetMuseum.

The Met Museum does not identify this as a turtle box, but that is what it is. The box is carved with both top and sides incised. Here again, the lid swivels to the side but we have the addition of  the turtle’s head acting as the closing mechanism. Dimensions are: H-5.4 cm x W-14.9 cm x D-7.3 cm (2-1/8″ x 5-7/8″ x 2-7/8″).

If, like Chris, you might have inadvertently squashed a brother turtle on the roadway you should probably make this turtle box.

Kerala salt box.

Moving on to India and a very traditional box for the kitchen. Although the box is not dated it is likely 19th- or 20th-century. The box is carved in the shape of a leaf and the pin for the swivel lid is topped with a bud.

Masala-dabba spice box.

Another box for the kitchen from India, dated 20th-century. The interior is divided to separate the various spices used on a daily basis in Indian cuisine. I’m telling you, that swivel lid has worked for thousands of years.

Birchbark and cedar box, 19th-century. MetMuseum.

This is a Micmac box from Ontario, Canada with etched birchbark sides and cedar base and lid. The bark is sewn with reeds. The Micmac are an Algonquin-speaking people.

Nutmeg box, 19th-century, English. Opus Antiques.

Keeping a pocket-sized nutmeg box was the thing to have in the 19th century. A small dusting of nutmeg was added to any dish needing just a bit of spicey sweetness. One nutmeg was stored in the bottom section, the grater was the middle portion, then the top went on. Some people (my mother) sneak nutmeg into a dish (eggplant parmigiana) and then laugh when others (me) can’t figure out why my dish tastes different. The dimensions are (the box, not my mother): L-7 cm, diameter at top-2.5 cm (2-3/4″, top diameter-1″).

From Denzil Grant Antiques.

Whomever made this pallet for the artist was a very good friend indeed.

Earlier in the year I wrote about a 2,400-year-old heart-shaped box recovered from a shipwreck. One of the archaeologist involved in the research figured out how the box was made. You can read about it here.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Historical Images, Personal Favorites | 6 Comments

FEATURES IN FURNITURE: CARVINGS AND TURNINGS

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FIG. 1. EXAMPLES OF EARLY CARVING. (A) Early Gothic, XIV or XV century. (B) Incised Work. (C) Jacobean. (D) A Favourite Tudor Ornament. (E) Simple Tudor Edging. (F) Elizabethan Design in Low Relief.

This is an excerpt from “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Volume IV” published by Lost Art Press.

From the earliest pre-historic ages man has tried to express himself in some form of decoration, first in flint and then in wood. To a large extent he is dated and the degree of his culture determined by what he has left to trace his existence.

Woodcarving has been a feature in every civilisation, and all through the centuries we find that days, weeks and often months might be spent on the knife decoration of some weapon, tool, paddle, or domestic utensil. It is interesting to note, however, that, when carving first became a recognised craft in Europe, it was devoted to church woodwork long before it reached the humble home. In our own country little carved furniture can be traced further back than the sixteenth century although many earlier church coffers, chests, and seats with carved decoration are to be found.

Just, too, as woodwork design was borrowed from models in stone, the carpenter in his carving followed the prevalent Gothic mode. Early Tudor carving is almost exclusively Gothic in character (Fig. 1, A and B). Occasionally we find crude representations of figures, or of horses, deer, or birds, and sometimes a medallion with a bas-relief head; but as a rule the carver, timid of freedom, restricted himself to geometrical patterns (Fig. 1, C, D, E). Of these there is a great variety, many showing marked ingenuity, but it was not till the Elizabethan period that we have something of the freedom indicated in the type of design shown at F. The “linenfold” panel had been common from an earlier period, but in Elizabethan times cupboards, buffets, four-post bedsteads were freely carved, the bulbous form of pillar and leg (Fig. 3, K) being a feature of the period.

Throughout the different periods it is instructive to note how well adapted the decorative carving was to the general design. In early Tudor days the carpenter trusted largely to simple incised work or gouge cuts, and little was attempted in the way of modelling. Even during Queen Elizabeth’s time carving was kept in low relief, and it was not till the somewhat heavier Dutch influence was felt in the Jacobean age that we find bolder scroll and leaf work.

