Gather together documents written by early visitors to America, some 17th century laws and a few 19th century advertisements, run them through a woodworking sifter and what do you get? Read on and see.
A Few Trees of Interest
The early English voyages to “the new found land of Virginia” probed the coastline to document the commodities useful to the English economy. Observations on timber, plants for medicinal use, wildlife and water sources were documented for the corporations that would later have permission to colonize this new country.
Firs (or Firres) were noted by the 1605 and 1606 voyages that visited the northern coast of Virginia, now known as Maine.
They were astounded by the size of the trees and straight growth. This was the Eastern white pine, Pinus strobus.
Before the end of the 17th century the processing of this tree for use as single-stick masts was in full swing. In 1678 Judge Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts, owner of a sawmill in what is now Maine, made entries describing a mast “of about 26 Inches or 28 [diameter]” being pulled out by a large number of oxen. He also went to the coast and observed the departure of a mast ship to England.
The continued use of colonial trees for masts is noted by another visitor, Petr Kalm, of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences He made this observation in the autumn of 1748:
When the English explorers encountered a tree not native to Europe they would use the name supplied by the original residents of the land. In the 1585-1586 voyage made in the name of Sir Walter Raleigh (to the part of Virginia that is now known as Virginia), Thomas Heriot wrote:
The Rakiock turns out to be the Tulip Tree, or Tulip Poplar (also known by several other names). A beautiful tree with distinctive leaves and flowers.
Petr Kalm also mentions this tree in his visit to Philadelphia:
Kalm continues: “It cannot but be very agreeable to see in spring, at the end of May (when it is in blossom) one of the greatest trees covered for a fortnight together with flowers, with regard to their shape, size and partly colour are like tulips, the leaves have likewise something peculiar, the English therefore in some places call the tree the old woman’s smock, because their imagination finds something like it below the leaves.”
The uses of the tree are varied and not all joiners are agreed on how good it is:
A third tree described in George Weymouth’s 1605 voyage to the northern part of Virginia (Maine) is valued more for its medicinal uses:
The Sassafras tree (or using the ‘long s’ spelling, the saffafras), Sassafras albidum.
Petr Kalm also observed this tree in Philadelphia:
Kalm continued his entry on the sassafras tree with several accounts of how it was used to make a tea, the bark used to dye wool orange and other parts of the tree to treat illnesses.
Cherry trees were easily identified and noted in all the early voyages to North America. Petr Kalm made an important observation about the tree and the following statement is one of the reasons his notes remain valuable to scientists today.
One last tree for the spoon carvers, so-named the Spoon tree by Professor Kalm.
A gift to Kalm from the first spoon makers in North America:
Nailes, Nayls and Nayles
During the 1585-1586 Walter Raleigh-sponsored voyage to Virginia a note on finding iron was made:
It would be many years before the colony would have the resources to process iron to make nails and other tools. As a consequence the first ships bringing colonists to the new land brought along: nails, nailes, nayls and nayles. And as the colonies grew the demand grew for nails from England. An 1684 order of goods from London included “…Iron is much wanted, and nayls very much vizt 6d 8d & 10d a Tunn of each sort would quickly sell…”
Timber was abundant but nails were not and it seems there is some evidence of colonists burning down buildings to salvage the nails. Two 17th century documents specifically reference burning buildings for nails.
The first is from the Assembly of Burgesses held at James Cittie for the term October 1644 to November 1645, the 19th year of the reign of Charles I. In the February 1645 session, Act VII was passed and is in two parts. The first part of the act made it unlawful to abandon a plantation once it had been seated. It was also illegal to take up a property that had been deserted unless the property was voluntarily relinquished and leased to another. The second part of the act reads:
When a plantation was seated it was the responsibility of the patent holder to protect the land. A large portion of the output of the land, such as tobacco, was a trade commodity controlled by England. If the patentee chose to leave the land (crop failure, other economic loss) they could not salvage nails by burning plantation buildings, thereby reducing the value of the property, and causing the next land patentee to incur the cost of rebuilding. To discourage the burning of a building the person vacating the plantation was compensated with nails equivalent to the number used in the building.
The second document is from Kent County in the Delaware colony. In 1682 this area was transferred to William Penn and he chartered the new Delaware colony. A new court town was to planned and a new courthouse was to be built. The existing courthouse was no longer needed and its demise was determined thusly:
This was a very frugal way to handle the old courthouse and make way for the new (which was finally built in 1697). Burning was an efficient mode of demolition and the nailes could be salvaged. Win-win.
Although it was illegal for colonists to make their own nails they eventually did. In some cases it was with the agreement of officials responsible for stopping such illegal operations sharing in the profits. Nail making was also a cottage industry and the nail makers were often women and children.
By the middle of the 18th century the English controls on colonial economies, increased taxes and no representation in the English Parliaments had the Americans chafing. Then came the Stamp Act.
Advertising is Everything in the New Republic
The furniture makers of today have multiple means to advertise their business: websites, blogs, social media, trade shows, etc. In the first 70 years of the New Republic the usual avenues involved newspaper ads, trade cards and labels. But some things never change. Your ads have to identify what you have to offer and get the customer interested in walking through the door.
In 1840 in Philadelphia J & A Crout placed this advertisement:
This ad is remarkable for the reference to the Franklin Institute and the emphasis on American furniture made with American woods. The Franklin Institute regularly held exhibits on American manufacturing, inventions and scientific advancements, and was very popular with the public. A potential buyer of furniture could see the wood specimens from the exhibit and see furniture made with the same wood. And there are two locations with specific details on each location: over the paper store, across from the State House. Additional details are the trees at the top (American wood) and the eye-catching sofa on-end (otherwise it would be empty space and ad space is money) and the intricate border.
Philadelphia developed as an industrial center after the Embargo of 1807 crushed the importation of European goods. In 1840 it was no longer the largest American city but was bustling with industry and competition. Your business advertisement had to set you apart from your competitors.
In 1843 William Allen placed an ad in the Winchester Patriot. His business was in rural Randolph County, Indiana, (along the western border of Ohio) and his ad is a bit different from the Philadelphia-based business. Allen was in a region that was part of the westward expansion of the Republic.
His eye-catchers: the first word is what he makes, then an image of what he makes, followed by a catchy slogan. He thanks the past patrons of his business and ensures customers he will be able to meet future demand for furniture. His slogan appeals to the frugal nature of a farming community that needs well-made furniture at an economical cost. The list of items he will accept for payment range from beef cattle to produce and offers his customers flexibility in how they pay. He understands his customers.
The Indiana Historical Society has a few more details about William Allen and his business. He was born around 1821 in Ohio making him in his early 20s when the advertisement was placed in the local paper. He was a cabinetmaker sometime before 1843 until sometime after 1850. In 1850 he had four men in his shop and the annual output included “30 Bureaus $360; 250 Bedsteads $1250; 30 Tables $150; Other Articles $500.” I was able to find a map dated in the mid-1860s showing ownership of farming acreage around Winchester, Indiana and there was a tract of some 40 acres owned by a W. Allen. Did he take up farming after cabinetmaking? We don’t know.
One final ad to consider. When I was mapping the two locations of the J & A Crout business I found another Philadelphia advertisement in the form of a packing label dated 1850.
Ten years after the J & A Crout advertisement one of the two locations, 173 Chestnut St. (across from the State House), was now occupied by a George Henkels. Meanwhile, William Allen was still in business in rural Indiana.
The gallery has a few more items for your perusal.
— Suzanne Ellison