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Artifacts from the Collection


Most people are familiar with the ordinary bellows that we use to help start a fire in the fireplace or outdoor grill. It has two paddle-shaped pieces of wood joined by a flexible material, usually leather. The lower paddle has a simple flap valve, which is nothing more than a hole in the lower paddle covered with a piece of leather tacked down along one side. The flap valve opens to allow air to enter the bellows when the paddles are pulled apart, and is kept closed by air pressure when the paddles are brought together to force air out the nozzle. The result is an intermittent stream of air to the fire that is quite satisfactory for the purposes mentioned.

A blacksmith needs a much steadier flow of air to be able to control the heat of his fire. The solution to this problem, before the invention of the centrifugal blower, was the two-stage bellows. Its mechanism consists of three heart-shaped paddles joined by leather to form two chambers. Each chamber has a flap valve for controlling air flow, and the upper chamber has a nozzle for air to exit.

In operation, the middle paddle is fixed in position, the upper paddle is free to move up and down, and the lower paddle is raised or lowered by means of a rope or chain controlled by the smith.

Gravity pulls the lower paddle down, bringing air through the lower flap valve into the lower chamber as shown in the sketch above. Then, with the lower chamber full of air, raising the lower paddle closes the lower flap valve and forces air into the upper chamber through the upper flap valve as shown in the lower sketch. The upper paddle rises as its air supply is recharged. The smith then releases the tension on the rope and the lower paddle drops down, recharging the lower chamber air supply. While that is happening, its own weight causes the upper paddle to descend, creating pressure to keep the upper flap valve closed and forcing air out the nozzle. In effect, the upper chamber acts as a reservoir of air which feeds the nozzle while the lower chamber is being refilled.

The lower paddle is operated up and down by the smith at whatever speed provides the heat required. The result is not so smooth an airflow as the more modern centrifugal blower, but at least the intermittent "puffing" of the single-stage bellows is avoided.

CLICK HERE to see an animated version of these sketches.

The Museum has a six-foot, two-stage bellows made in New Jersey by A. Bonnell. With funding from The 1772 Foundation, we were able to have Herb Kean restore this bellows which is now part of our permanent blacksmithing display.

Tom Judd

This story was adapted from an article of the same name written by METC's former collections manager Malcolm Dick. It appeared in the February 1999 issue of The Tool Shed, journal of the tool collector's club CRAFTS of New Jersey. The sketches were prepared by Herb Kean.


This rattle, a recent Museum acquisition, would have been used by a 19th-century watchman in a town without a police force or the means for rapid communication in case of an emergency.

Although many American counties had sheriffs during the colonial era, it was not until the mid-1800s that cities, and later towns, formed police departments. Morris County's first sheriff took office in 1739, a year after the county was created, but Madison did not have its own police department until the 1890s.

Without a police force, towns relied on hired watchmen to walk their streets, especially at night. A watchman would have used a noisemaker much like the one shown here to alert people in the case of an emergency.

This very nicely made rattle, a gift of Theodore Trowbridge of Madison, is crafted from what appears to be cherry wood. Unusual in that the clackers and the frame that support them are carved from one piece of wood, the rattle has a nicely lathe-turned handle.

All in all, this is a very attractive piece of woodworking for a utilitarian object.

Lori Beth Finkelstein


Although the Museum's collection consists of a large number of historic hand tools, it also boasts several pieces of pottery representative of this early American craft.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, potters made objects worked from local clay known as redware. Jugs, bowls, cups, porringers, and crocks were made at a wheel, while flat pieces such as the platter pictured here were made using a process called drape molding - forming clay into a ball, flattening it, cutting the slab into a shape, and draping it over a mold to dry.

Because of the porous nature of the clay, redware was often glazed. The most common glaze was a clear coating of lead mixed with silica. For decorative effects, potters also used liquid clay called
slips. METC's redware platter is an example of a slip-decorated piece.