Mouldings were freely carved, their differing contours offering scope for individual enterprise. As the tool kit developed work tended to become more delicate, till in time certain cabinet makers specialised in carving. The amazing work of Grinling Gibbons in the the seventeenth century may be regarded as exceptional. Influenced by Italian and French modes he was, in a sense, before his time, and no other English woodcarver has ever reached his fame. The brothers Adam introduced a new technique towards the end of the eighteenth century, and their delicate husk festoons and pendants in conjunction with graceful vases, paterae and fluting are more typically British than any other form of decoration bequeathed to us (see Fig. 2).

Fig-2

FIG. 2. TYPICAL FRIEZE OF THE ADAM PERIOD (LATE XVIII CENTURY) Note the use of severe fluting in contrast to the free husk ornament. Adam chimney pieces were almost invariably treated in this way.

Has the carver disappeared? Practically so—at least for the moment. During the nineteenth century he had to rely chiefly on the designer who, discarding earlier British motifs, showed a leaning towards the conventional and more elaborate Italian models. The introduction of manufactured pressed carvings shocked the purist; and later, when “strip detail” came to take the place of hand-carved mouldings, the craft became suspect. This, with the high cost of labour after the 1914 war, drove the woodcarver from the field—an irreparable loss till, perchance, the world again becomes rich.

Turning. There can be little doubt that, to the potter’s wheel, we owe the origin of wood turning. The earliest form of pole lathe, too, has lingered to the present day and may still be found in our woodlands. In the development of wood turning one point to observe is that it did not follow architectural features in stone so closely as, say, cornices, pediments, and mouldings. The craftsman soon discovered that, in wood, much more was possible than in stone. Thus, unless the design was definitely based on some architectural model, the woodworker struck out on a line of his own. This became more noticeable when domestic furniture came to be decorated. On ecclesiastical woodwork the line of the architectural column, tapering from plinth to capital, was followed; but, even from early Tudor days, we find that, in the case of turned legs, the taper was inverted. This is seen in examples such as A, B, E, G and H at Fig. 3. When, however, the turning took the form of a baluster (see D) the taper was usually reversed, or (as in K) the columnar part kept throughout at the same diameter. This freedom from the rigidity of classical Greek and Roman models has been a feature in turning down through the centuries.

Fig-3

FIG. 3. TURNED WORK DURING THE VARIOUS PERIODS. (A) Early Tudor. (B) Elizabethan (also Flemish). (C) Jacobean Twist Turning. (D) Jacobean. (E) William and Mary Period. (F) Chippendale Grouped-Pillar Leg. (G) Leg of the Adam Period. (H) Delicate Sheraton Leg. (J) Split Turning (Jacobean). (K) Elizabethan bulbous column.

In an article which is a mere sketch it is impossible to do more than indicate the features of different periods. Examples, however, are well worth close study whenever one has the opportunity. Very few people understand the problem involved in planning a graceful piece of turning. Everything depends of line and proportion. One thing to remember is that the diameter is the same from whatever angle the column is viewed. On paper, in elevation, a 2 in. square leg looks the same as a turned one of 2 in. diameter; but, when seen from an angle in the finished piece, the turned one appears to be only about two-thirds as heavy as the other. This the designer often overlooks, although he is more apt to make the square leg too heavy than the turned one too light.

The early craftsmen played for safety, and thus in Tudor, Elizabethan and early Jacobean days we find turnings of the “bulbous” type which bordered on the heavy side. A change emerged during the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne, till, later, Sheraton gave us examples which, in delicacy, have never been surpassed. Early Stuart work came largely under Flemish influence, but the typical Jacobean “twist” turning, continued through Queen Anne’s reign, gave us a form which has ever since been popular. The nineteenth century failed to produce any new pleasing model, the tendency being to accumulate members without any real meaning. Mass production rather cheapened the craft, furniture makers finding it easier to purchase a set of stock legs than to turn new ones from designs of their own. For this reason it is well to keep before us the old models in which every detail was considered in its relation to the whole piece.

