AMERICA'S WOODEN AGE:
Aspects of Its Early Technology.
Brooke Hindle, Editor
History 675-M. Wisely
January 31, 1977
AVERICA'S WOODEN AGE:
Aspects of ts Early Technolofy
Brooke Hindle, Editor
Although it is well known that our forefathers depended
to an astounding degree on the vast forests of the primitive
continent that they were pioneering, we usually think of wood
as being used in log cabins and fireplaces since we are often
subject to the oversimplifications provided by historians in
describing history. Brooke Hindle has attempted in America's
Wooden Age to throw some light on the matter of how early Amer-
icans utilized this forest resource and how this actually devel-
oped into a technology unto itself, a Wooden Technology.
Hindle has collected a series of articles by noted authors
and historians that deal with specific subjects related directly
or indirectly to wooden technology. Some of these articles
attempt to dispel some misconceived notions about their subject,
namely, the articles by Charles Caroll, Louis Hunter and Nathan
Rosenberg. The others are intended to provide information and
illustration about subjects such as the early lumbering industry.
I feel that each article is well-written and illustrated and that
each should be a good source of data on the subject of which the
In the following paragraphs I intend to give a short synopsis
of the specific articles to show the central theme and basic
emphasis of each. It would be interesting to see this book
become a series of books dealing with many more subjects pertin-
ent to the theme of Wooden Technology. Hindle writes in his intro-
duction, "The central importance of the environment of great
forests upon the selection and development of technology and upon
the character of American civilization itself is a great undev-
eloped theme of history (p. 5).
"The Forest Society of New England"
An essay by Charles F. Carroll
Mr. Carroll's article attempts to show that there were
two main phases in the utilization of forest resources by the
first immigrants to this continent. When they first viewed the
forests, they saw the land as being a new Eden, a paradise; but
they soon learned that the forests harbored all kinds of insects,
snakes, and other unnamed fears; they also had to be cleared to
provide room for the planting of crops which was no easy task
in itself. A long period of adjustment finally eased away to a
time when the settlers were at least able to subsist, "and canoes,
like hogs, wooden fences, clapboard houses, blazing wood fires, and
great barns gave evidence of the new forest society that was dev-
eloping in New England" (p. 24).
The second phase of the adaptation to the forest environment
was the period in which the exploitation of the resource began
to take place. After about 1640 when immigration to New England
had slvoed and the settlements had become more stable communities,
the settlers began to recognize that wood could be the one impor-
export item with which they could, in trade, acquire the items
which were so costly for them to import. With the Dutch in Lan-
hattan in 1623 and the Danish in Vaine about l634 came the sawmill
technology that was necessary if the colonists were to exploit
the wood export trade. This was soon done, for example, by devel-
oping markets for white pine boards and oak barrels in the Wine
Islands and elsewhere. Another important export was the trem-
endous fir tree trunks used for masts by the British shipbuilders.
With the trade markets successfully established, lumbering soon
became a major occupation in the colonies for both full-time
work and as supplemental income to landholders with stands of
timber. This source of capital, needless to say, had an impor-
tant effect on the growth of the early economy. Carroll finishes
his essay by saying, "Yet the total system that emerged in New
England-a system that joined the lumbermen of Northern New England-
to the prosperous Massachussetts ports, and the merchants and
craftsmen of those ports, in turn, to the complex social and
economic systems of the British, French, Protugese, and Spanish
Empires-ensured that the settlers, even the most pious Puritans,
would be something other than they started out to be" (p. 35-36).
"America's Rise to Woodworking Leadership"
An essay by Nathan Rosenberg
This article deals with a rather specific time and subject,
which begins with America's dependence on forest resources.
"This dependence provides a central underlying theme of this
essay, concentrating upon the emergence of woodworking machinery
in America between 1800 and the 1850's," states the author (p. 38).
Rosenberg goes on to say that the initial thrust of "resource
utilization" was embodied in the colonists' adoption of the use
of the waterpowered sawmill, a development resisted in England
until the 18th century. Other developments were the patenting
of nail cutting and heading machinery and the invention in the
1830's of the balloon frame which opened a new market of easy,
inexpensive construction and all but eliminated timber framing.
"Early Lumbering: A Pictorial Essay"
Charles E. Petersen
"A picture is as good as a thousand words," so I will not
offer Petersen too much competition here except to say that this
is a good, brief essay about specific data related to the growth
of the lumber industry. His illustrations of the European saw-
mill precedent are especially interesting. This "essay" is
strong on detailed information but a little weak on general
and explanatory information.
