Notes on America 1585-1850

North America, c. 1652, Library of Congress.

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.

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.

Liriodendron tulipifera.

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.

Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia.

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 American Republic, 1843, New York Public Library.

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:

Joseph Downs Collection, The Winterthur Library.

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.

Locations of J & A Crout in Philadelphia in 1840.

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.

Library of Congress in Indiana Historical Society Publication Vol. 25, No. 1.

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.

1850 from The Library Company of Philadelphia.

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.

Want to read more American tree and timber-related blog posts? You can read about the Eastern white pine here. The Chicago and Great Lakes lumber trade is here.

— Suzanne Ellison

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26 Responses to Notes on America 1585-1850

  1. Joe says:

    Seems to be an early form of expandable table in Henkels’ ad. Metal hinges or some other non-metallic joint?

  2. Tony Zaffuto says:

    Most appropriate post for the 4th of July! Actual, non-revisionist! How do you find such gems.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Tony. The accounts of the early English voyages to Virginia and Petr Kalm’s travels are all on line and I have been reading them for years. Both Hathi Trust and Internet Archive have them available.

  3. Kerry Doyle says:

    That’s some extensive archival research! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jim Blank says:

    That was very interesting. Thanks. Have a Happy Fourth!

  5. Andrew Sistrand says:

    Great article–seems well researched, and the illustrations really make it.

  6. This is great stuff, Suzanne, thank you! Interesting (among other things) that people considered “curled” maple to be its own species. If you’re a woodworker and not a botanist, it may as well be.

    What’s the source on the Kent County (Del.) courthouse? I ask because I have (well, had) ancestors in Kent County back about that far and have never gotten around to researching the time and place as I’ve felt I ought to.

    • saucyindexer says:

      The discussion on burning buildings for nails seems to have gone on for decades. The declaration in Kent County was provided by the Delaware State Archivist to the October 1950 edition of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.

  7. Thanks Suzanne. You’re always an interesting read.

    A pretty good historical book on white pine is Andrew Vietze, “White Pine: American History and the Tree that Made a Nation”

  8. Don Goodwin says:

    Did Mr. Allen get his lumber from Frank Miller in Union City? 🙂 Really enjoyed the post. Thank you.

  9. jbakerrower says:

    Sassafras is ‘better than Lignum Vitea’? I’d like to see some research on that, please!

    • saucyindexer says:

      The writer was referring to the medicinal uses for sassafras. In 1577 lignum vitae, found in the Caribbean, was described for all sorts of ailments, but was under the control of the Spanish. Finding sassafras in the 1585-1586 voyage to Virginia would provide the English with a medicinal source they could control. Syphilis was running rampant in 16th-century Europe and new medicines were needed.

  10. nrhiller says:

    This is fascinating stuff. You are an awe-inspiring researcher, Suzanne.

  11. Richard Mahler says:

    Kudos for this history article with sources!
    We still have forests with thousands of Poplars growing here in Virginia. It grows straight with little wide branching even if it stands in the open in your yard and not competing for light with other trees. It is used mostly as secondary wood, rarely in fine furniture where hardness is required, but I have used it for projects choosing the whitest I can find; it is a poor firewood since it burns like paper! We still have plenty of black walnut, wild cherry and quite a lot of maple here in Virginia (I have a couple of sizable cherry and maples, one white walnut, in my yard along with dozens of oaks – white, red and black). Willow oak is grown as an ornamental and can get large. We have a lot of gum and sycamore growing here but I don’t know if they have value in woodworking as I have never seen any available; I have both standing. We have one huge Tupelo that turns a rich red before other trees color and drops its leaves soon after. Sassafras grows here everywhere almost like weeds but is rarely more than a large shrub. I had never heard of laurel being used for small implements, though boxwood is prized for that purpose.
    Before the English colonized North America they had deforested to the extent that they had little oak for shipbuilding to the extent that it was unlawful to cut them over a certain size except by the Royal Navy, or so I have read in a number of sources. Northern England and Scotland now have enormous areas of spruce grown commercially for lumber – too late for ship’s masts!