Meghan Bates

Posted in Charles H. Hayward at The Woodworker | 1 Comment

The Tools of the Ship-builder and the Mast-maker

A Virginia pilot boat near the busy entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, 1755. From The Naval Chronicle, Vol. XXXIII.

In 1808 Thomas Jefferson wanted a comfortable chair to rest his aging body. He ordered three Campeachy chairs from New Orleans. The chairs were sent by the most efficient and speedy means of the day: by ship. Unfortunately, the ship was lost at sea. Years later another order was placed, the ship arrived in Richmond, Virginia and Jefferson had his Campeachy chairs (or as we know them Campeche chairs).

From ‘The Book of Trades or Circle of the Useful Arts’ 1837, Glasgow.

From the earliest days of the American colonies carpenters, sawyers, shipwrights and other craftsmen were recruited from Britain and other parts of Europe to build everything for the new settlements. Ships of all sizes were needed to move goods and passengers along the coastline, along rivers and bays. Major coastal and river cities, smaller settlements and plantations all had shipyards to build and repair all manner of boats.

Shipbuilding tools from a 1943 reprint of ‘Skeps Byggeriji eller Adelig Ofnings Tionde Tom’ by Ake Classon Ralamb, 1691. Translation of the Swedish nomenclature by J. Aasland, Jr, Hampton, Virginia.

All the shipbuilding tools should be familiar to the modern shipwright or any woodworker. It is thought that when Ake Ralamb started out publishing his scientific encyclopedia he was not saying these tools are new, rather these are the tools that have been traditionally used for shipbuilding.

Masts were generally made at a separate site from the shipyard and required another set of tools. The complexity of the construction depended on whether or not the mast was made using a single stick.

Mast-making tools in ‘The Elements of Rigging and Seamanship’ by David Steel, 1794. From the Historic Naval Ships Association.

Here is an excerpt on making a single stick mast from ‘Masting, Mast-making and Rigging of Ships- Ninth Edition’ by Robert Kipping, 1864:

If you find that hard to follow, Charles Desmond’s ‘Wooden Ship-Building’ from 1919 has a simplified description of making a spar by essentially the same method:

“The spar is first worked to shape by hewing in the manner shown [1.]

1. Making a spar.

…and when this has been done, and the stick is fair, the sparmaker dubs off the square corners and makes portion of the stick that has to be rounded eight sided. Next he makes it sixteen sided, by again taking off the corners, and after this has been done the stick is rounded and made perfectly smooth [2.]

2. The rounded spar.

Of course as a spar has a rounded taper from butt to point of greatest diameter, and from this point to top, it is necessary that sparmaker “lay on” longitudinal taper lines very accurately and work them.”

If the tree procured for a mast was examined and found not sound, or as the supply of massive mast trees was exhausted, another method was used to make masts. As Robert Kipping phrased it in his treatise, “They [the masts] are therefore composed of several pieces united into one body…seems to fulfill the old adage of “a bundle of sticks that could not be broken when so united.”

The Library of Congress has a short article on the history of the old (and very long) Mast House at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The description of composite mast fabrication using coaks (scarf joints) begins on page 5 and you can find it here.

When our waterfronts were crowded with sailing ships and the wooden masts and yards swayed as though blown by the wind the oft-used “a forest of masts” was a fitting description. Although there aren’t as many wooden ships on the water they are still made, and with tools and methods that haven’t changed much in the last few centuries.

From Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Truthful Song’

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Historical Images | 3 Comments

Roman Workbenches. Why?

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When I got to inspect the two Roman workbenches at the Saalburg fort outside Frankfurt, Germany, my hands shook so much that I had to take a break. Close contact with ancient woodworking technology unsettles me.

Why do I become a blubbering idiot trying to kiss Kim Shoulders for the first time on the 8th-grade dance floor while they play Little River Band’s “Cool Change?”

It doesn’t have to do with a reverence for pure history. Most historical sites I visit are aesthetically interesting at best. I don’t have an emotional tether to paintings of the Christ child or the architecture around Him. Instead, I get unnerved when I find clues that help me as a furniture maker who is trying to push into the future.