The yellow wave designs on the dish, a popular motif in redware, are the result of a white slip changing colors after being glazed and fired.

Lori Beth Finkelstein


Among the thousands of tools and handcrafted artifacts in the METC collection are several items whose function completely confounds the Museum staff! Like the 19th-century cuttingdevice pictured here, many of these "mystery artifacts" are objects made of parts from several different tools.

This tool could have been made from the blades of gardening shears attached to a branch. The branch has a hand-forged iron ferrule - the metal ring on the end of a wood handle that prevents splitting. The cutting edges of these blades have double bevels, like the blade of a knife, rather than a single bevel like those of scissors. Another odd aspect of this piece is that the backs of the blades look peened at the place where the two blades meet, as if someone had hit them with a heavy instrument. Why someone would do this is another mystery.

The cutters may have been designed to extract large roots or shrubs from the ground, although they could have been used to perform a task entirely unrelated to gardening. If you have any idea what this tool is, please contact the Museum Curator at 973-377-2982 or
send email.

UPDATE! Museum members Jerry Burchette and Herb Kean identified the cutter as a form of hay knife. The blades were formed from a pair of shears. These blacksmith-made shears probably did not work very well, perhaps leading to their reconfiguration as a hay knife. Evidently the tool did not work well as a hay knife either, as the handle was cut off leaving the remains of a hole that once held a peg to be used as a footstep. Presumably, the handle was cut off so that the blades could be used as a chopper of some kind, but the overly thick handle could not have been comfortable.

So our mystery tool seems to have actually been three tools in succession: shears, hay knife, and chopper — none of them very good. One question remains: why are the backs of the blades peened over? Anyone have an answer for that?

Lori Beth Finkelstein


METC is always looking to expand its collection of early American tools and handcrafted objects, especially those made before the mid-1800s. One of our recent acquisitions is a large iron key with a hand-forged bow. Its bit consists of an interesting design that takes on different appearances depending on how you look at it. It shows "5252" in one direction, and "2525" when inverted. From either angle, three crosses are visible in the bit's pattern.

Similar to keys made before the late 1700s, this key has a decorative element. Scholars argue that the intricate design of a key is not necessarily an indication of its effectiveness as a safety device.

The highly stylized locks that were made prior to the rise of modern locksmithing in the 18th century were not difficult to crack. The locksmith who made this key may have been more interested in showing off his artistic talent than creating a foolproof locking mechanism.

Lori Beth Finkelstein


Before the mid-1800s, American homes and public spaces were often poorly heated. One device that helped early Americans keep warm was the foot warmer - a box with holes poked in the sides and a tray inside for hot coals. A metal handle or rope allowed the user to transport the warmer easily.

In the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, women and children carried foot warmers to meetings or to church. Women's long skirts would hang over the foot warmer, holding in the precious heat - an excellent use for these seemingly impractical garments.

Although improvements in heating occurred in the 1820s, foot warmers continued to be used in sleighs and carriages. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, heated concrete blocks were used as foot warmers in automobiles.

Foot warmers were made of wood, tin, brass, or a combination of these materials. The holes punched into wood and tin foot warmers often formed a pattern or design.

This example from the METC collection is likely from the late 1700s or early 1800s. Made of wood and tin, it has a sliding front panel that reveals a metal tray for the hot coals. Ventilating holes in the sides form decorative patterns, three of which depict a bird with a heart carved in its center. Popular in early America as wedding gifts, foot warmers were commonly decorated with hearts.
The presence of both birds and hearts on this foot warmer is reminiscent of the use of hearts, birds, and flowers by German immigrant artists in Pennsylvania who worked in the Fraktur style. Yet hearts also appear in combination with the Federal eagle in early US folk art.

Lori Beth Finkelstein


What was school like for children in America during the 1800s? Three objects from the Museum's collection, a bell, an inkwell, and an 1857 edition of
McGuffey's New Second Eclectic Reader, shed some light on those days.

