A romance of rust: nostalgia, progress, and the meaning of tools.
After one of the longest winters in recent memory, spring has finally arrived in Lower Michigan, a fitful, moody spring full of sudden changes. Last night a thunderstorm scattered hailstones across Washtenaw County. Now the sun is out, steam is rising off the fields of timothy and winter wheat, and the air smells pleasantly of mud. If it does start raining again, Tom Friedlander will likely hold the auctioneer personally responsible. All day Tom has been complaining about this clown's lack of professionalism, his fondness for banter, his ignorance of tools. "He has no idea what he's selling," Tom keeps whispering to me. A real professional, he says, would be done by now.
Atop one of three hay wagons, a skinny teenage boy with a crew cut stoops down to the rusty junk piled at his feet and hoists a bow saw into the air. It is an exquisite specimen, just like the ones I've seen in books. "Lift her up nice and high, Ben," the auctioneer says. Bow saws are shaped like the harps angels play in comic strips. They are both ingenious and primitive, held together by the tension in a twisted loop of rope.
"Howaboutabid, twenty," the auctioneer chants. "I've got twenty. Howaboutabid, twenty-five-five-five? Twenty-five. Twenty-seven-and-a-half? Now thirty. Thirty, thirty, thirty?"
People have been using versions of the bow saw for hundreds of years, but not until the turn of the twentieth century, when motorized jigsaws were rendering them obsolete, did anyone think to salvage them from the scrap heap and preserve them for posterity. For decades, this particular saw was as valuable as it was useful to the farmer who owned it. Then one day the farmer grows too old to farm, his children excavate the moldering contents of his barn, hire an auctioneer, the auctioneer runs advertisements in local papers and in Auction Exchange, drags the saw out into the sunlight along with the rest of the farmer's belongings--rakes with broken handles, a wall clock made out of a slab of polished wood, nails fused by rust into pointy lumps--and the next thing you know, you could have purchased ten new saws for what this useless one is selling for.
Earlier that morning, while we were inspecting the contents of the hay wagons, an old lady wiggled what looked to be a miniature iron hoe at Tom and asked him what it was.
"That's an ash rake," he informed her. "For emptying ashes from a stove."
"I don't have a stove," the old lady replied, sensibly, "so I don't need it."
Like her, most people imagine that the form of a tool is a pure expression of its function and that its value is a measure of its usefulness. Saws cut. Hammers pound. On the antique-tool market, however, value is largely aesthetic and symbolic. Hammers do not only pound, saws do not only cut. They also mean.
As the bow saw transubstantiates from a piece of junk into a collectible before our eyes, Tom Friedlander listens closely to the ascendant bids, stroking his beard, but stays out of it. Bow saws aren't his thing. Too pricey. Too desirable. Ever since bidding began several hours ago, he has kept his head down, except when he wants to catch the auctioneer's eye. To place a bid, he will glance up, nod gravely, and curl his fingers toward his heart, beckoning. So far today he has purchased a hand-forged chopper, a barn-beam auger, two antique motor-oil bottles with cone-shaped spouts, a box of early automobile starter cranks, a set of speed wrenches, a fence stretcher, something called the Tox-O-Wick cattle oiler, and a plastic bucket full of implement wrenches marinating in melted hail.
"I've got fifty," calls the auctioneer, "fifty-five-five-five, fifty-seven-and-a-half."
Three years ago if you had asked me what I thought of tool collecting, I would have told you that it sounded like the sort of sentimental pastime pursued mainly by men with soft minds, thick wallets, and lonely wives. In Manhattan, where I lived at the time, one sometimes encountered woodworking tools and farming implements on the walls of pastorally themed restaurants serving ex pensive comfort food, or among handmade quilts and kerosene lanterns in the windows of West Village boutiques. I considered such Americana to be so much nostalgic gimcrack. The inflated prices old tools commanded I attributed to an ambient dissatisfaction with modernity. The more expendable we felt in our jobs, the more complicated and computerized our lives became, the more hardware made of metal and wood seemed to symbolize all that we had lost--we Americans, but especially we American men.