Obvious example: Tail-vise technology. The more I studied workbenches, the more I realized that I didn’t need a tail vise. After shedding the tail vise, my workbenches became simpler and my operations followed suit. When I encounter tail vises at schools and other shops I step aside like they have the bad herpes.

Second example: Staked furniture. Once I understood how the technology worked, the time it took me to build a chair, stool or table was slashed in half (or maybe more).

I honestly and truly think that we are a retrograde society when it comes to woodworking. For much of our time on this earth, almost everything was made from wood plus small bits of iron or steel. Today, most of us can send a text across the planet, but we can’t cleave a piece of wet wood to create an unimaginably strong chair leg.

And that’s what I was trying to explain to my German students at Dictum GmBH last week as we worked together and then drank beer under the Bavarian horse chestnut trees. I don’t want to return to the past. I want to capture what they knew so I can make my march into the future much easier.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Roman Workbenches, Uncategorized | 21 Comments

Essential Reading: ‘The Art & Craft of Cabinet-Making’

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We don’t know much about David Denning except that he wrote four books about woodworking in the late 19th century, was traditionally trained and had strong opinions about the craft. After reading his 1891 classic “The Art & Craft of Cabinet-Making” many times, I imagine he was a Frank Klausz-like character: He knew his stuff and was happy to let the world know his opinions.

Here’s his opinion on antique furniture: “I assert that it is almost impossible to obtain a really genuine unspoiled piece of oak furniture which has (not) had the misfortune to pass through the hands of a dealer or restorer.” Their work is, generally, “not honest.”

Denning disliked iron planes, calling them “toy-like” and “not used by the practical artisan.”

And unlike many other writers, Denning embraced the use of machines in conjunction with hand tools. On the jack plane he said there is “little occasion for it” when machinery is available. And so the planing can begin with “the trying or even the smoothing plane.”

In other words, Denning sat on the precipice between hand tools and machinery in the late 19th century. Unlike other writers, Denning refused to endorse machines as the end-all, and he swerved wildly away from the Luddite path. Denning was, in many ways, like the modern woodworker who has both options available and can make the most of them.

Because of this particular viewpoint, I consider “The Art & Craft of Cabinet-Making” a classic. The book is a thorough explanation of quality furniture making during the Victorian era. Denning covers tools, workshop appliances, joints, assemblies, veneering and installing hardware in excellent detail. He also covers all the major furniture forms of the time and explains how to make them well (and how others make them poorly).

“The Art & Craft of Cabinet-Making” is available on the antique market or in “print on demand” format, a paperback version where the pages are glued together, not sewn.

I am pleased to say that Popular Woodworking Magazine has done a limited press run of the book and it’s a quality job. It’s printed in the U.S. The binding is both sewn and glued. The hardcovers are cloth-wrapped. The price is only $36, which includes domestic shipping.

You can order a copy here. Do not tarry as there is no guarantee they will do a second press run.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Announcements About the Lie-Nielsen Open House

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I’ve been asked to make the keynote address at the Lie-Nielsen Open House on July 7-8 and also will give a lecture and demonstration on “Finishing With Fire” and showing how to do it with furniture components.

For the keynote, my topic is titled “The Hand Tool Backlash,” and I’ve been working on it for several weeks now. Previous keynote speakers, such as Peter Follansbee and Roy Underhill, have made such amazing speeches at the Open House that fair ladies fainted and the sick were healed.

Though I’m no professional speaker, I vow to give it my best. (Actually, nothing can best my story about my first colonoscopy. And as I probably shouldn’t tell that particular story, this will be my second best.)

Finishing With Fire
For my demonstration at 3 p.m. Friday, I’ll be assembling and finishing one of my three-legged stools with a gas torch and a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax. I’ve been experimenting with this finish for several years now and have figured out how to make it really easy, even for fire-fearing scarecrows.

Also, I’ll be happy to sell the completed stool to anyone planning to attend. These stools are $175 and are made from Southern yellow pine. I’ll be happy to customize the stool for your height on the spot. If you’d like the stool, send a note to help@lostartpress.com, and I’ll reserve it for you.