McGuffey's Eclectic Readers were among the most popular 19th-century American schoolbooks, with over 100 million copies sold. Former teacher William Holmes McGuffey wrote his first reader in 1836 during the time when thousands of immigrants were arriving in the country. By including lessons on patriotism, texts such as this attempted to assimilate these diverse groups into American culture.

Bells have been used by educational institutions since their appearance in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. In rural America, school bells were rung to summon students walking long distances to school. The loudness of the bell gave students an idea of how close they were to their destination.

Students practicing their penmanship in the first half of the 19th century would have used a quill pen and inkwell. Around 1850, steel nib pens were introduced, obviating the need to sharpen one's quill with a "pen knife."

Lori Beth Finkelstein


The cradle is designed to catch the cut stalks of grain as they fall from the scythe blade. This harvesting tool gave the farmer using it the capability of leaving harvested grain lying in a neat windrow rather than scattered wherever it fell.

Because these windrows represented a major labor saving for the crew gathering the fallen stalks, the added weight of the scythe and the inevitable repair work on its fragile cradle were more than worthwhile to the farmer.

Malcolm Dick


This beautiful example of a cabinetmaker's tool chest was given to the Museum by Mr. Richard Wanmaker. We believe that it was made by J. M. Ackerman, whose initials "JMA" are stamped on the lock plate. Such chests were often made during the apprenticeships of young cabinetmakers and joiners, then used to house their personal tools.

Along with a beautiful veneer of burl walnut, the inside of the lid features a rectangle of plain wood painted to represent fancy grain. This
faux finish was a very popular form of interior decoration when our chest was made in the 1840's.

The interior of the chest is beautifully fitted out with tool drawers and compartments. Many fine tools bearing the initials "JMA" were still in the chest when we received it.

Malcolm Dick/Peter Rothenberg


Cutting a groove in a plank to accept a joining piece of wood - for example, in the side of a bookshelf to receive the end of a shelf - is a radically different task when the cut is across the grain than when the cut is with the grain. Two different tools were developed to perform the two tasks.

For cutting grooves
with the grain, a plow plane like the one on the left was used. The plane was equipped with a set of eight blades of varying widths so it could cut different sized grooves. It also has an adjustable fence which is held against the side of the work to ensure that the groove is cut parallel to the plank at the desired distance from its edge.

For grooves cut
across the grain, a dado plane like the one at the right was needed. Cutting across the grain will leave a splintered edge, so a dado plane was equipped with two knife-like cutters called knickers. Fitted on either side of the blade, parallel to the direction of the cut, these knickers meant that each plane could cut only a fixed size groove. A cabinetmaker needed a different plane for each size groove to be cut. Graduated sets of dado planes are on display at the Museum.

Interestingly, the toe of this dado plane bears the mark "Hammacher Schlemmer". Before becoming a purveyor of expensive toys for young and old, Hammacher Schlemmer was one of New York's major hardware stores.

This interior view of a 19th-century joiner's tool chest illustrates how each individual craftsman needed a large collection of planes. Many of the tools in this chest are marked "A. Hinkley."

Malcolm Dick



Among the thousands of artifacts in the METC collection is this beekeeper's smoker. As the name suggests, smokers are used to douse bees with smoke to calm them and make them less likely to sting during handling. Smokers are essential to beekeeping and continue to be used by apiarists today. The smoker featured here consists of a metal fire pot with an attached canvas and wood bellows. The bellows pumps air into the pot to release a cool smoke from the spout.

According to experts on apiculture, smokers were invented sometime in the mid-1800s. Significant developments in beekeeping started in the United States in 1851 with Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth's invention of the movable frame hive, a new mechanism that more effectively housed honeybees. Prior to Langstroth's invention, bees were generally kept in boxes or baskets. Wax and honey could be extracted only by killing the bees or by driving them from their nests. Langstroth's invention became the basis for modern beekeeping techniques and earned him widespread recognition as the "Father of Beekeeping."