"Artisans in Wood:
The Mathematical Instrument Makers"
Silvio A. Bedini
This is an essay dealing with a very specific area of wood
technology and it is interesting for it shows the extent to which
the use of wood pervaded and influenced almost all aspects of
craft and commerce in Colonial America. It deals with the types
of scientific instruments that mathematical instruments makers
made and the woods which they employed to make them, sometimes
as a substitute for more costly, rare metals which they could not
afford to obtain. Some of the types of instruments which were
made were ship's instruments (such as the cross staff, back staff,
quadrant and octant) and surveying equipment (such as the semi-
circumferenter, compendium and the theodolus). Mathematical
Instrument Makers, which sounds like a contrived modern name, is
in fact what these gentlemen were known as, and the author describes
the nature of their trade, the way they advertised, took on
apprentices and became trained as instrument makers. This essay
is basically a factual report about this specific trade (which
died out about 1825) but it points up the fact that this tyne
of information is often taken for granted until it is lost or
"Colonial Jiatermills in the Wooden Age"
Charles Howell's essay is an essay on the development of
water-power in the colonies. Rather than talk about facts and
figures however, he has written about the specific machinery and
types of rater-powered mills connected with this early industry.
He states that the earliest mills in the country were probably
built as sawmills for although cleared areas for growing grain
was scarce and the need for grist mills was slight, the supply
of timber for lumber was enormous. As the economy grew however
waterpower came to be used in many ways including sawmills, grist
mills and ironworks, and in preparing wool and plant fiber to be
used eventually in water-powered looms. Howell's essay deals with
grist mills in a very specific way.
He begins his essay by describing the development of the use
of water-power in European and Mlediterranean countries with the
development of horizontal mills known as the "Greek" or "Norse"
types. These later developed into "tub wheels" that drove mill
stones on a vertical shaft directly attached to them. These were
simple machines, easily built and suitedAprimitive purposes.
The Vertical water wheel, where the wheel is upright and the
shaft horizontal, is more complex and necessarily involves
gearing and linkages to operate the horizontal millstones, but
they are more efficient and can be much larger and more powerful.
Some types of vertical water sheels he describes are the overshot,
pitchback, breastshot and undershot. Part of this essay's strength
is that he connects an excellent explanation with pertinent illus-
trations tc develop a full description of grist mill machinery
and its operation that includes materials.used, hydraulics,
gearing, millstone types and the construction of the different
types. It is, needless to say, an excellent source for infor-
mation, illustration and history of watermill information.
"Waterpower in the Century of the Steam Engine"
Louis C. Hunter
This is probably the most thought provoking essay. in this
set of articles. It deals with the advent of the Industrial Rev-
olution and the role of water power in the emergence of the
United States as an industrial leader. Hunter's first sentence
states the point he attempts to prove, "The role of steam power
in early industrialization has been exaggerated and the reasons
for its preeminence misunderstood. The traditional explanation
for its rise to preeminence-mobility, flexibility in capacity,
and all seasons reliability-are projections of later experience ;
upon the past and have limited relevance in many situations?
(p. 160). This misunderstanding is based on two incorrect assump-
tions, one, that British experience was the world's model for
industrialization and, two, that waterpower became a secondary
or backward source of porer after Watt revolutionized industry
by developing the steam engine. p. 160). The author's thesis is,
however, that industrialization was spreading long before the steam
engine was available or dependable enough to begin to be used
on a large scale. Consequently, waterpower (in mills) was the
main source of power in the beginning of the Industrial Rev-
olution. The nature of water power and its connection to Wooden
Technology makes this discussion very relevent to the central
theme of this book. It also raises the question of the inter-
pretation of history that we receive from historians. Hunter
stated, "The Victorian view of the revolutionary role of steam-
power, not without its measure of validity, has been accepted by
historians almost without challenge. This has been especially
true of those broad-gauge interpretations so influential with
the general audience in which the subtler shades of interpretation
are avoided for the sake of brevity" (p. 162).
The author develops a convincing argument in his ensuing essay.
Basic to this argument is the understanding of the difference :.
between England and the United States at the time of the Indus-
trial Revolution. He shows that the generally accepted view of
the United States following the English model of industrialization
is not really relevant. England was an insular country, dense in
population, and with established roads, river systems and market,
and had, at most times, an abundance of labor and capital, but
these things were basically untrue of the U.S. at the time. In
some urban areas steampower was the only source of power avail-
able, but in general only urban areas had the sources of capital,
labor and market which could make steampower feasible. In non-
urban areas, waterpower was the only source which required little
manpower, had a low initial cost and required little to maintain.
It was, subsequently, the major source of power for the U.S. up
until 1860 or 1870, seventy-five years after the introduction of
the steam engine by Boulton and Natt.
This is a summary of Hunter's essay that does not really
do justice to the complete evidence of his article. It is a fine
article which shows the nature of history to be little grayer than
the black and white which the human mind often tries to see it as.