Until recently in America, manliness was proportionate to handiness. The ancient Greeks had Achilles and his shield. The British had Arthur and Excalibur. We had John Henry and his hammer, Paul Bunyan and his axe, Queequeg and his manly harpoon. Our national poets sang hymns to the broad axe and the village blacksmith. Our prophets didn't merely wander in the wilderness; they built cabins there. The adzes and bow saws with which anxiety-beset urban professionals now equip their apartments originally belonged to self-reliant, self-employed, self-made yeomen and artisans--or so the traffickers in nostalgia wished us to believe.
It was a lie, I knew, this Luddite fantasy of an artisanal golden age. That legendary Yankee ingenuity was born not only out of an ardor for craftsmanship and independence but also out of a shortage of skilled labor and an abundance of cheap, pilfered land. European settlers had picked up many of their tricks (hollowing a canoe with tire, fertilizing corn with fish) from natives whom they repaid with alcoholism and infectious disease.
And besides, mowing a field of hay by hand was backbreaking work, nothing romantic about it. Homespun textiles required endless, mind-numbing cottage industry. Likewise the churning of butter, the curing of meat, the hewing of beams and chiseling of mortises. No wonder so many of our agrarian forebears fled to cities at the first chance they got, or else bet the farm on motorized combines and harvesters.
I also had personal reasons to be suspicious of tool collecting. Although I come from a family of insufferably handy men--men able to wire a house, rebuild a transmission, of frame a wall without calling an expert or consulting a book-I am profoundly unhandy. By the traditional measures of American manhood, I am, essentially, a Frenchwoman. When my brother and I were teenagers, he and our father would adjourn to the garage after dinner, hook a cage light to the underside of an elevated hood, and spend hours passing tools back and forth like shiny thoughts, while upstairs I lay on the couch reading mildly pornographic fantasy novels. To this day, when I do it myself, I can never be sure whether I am improving my home or conducting experiments upon it.
One might, therefore, find it strange or worrisome that for the last year and a half I've devoted every waking hour I could spare to the study of old tools. I've read books with titles like Wrenches: Antique and Unusual and The Hammer: The King of Tools. I've stayed up all night browsing the searchable archives of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, encountering there such exotic utensils as the Clamp Fur-Knife, which, when "Edward Flint, of the city, county, and State of New York," invented it in 1837, was "a new and useful Instrument for Extracting Hairs from Fur-Skins," and I have met a vice president of innovation and design in the cafeteria of the Stanley Works corporate headquarters in New Britain, Connecticut. I've lurked in chat rooms with discussion threads devoted to such subjects as "A previously unknown Albert Goodell brace found in the wild." One sweltering summer morning, on the Jay County fairgrounds in the farming village of Portland, Indiana, I walked among fabulous machines as small as schnauzers and as huge as elephants, all gleaming in the August sun. Drive belts whirred, flywheels revolved, pistons fired, and a forest of smokestacks piped foul smoke and rude music into the otherwise cloudless sky. Mostly, I have ridden a Midwestern circuit of flea markets and farm auctions in the passenger seat of an emerald green Toyota pickup truck piloted by a fifty-five-year-old botanist with a ponytail, spectacles like windowpanes, and a beard verging on the Whitmanesque.
Tom Friedlander is a tall, faintly melancholy man, prone to long silences and outbursts of goofiness, whom I have always known as Uncle Toro. In 1976, after the botany department of the University of Michigan declined to approve his doctoral dissertation, a taxonomical study of the gray dogwood, for which he had spent the better part of three years scouring the continent for specimens, Tom joined his wife, Martha, my father's sister, on the faculty of a private high school in Ann Arbor. The two have taught biology there ever since. Childless and frugal, by the late 1980s they had saved enough to purchase a ranch house in the rural exurbs, along with the thirty-seven acres of marshy, unprofitable farmland adjoining it, which they subsequently let run wild. For years, Martha had been inviting me to spend time on this nature sanctuary of theirs, and for years I'd been too busy to accept. Finally, in March of 2002, feeling a bit dissatisfied with modernity ourselves, my wife and I drove to Michigan in anticipation of moving there.