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About the Event
The Lie-Nielsen Open House is a fantastic family event with lots of demonstrators, toolmakers and food. In addition to me, other demonstrators include Christian Becksvoort, Danielle Rose Byrd, Phil Lowe, Peter Follansbee and Peter Galbert.

Also attending: Megan Fitzpatrick of Popular Woodworking Magazine, planemaker Matt Bickford, Tico Vogt of Vogt Toolworks, Isaac Smith of Blackburn Tools, Joshua Klein of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, furniture maker Freddy Roman, miniature maker Marco Terenzi, Kenneth Kortemeier of the Maine Coast Craft School, chairmaker and toolmaker Tim Manney, Mason McBrien from the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, planemaker Scott Meek, Bob Van Dyke from the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, planemaker Dan Schwank, saw sharpener Matt Cianci, Wes Sutherland from the Guild of Maine Woodworkers, bowmaker Stim Wilcox, Rory Wood from Rare Woods, boat maker Kevin Carney, Steve Branam from the Close Grain School of Woodworking, Chris Kuehn of Sterling Toolworks and Travis Knapp of RareWoods.us.

Whew, that’s the longest list of vendors I’ve ever seen at the Open House. Should be great.

Note, I won’t be bringing any Lost Art Press books or Crucible tools with me. But Lie-Nielsen carries almost our entire line and those will be available for purchase at the event. As always, I am happy to sign your books (or anything else you put in front of me).

— Christopher Schwarz

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The Tree That Sparked an Industry and a Riot

The mighty Eastern White Pine.

Notable high timber trees

In May of 1605 explorer Captain George Waymouth and his crew arrived off the coast of the “Northern part of Virginia” as that part of the New World was called. They were on a small island off the coast of what is now known as Maine and near the mouth of the Tanahock River, later to be known as the St. George’s River.

A copy of a copy of the 1610 Simancas (Spain) archive map. Waymouth’s explorations are in the area outlined by the blue box. From the Maine Historical Society.

Captain Waymouth took soundings and other measurements during the exploration but no maps survive. We do have the account of James Rosier, a gentleman employed on the voyage who wrote “The True Relation of the Most prosperous voyage made this present yeere 1605 by Captain George Waymouth in the Discovery of the land of Virginia” (that’s the shortened title). He provides a description of the fruits and trees found in mid-May while still on the island:

After constructing smaller boats for navigation in shallower waters they started to make excursions to other islands and into the river. They were astounded by the freshness of the water, the abundant catches of fish and the many deep coves along the river. In mid-June Rosier wrote:

The “notable high timber trees, mast for ships of 400 tun” were the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Captain Waymouth was not on a pleasure cruise. He and and his crew were on a voyage to find and report on resources and within several decades the business of mast-making would become the first major industry of New England.

By the 17th-century Britain had exhausted the supply of timber need to make single-stick masts for the ships of the Royal Navy. Britain was in fierce and expensive competition for Baltic fir with Spain, France and Holland, a new and cheaper source for mast timber was desperately neeeded.  Pinus strobus was the answer and became known as the “mast pine.”

The Eastern White Pine is known as one of the tallest trees in the Eastern part of the United States. It is easy to work and lighter than other woods. Besides masts the wood could be used for other shipbuilding components, pitch and tar were used for seaming and resin and turpentine were used to make paint and varnish. For future colonists Eastern White Pine would be used to build homes, wagons, barns, furniture and so on.

First Person Observations

Samuel Sewall was a judge in Boston. He is best known in United Staes history as one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials (he later apologized). He was also a businessman and he kept a diary of his daily actions and the events he witnessed or had reported to him. It is almost overwhelming to read the number of injuries that befall his friends and neighbors and the incredible number of deaths that seem to occur each week. But thanks to his dedication in keeping a record we get a few details about the timber trade and the progression of the mast industry some 80 years after Waymouth’s voyage.

From Thursday, September 1, 1687: “This day we receive a Sloop Load of Boards from the Salmon-falls Saw-mill and the same day, I think by the same Boat, I receive a Copy of a Writ of Ejection which Mr. Mason has cause’d to be serv’d on John Broughton respecting said Mill.”

