The Superior Works: Tool Glamor Shots

Below are a dozen images of tradesmen in various poses along with the tools of their trades. The photographs date from the mid-1800's to the early 1900's and reflect how America's craftsmen of yesteryear got on with their working lives. The photographs are on the various media of the time: ambrotypes (the image is on glass), tintypes (the image is on tin), and cabinet cards (similar to modern photographs, but pasted on a large cardboard backing). None of the photographs have been retouched - they show each guy's warts and all.

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The two carpenters in this very large ca. 1890 tintype, which measures 6" by 8", surround a portable bench. The image is obviously for show as no carpenter could accomplish much work with that many tools on such a small bench. It's interesting to note the manner of dress for each. Can you imagine some Joe Meatball carpenter of today showing up at your door dressed in that garb? You'd think it was Halloween and probably offer them a snack treat, or something like that.
This ca. 1860 ambrotype, of the standard size 2 3/4" by 3 1/4", is stunning for the detail and the pose of the proud sitter, er, stander. The man is obviously a cabinetmaker, judging from the tools he's accumulated within the cabinet he's standing over. In the cabinet is an ivory tipped plough plane and an ebony Ultimatum brace, both of which are tools that the average tradesman of the day could only dream of owning. This photograph is featured in Sandor Nagyszalanczy's must-have book, The Art Of Fine Tools.
Another ambrotype, ca. 1855. But, it's not just another ambrotype. This is an ambrotype of an inventor with two of his patent models, one of which is a scroll sawing machine, with the other a hand-cranked tablesaw that for all the world looks like an hourglass. The image alone is enough to make it the envy of photograph collectors as it's an out of the ordinary pose that's typically some shrivelled up toothless man. The gentleman in this image is actually identifiable through his models. He's T.T.Prosser, of Oconomowock, Wisconsin and he was granted a patent on July 29, 1856 for the very model he's grasping. Mucho gracias, Dr.B for selling me this fine image!
The three guys in this ca. 1855 ambrotype appear to have just found their way out of the Ozarks and took up the trade of wagon wheel making (called wheelwrights) after having been rejected as stunt doubles for the movie Deliverance. Each man is holding tools used in the trade: the man on the left is holding a bruzz (an extra long mortice chisel) over a wheel hub and a mallet; the man in the middle is holding a pair of dividers and a hammer; and the man on the right is holding a drawknife and what looks to be a jig for holding the spokes. The men appear to have come right from the shop as their aprons are covered in the grime one would expect to see from such a rugged trade.
A very simple ca. 1875 tinype of an old gentleman, who undoubtably was a common carpenter, is contained within a boldly scrolled frame. The old dubber, probably slowing down in his old age when this photograph was taken, posses stiffly with his framing square and a chalk line reel, but nary a smile can be seen on his face as his teeth are long gone, either from the heartbreak of periodontal disease or from taking one too many 2X4's to the mug.
Another tintype, ca. 1880, but of two ruffians what probably were timberframers. The gent on the left is wielding a carpenter's adze (wouldn't wanted to have made his acquaintance as he stumbled out from the local saloon after pounding down XXX rye) while the fellow on the left is holding a try square and a back saw (turned on its edge). The two are probably brothers and each have the common treatment of coloring the cheeks red in  an attempt to make the image more lifelike.
This early 1900's cabinet card shows another glimpse of the timberframer and his tools. Here, even the company dog is in on the action and is forefront sitting on a  massive timber cutoff. The fellow on the right is sitting on a Millers Falls boring machine, the tool of choice even by timberframers of today to bore out the large mortices that are integral to a frame's construction. The young guy on the left is holding a large rip saw, and, if you look closely, he is wearing some shin guards that were probably used to protect himself from the bloody mess that usually results when a razor sharp adze meets human flesh. The guy in the back is just standing there, doing nothing, which is still a common practice by many tradesmen of today. That, or he's on workman's comp.
This ca. 1910 fellow strikes an unnatural pose next to his tool chest. The guy is obviously not dressed in the typical workman's outfit of the day, but appears to be in his best Sunday Go To Jesus Worship threads. Perhaps he was on his way to hear the Good Word of God, when a passerby with a camera asked him to sit with hammer in hand. The guy is definitely your run of the mill carpenter as the tool chest, and its contents, make that trade unmistakable. A hewing axe is to his right, a splitting axe to his far left, and a load of mistreated tools fill the void in between. His chest is unusual in that the saws are stored in the cover of the chest; normally, saws are stored in the lower section, toward the front. The image certainly leaves the viewer in a quandry over whether this guy was better as a suit wearer than he was as a carpenter.
Here we have an action shot of yesteryear's juniors busy learning the trade of manual arts in a schoolroom setting. The photograph dates to ca. 1920, and shows the lads busy planing and sawing with their instructor to the left. There are many tools propped on the bench that indicate this was a staged photo-shoot. See that punk to the right of the photograph? Notice how all the others are busy focusing on the work at hand while he isn't? He's the little brat that broke that #602C you found and he's sneering at you. Go ahead and swear at him, if it makes you feel better.
Another tintype that probably dates from around 1890. What's obvious from the image is that the guy is crosscutting a board on a chair. What isn't obvious is that his wife is outside the camera's range ready to bust him in the head with a rolling pin for using her fancy dining room chair. The matrimonial dangers of sawing aside, the guy also exhibits the bodily ravages of sawing that are with us still today - he's missing the tip of his first finger. One only hopes that his loss occured from a powered saw and not from a handsaw, for if the latter, what an insensitive lummox he must have been not to notice the pain of the handsaw lopping his finger off with each successive stroke.
This cabinet card, over-exposed as it is, is of a shop that had the modern ammenities that made carpentry more efficient, provided one's body could manage the daily workout from powering the tools. The fellow at the center of the image is sitting on a Barnes Velocipede scroll saw. He must have been in good physical condition as he's also puffing on a cigar. In front of him is a Barnes hand-powered tablesaw, and to the right of that is a simple boring machine. This photograph, dated April 8, 1897, clearly shows that these guys did architectural work as there are window frames, brackets, gable fretwork, porch post turnings, and the like all around them.
Lest I be accused of being a sexist pig, here's a token image of a dame. While not technically a photograph - it's an advertising card for Coe's Wrenches, the most popular wrench ever made - it does have a photographic look about it. In what must have been considered risque for the day, the stunning lass is popping out of a target in an effort to sell the product. Luckily today we have babes in bikinis popping out of cakes for our yucks. Cheesecake definitely has evolved a long way since this one was handed out to testosterone-rich mechanics, eh?

pal, November 17, 1999