Upon entering the Friedlanders' house, I stopped short. Strung on wires and depending from nails hung thousands, or maybe even tens of thousands, of keys. Some strands drooped in elliptical wreaths. Others contorted themselves into asymmetrical Mobius strips and figure eights. The longest strands described arcs across the floral wallpaper, like bunting. The shortest bristled in shiny bouquets. Later I asked Tom about these peculiar wall hangings. At auctions and flea markets, he explained, dealers sold old tools by the box, and when he returned from his weekend tool hunts, he often found keys buried at the bottom, "like prizes." So he saved them. "People just give them away." Holding a length of keys out for my inspection, he thumbed its tarnished contents. Didn't I see how different they all were? Their lengths and shapes? The words and numbers stamped onto their variegated surfaces?
Tom led me down half a flight of stairs to the television den, where a mob of brass hose nozzles had stormed the mantelpiece and platoons of stove-plate handles flanked the wood-burning stove. Other objects had been mounted according to kind on graying scraps of plywood, which leaned about the room-against bookshelves, in corners--like canvases about a painter's studio. There was a board containing sillcocks, those spigot handles shaped like cross sections of bell pepper, some of them red, some blue, some green, some rusty and bare. Other boards contained screwdrivers, locks, showerheads. A few contained rusty things I failed to recognize. A bandolier of belt buckles dangled from a hook originally intended for a houseplant. On an end table beside a row of matching conch shells lay a pair of eggs--fluted, geometric oblongs of speckled glass. Electrical insulators, Tom explained, from telephone lines.
He referred to these taxonomical arrays of his as "experiments." When he retired from teaching, he would make more of them, he said, many, many more of them, so he could hang them on walls where visitors could see them and "old-timers" could come and talk to him about his tools, maybe even identify some of the "whatsits," those objects whose original purpose had become mysterious.
As is true of many people who spend their days working with kids, there is something perennially youthful about Tom. At family reunions when I was a child, he would tell my brother and me that he kept things in his beard--coins, bluebird eggs--and then he'd bend down so that, half-believing him, we could investigate its scratchy depths. He'd catch insects with his bare hands and tell us their names, both Latin and common, as well as their secrets--why fireflies lit up of why cicadas left their exoskeletons on the trunks of my grandmother's trees. He'd seemed omniscient to me then, wizard-like. He could recite entire Monty Python routines by heart, as well as long portions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and he sometimes spoke in peculiar voices, impersonating robots or masters of Kung Fu. He said things like, "Take this marble from my hand, Grasshopper, and your training will be complete."
That afternoon in his television den, I asked Tom how large his tool collection was, and he led me to his study, which contained a library of botanical texts with titles like Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of the Southwest, or Botanical Microtechnique, or World Without Trees. On the other side of the room, homemade bookshelves teetered under the weight of old hardware catalogues and reference books about tools, such as P. T. Rathbone's History of Old Time Farm Implement Companies and the Wrenches They Issued and Eric Sloane's classic A Museum of Early American Tools. From a nail in the doorway hung a clipboard, to which was clipped a stack of sheets. This was Tom's inventory. Whenever he returned from a tool hunt, he added his new quarry to the running tally. He'd acquired his first old tool by mistake while shopping for a hole punch at the local Kiwanis thrift store. The box lot that contained the punch he wanted also happened to contain a foot-long engineer's wrench. A few months later, discovering an identical wrench at an antiques store, he experienced what he describes as "an instant vision of symmetry." That was 1988. By March 2002, when I first visited his home, he had accumulated, and rudimentarily classified, approximately 25,000 formerly useful things, not counting the keys. Almost 18,000 were wrenches (Tom's specialty), a few thousand were screwdrivers, and several hundred were soldering irons. The exhibit in the television den represented only a small sample. "The rest," Tom told me, "are in the barn."
Southeast Michigan can be beautiful in leaf or under snow, but that winter it had hardly snowed at all, and the Friedlanders' nature sanctuary was a desiccated, khaki-colored wasteland. The silver blimp of a septic tank glowed between the bare branches of bushes planted to obscure it. Behind the house, where corn once grew, an ocean of goldenrod--still brown and dormant--stretched to the woodlot on the horizon. On the way to the tool barn, we passed the greenhouse Tom and Martha had built out of corrugated fiberglass. Two plastic barrels full of frozen rain stood sentry beside the entrance. Inside I could discern the shadowy forms of succulents (one of Tom's previous taxonomical obsessions) weathering the hostile biome in balmy serenity.