Sewall was an investor in a sawmill and the writ he mentions may have  involved a mill in which he had an interest. He takes a trip to resolve the issue but the court involved cannot meet and the case is deferred until the following March. His trip continues and we get a glimpse of the mast industry from his entrry of September 14:

“See the Mill, get a Cut, visit Mrs. Rainer and her Daughter Broughton. Breakfast there. Ride into Swamp to see a Mast drawn of about 26 inches of 28 [diameter]; about two and thirty yoke of oxen before, and about four yoke by the side of the Mast, between the fore and hinder wheels. ‘Twas a very notable sight. Rode then to York…”

18th-century example of how a large beam was transported. Moving a mast would have required many more teams of oxen.

The following spring Sewall again traveled to resolve the business with the Writ at the Mill but the case was dropped due to the death of one of the parties. He continues his trip and notes on March 9, 1688: “Goe to the Great Iland [Island], saw the Mast-Ship sail.”

Although Sewall lived in Boston his many travels took him to other parts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The sawmill in which he invested, the swamp where he observed a mast being pulled and the sailing of the mast ship were along the Piscataqua River in what is now New Hampshire and Maine.

Map of the Pascataway River, ca. 1665-1670. Red arrows mark Quamphegan Falls (site of a sawmill) and Great Island. Portsmouth is not marked but is located at the mouth of the river. Today New Hampshire lies on the left bank of the river, Maine is on the right bank. From the Maine State Library.

Sewall’s sawmill may have been at Quamphegan Falls or further up the river at Salmon Falls. Both falls were an important part of the timber business in this part of the colony. Masts taken from the forests were moved down to Portsmouth at the mouth of the river, further processed and then loaded onto mast-ships for transport to shipyards in England and to other parts of the colonies.

A squared mast tree could easily be 100-120 feet long requiring mast-ships to have exta-long decking. One of these ships could transport 50 masts and the sight of a mast-ship embarking would certainly be a sight to note in one’s diary. Through Sewall’s diary we learn the mast-making industry, as well as other timber businesses, were well-established. Mast pines were felled, processed and transported to the coast for further transport to shipyards. Sawmills were operating and lumber supplies were moved over waterways.

Colony Growth and Crown Control

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was chartered in 1628. After political ups-and-downs between the colony and England, and within England itself, charters were revoked, rewritten in harsher terms and finally in 1691 a new charter was issued by William and Mary for the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

With the influx of immigrants to the new colony the domestic demand for wood grew and came into conflict with the Crown’s need for shipbuilding material. The very last section of the 1691 charter was very specific on the consequences of interfering with the Crown’s supply of mast pines:

“And lastly for the better providing and furnishing of Masts for Our Royall Navy Wee doe hereby reserve to Us Our Heires and Successors all Trees of the Diameter of Twenty Four Inches and upwards of Twelve Inches from the ground growing upon any soyle or Tract of Land within Our said Province or Territory not heretofore granted to any private persons And Wee doe restrains and forbid all persons whatsoever from felling cutting or destroying any such Trees without the Royall Lycence of Us Our Heires and Successors first had and obteyned upon penalty of Forfeiting One Hundred Poinds sterling unto Ous Our Heires and Successors for every such Tree soe felled cut or destroyed without such Lycence had and obteyned in that behalfe any thing in.”

This last section of the charter was known as the Mast Preservation Clause. Surveyors of Pines and Timber were tasked with finding and marking all suitable trees “within ten miles of any navigable waterway.” Trees were marked with three hatchet marks that formed the “King’s Broad Arrow.” Woe to any colonist found with a marked tree, or a tree that was unmarked but met the size requirements for a mast. The Mast Clause, as with most regulations limiting a vital supply, caused divisions among the colonists. Some were very much in support of supplying the Royal Navy with precious timber, others were more concerned with how they were able to sustain livelihoods with the Crown claiming the best and the most.

A New Century and Expotential Growth

Boston Mill Pond and Shipyards, 1743. Boston Public Library.