Although it was not easy to harvest honey and wax before Langstroth's invention, early New Jersey farmers did have some commercial success as beekeepers. In the mid-1700s, beeswax was used as a trade commodity in local New Jersey stores, and people in the vicinity of Newark Township bought and sold metheglin (mead or honey beer). By the late 1700s, farmers in Bergen, Burlington, Essex, Middlesex, and Somerset counties were sufficiently engaged in apiculture to seek reparations for damages to their beehives that occurred as a result of the Revolutionary War.

Lori Beth Finkelstein


The zoetrope (ZOH-uh-trohp) is one of several animation toys that became popular in the 19th century as people explored ways to make moving pictures. Invented in 1834 by the English mathematician William George Horner, the zoetrope appeared in the United States in 1867.

Horner’s idea took the form of a drum with an open top into which was placed a strip of paper bearing a hand-drawn sequence of pictures.

Our zoetrope,
with one of its picture strips.

When viewed through slots as the drum was spun, the images gave the illusion of movement. This illusion, based on the
persistence of vision property of the human visual system, is similar in principle to the operation of our present-day movies and television.

The Museum's collection includes a zoetrope made by Milton Bradley & Co. of Springfield, MA. It bears the inscription "The Zoetrope or Wheel of Life, Patented April 23, 1867."

To see our zoetrope in action, click below:
(These are large files. Download may take a while.)

Hash Machine

Magic Ocean

This animated demonstration was suggested by Mike Bianchi.
Hundred-year-old zoetrope sequences are brought to life once more
through the magic of computer animation.

Tom Judd


Like a cat or a kid, sometimes curators find empty boxes really intriguing. 

In the Museum’s collection is an old wooden chest.  It is well-weathered, has a broken lid and only remnants of a marbleized paper lining.  It is so unprepossessing, in fact, that it was once questioned why it was even kept in the collection at all.  The answer to this question presented itself when the trunk was flipped over and an inscription, painted in bold black letters on its bottom, read:  
For His Excellency Governor / Jersey / New England / Baggage.

This was now no ordinary chest, but one that once belonged to a person of power, a governor no less.  However, this enticing bit of information opened up a raft of new questions...  Which governor?  What, if anything, is meant by Jersey / New England?  Why would the chest be labeled on its bottom?  How old is the trunk?

The detective work needed to answer these questions is still on going, but its story is beginning to emerge.

The construction of the chest provides some valuable clues as to how old it may be.  The simple wooden box is held together by hand-wrought iron nails.  Blacksmith-made nails like these were far less commonly used after the early 1800s when factory-produced nails became cheaper and readily available.  The style of the trunk is another clue to its age.  Its shape suggests that it was indeed likely made in the late 18th century. The look of the letters written on the box is also in keeping with this time period.

This information narrows down the list of likely Governors.  It is here where the confusing addresses:  “Jersey/ New England” comes into play.  New Jersey is not part of New England, but two of her colonial governors have connections to both places.  William Franklin was the last colonial governor of New Jersey, serving until 1776 when he was arrested and imprisoned in Connecticut, New England by Revolutionary forces.  Another candidate is Jonathan Belcher.  Before becoming Governor of New Jersey in 1747, Belcher served that role for Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  Possibly the “Jersey” added to the “New England” address reflected one of these governor’s moves.

Less likely, but still possible, is that the “Jersey” written on the chest referred not to a location but to a type of wool cloth that shares that name.  However, cloth was usually shipped in bolts not boxes, and the term “baggage” on the chest suggests clothing and other personal items, not unfinished goods.

Why the chest has an address at all on its bottom remains a mystery.  It is possible that the trunk was stored on its side while shipped, but a search for similarly addressed trunks has so far come up empty. 

The hunt for answers continues. 

Peter Rothenberg

2001 - 2010 Museum of Early Trades & Crafts