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Richard. Sassafras and persimmon were the first two trees my father taught me to identify.

  12. Richard Mahler says:

    As to iron, railroad history buffs know that Americans did not have the heavy iron-making industry when the first railroads were started here in the 1830s, so the rails and engines had to come from England. I have a letter from England to the president of the B&O in my collection of original railroadiana documents that concerns a delay in a shipment of rail due to labor unrest. Expansion of the railroads exploded and by the Civil War America was producing its own rails and engines (five thousand miles laid) as well as gun and cannon manufacturing just in time for the first of what can be called modern warfare in terms of destructiveness and death, and almost the first to be recorded by photography (another of my collecting manias).

  13. Richard Mahler says:

    The revolution was truly an incentive both psychologically and of necessity to manufacture what had often been unlawful in order to give England the commercial monopoly parliament felt it deserved in compensation for military protection and other governmental costs. The colonists did not agree since they considered how much raw material they provided and how much in taxes and import tariffs they paid. By the time America was an independent nation, even in an agrarian economy, men like Thomas Jefferson got into small-time industry like the iron nailery he ran at Monticello staffed by his young male slaves; it was not highly successful but it did provide some income. Jefferson’s great grief was that it was not possible to grow European vintage grapes due to their lack of resistance to disease here, so it was necessary to import all of it. I think if he were alive now he would not be growing tobacco or wheat or anything else on his two plantations, Monticello and Poplar Forest!

  14. AAAndrew says:

    Oh, Suzanne! I always enjoy your posts, but this one has has hit particularly close to home. My research is primarily in the 19th-century and on a specific industry. I have very tender spot for 19th-century advertising and commercial “speak.” You have some great examples there.

    And speaking of masts, did you know that Mast Yard State Forest, just outside Concord, NH was named after a town which used to be there built around the mast industry? I have a letter from 1879 written to a young woman, Florence Dix, by her mother. Florence had joined her married sister in Mast Yard to seek her fortune. Her mother’s parting advice was to “be good be helpful and be happy, and grow fat and strong. Learn to love new milk and don’t tumble in the pond or get sawed up in the mill.”

    By the 1840’s a nativist movement was growing, and as cheap, quality, British goods were flooding the markets from their head start in the industrial revolution, American industries had difficulty catching up. You begin to see in the 1840’s, and much more by the 1850’s, advertisements which stress that this is “American Made” and as good as any import.

    Here’s a good example from my site.

    It gets really over-the-top in the 1850’s.

    All this is particularly interesting in that the last link is for a company who brought British-trained tool makers over to set up the factory. They even imported a workforce of British young women, who did most of the manufacturing steps. And then they say, “Let American children learn the art of writing – and American Letters be written – and American Commerce – and all the vast Business of the land be recorded with American Made Pens.”

    • Richard Mahler says:

      Much of my wide reading and document collecting is 19th century English and American because it is so rich in social and cultural material; unlike anything much that came in history before, rapid change from industry and manufacturing not only created technologies that increased production of nearly everything including farm goods, it stressed most people because it made many simultaneously less independent even as it made things more accessible and affordable. It was psychologically difficult to come to terms with old values and traditions that were rapidly disappearing from existence as it had been known and experienced. For much of the 20th century historians mocked the sentimentality and seemingly maudlin expressions of the Victorians in art and literature as well as advertising, but more recently there has been greater understanding and appreciation of the period. People in England and America experienced the period differently in many ways; even as Americans tended to ape so much of the English fashions in clothing, design and architecture, American-made was a matter of increasing pride.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thank you! I particularly liked William Allen’s ad and the contrast between rural and city advertisements.

  15. Brian G Miller says:

    This is why I come here. Won’t find this stuff anywhere else.

  16. Lee Kallstrom says:

    Nicely done. Most informative and original. Thanks

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