In the map above you can see that Boston bristled with shipyards. To power the sawmills and other mills in the area a damn was built to create the Mill Pond and use tidal power. As the tide went out it turned the water wheels that powered the mills. The goods made in the mills and shipyards were traded with England, other European countries and with other colonies. Moving commodities and passengers by water, both sea and rivers, was faster and more efficient than by overland route. Smaller ships made in the colonies were made for this purpose. The many shipyards also did repairs for larger ships damaged by weather or warfare. Samuel Sewall’s diary mentions several instances where a ship had lost its mast and arrived for repairs.

Using Boston as an example of the growth of the New England colony we see in 1650 the population of Boston was 2,000 and by 1742 it was 16,382.  New arrivals to the colony swelled city settlements and there was also a push into more remote and rural areas. Increased populations and increased trade put more pressure on natural resources. With the crown snapping up the best of timber there was more pushback from the colonists. Poaching timber that met the measurements in the Mast Clause was a cat-and-mouse game between individual citizens, sawmill operators and the Royal Surveyors.

In New Hampshire we can get an idea of how a Mast Clause constrained the livlihood of the colonists. But first, a note about a series of taxes that created revenue for the Crown and protected the trade of goods made in England. In 1733 there was the Molasses Act, in 1764 the Sugar Act and in 1765 the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act was particularly inflammatory as it required a tax on printed material that had to be on paper made in England – everything from legal documents to newspapers to playing cards. Not only was this a wooden age, it was a gambling age and a tax affecting playing cards was a low blow.

Prior to 1766 the governor of New Hampshire did not strictly enforce the Mast Clause, especially in the western portion of the colony. In 1764 the charter for incorporating Weare (by today’s roadways about 70 miles from Portsmouth) included the usual clause for reserving all white pines fit for use by the Royal Navy. New towns like Weare didn’t pay much attention to the clause and enforcement was lax. In 1766 John Wentorth became governor and he began to rigorously enforce the Mast Clause and thereby greatly increase revenue.

By this time the law had become an onerous weight on the newer towns and settlers. Prior to cutting any timber for a home or clearing any land a surveyor had to be summoned to assess and mark any pine trees suitable for the Crown’s use. A royal license also had to be paid to cut any other trees. If a settler did not follow this law he was subject to inspection and arrest for any white pine that might be found in his cabin walls. The law was unpopular from farmer to sawmill operator to minister, as none could escape paying for the use of their own trees and only after the Crown had marked and would take what was best.

Ebenezer Mudgett Has Had Enough

Royal Surveyors used the tactic of inspecting sawmills to find white pine logs of mast size, put the Kings Broad Arrow Mark on the logs and then fine the mill operator. In the winter of 1771-1772 they visted sawmills in the Piscataquog Valley and found six mills with white pine logs 15-36 inches in diameter. The owners were ordered to appear in court and pay fines. Some mill owners paid their fines but the owners from Weare did not.

Ebenezer Mudgett was the leader of the Weare group. He agreed to finally meet the sheriff and face his arrest but the night before he and others got together to plan their response.

From the archives of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

This event became known as the Pine Tree Riot. Yes, New Hampshire had a riot. Several accounts say the rioters used pine tree switches to assault the sheriff and the number of strikes equaled the number of logs that were confiscated. Some historians think the disguises used by the Weare rioters gave the Boston Tea Party members the idea to use disguises when they held their protest the next year.

Within a few years of the Pine Tree Riot the former colonists had a country of their own and could now command payment from England or any other country for their mast trees. Business would be brisk for many years as we launched our own Navy, more parts of the world were explored and trade routes expanded and Napoleon began his campaigns.

The cone of the Eastern White Pine.

There are still some old growth stands of the Eastern White Pine in protected forests and parks from Canada to North Carolina and in the Upper Midwest. Go find one and give it a few pats.

For the denizens of New Hampshire and Maine who probably know all about the mast pine and the riot I have one more map for you. It is from 1774 and shows about the same area around the Piscataqua River as the 1665-1670 map above.

Portion of 1774 map showing the most populated areas of New England. Boston Public Library.

Suzanne Ellison

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