Although there was a barn-sized barn on the property--a dilapidated cavern full of owl shit, darkness, and mildewy hay where Tom kept the antique tractor he used to mow paths through the goldenrod in the summer and plow the driveway in winter--the prefabricated steel structure in which he stored his tools was scarcely bigger than a two-car garage. We entered through a side door, stepping awkwardly over three metal spheres huge as medicine balls while fluorescent tubes flickered on overhead.
My first impression was an abstraction: I did not see the hundreds of hand-saws hanging from pegs like keys in a locksmith's shop, or the iron shoe lasts arranged in pigeonholes according to size, or the towering steel file cabinets with handwritten tags taped above their handles, or the railroad jacks congregating on a shelf, of the flock of meat scales and wooden pulleys suspended from the ceiling by hooks; what I saw was the idea of multitude. Be fruitful and multiply, the Lord had commanded, and we had, we Americans; here all around us was our labor's rusty fruit.
"There are over five hundred drawers full of stuff in here," Tom told me. "That's the sort of scale. Plus the walls. Plus the floor. Plus containers. It's all organized. For instance, this is the overflow hammer drawer." He yanked open the drawer in question. Wooden hafts lay atop one another like marches in a matchbox. Tom selected a mallet with a head like a half-melted marshmallow and held it up for my inspection. The beaten surface of its polls was fissured with tiny cracks like the hide of an elephant. "Lead hammer," Tom said. He returned it with a clatter to the drawer and selected another. "Composition hammer." And another. "Farrier's horseshoe nail-driving hammer."
Here and there, weighted down beneath whatever tool was most proximate, were pages torn from spiral notebooks on which Tom had catalogued the contents of his five hundred drawers, all of which he seemed to have memorized. If an item caught my eye and I asked him about it, he could almost always identify it by name and purpose, and when he couldn't, his eyes shone with excitement. "That," he would pronounce, "is a whatsit." The steel balls we'd climbed over upon entering were whatsits, though Tom did have a theory about them: they might be ball bearings from the gun turret of a battleship.
As we made our way slowly down the crowded aisles, what struck me most was how zoological Tom's tools seemed, especially the more exotic ones. Divorced from usefulness and subjected to morphological classification, they looked like the fossils of Cenozoic mollusks or the wristbones of tyrannosaurs. Certain pliers bore striking resemblances to the beaks of birds, certain wrenches to the jaws of lizards. The points of chisels and awls looked like talons and claws. Even the names of tools suggested zoological comparisons; there was a goosewing axe, an alligator wrench, a mortising twivil called a bec d'ane, French for "nose of a donkey." Loggers had once assembled their rafts with oversized staples known as "dogs." It is, in fact, impossible to talk about tools without resorting to biological metaphors. We refer to the "head" and "claw" of a hammer, the "frog" and "throat" of a plane, the "jaws" of a vice, the "eye" of an adze.
This had to be what motivated Tom's manic collecting. He wasn't merely a collector of tools; he was a taxonomist of tools, a naturalist of tools. He'd progressed from gray dogwoods to succulents to wrenches, as if the age-old distinction between nature and culture were the folly of philosophers. I could feel my mind begin to fizz with grandiose, half-baked notions. Everything evolves, I thought. Even hammers. Even keys. I mentioned the zoological analogy, and Tom began rummaging through drawers until he found what he was looking for, an adjustable wrench with a distinctly avian silhouette. "The Puffin!" he exclaimed.
Nothing in the barn illustrated this theory of technological Darwinism more dramatically than Tom's wrenches. He'd organized them first by method of manufacture, separating the hand-forged from the drop-forged, then by type, separating crescent from box, socket from implement, ratchet from alligator, monkey from dog bone. Each of these species he'd subdivided further according to the number of their openings, or the material from which they were made, or the specialized purpose they'd served. Some of his specimens represented transitional designs in the evolution of the wrench. Some were technological chimeras that hybridized wrenches with other implements.
Why wrenches? Why tools?
Tom fell quiet, stroking his beard. "I don't know," he said finally. "I guess I just find them beautiful." Although he could extemporize animatedly about the history of the valve seat grinder, of the art of ropemaking, or how long it took to manually drill blast holes into a deposit of coal, aesthetics were another matter. The unlikely beauty of his rusty treasures defied elaboration. His critical vocabulary consisted mainly of the words "neat," "cool," and "fun." Tools he disliked were simply "junk," a term he usually reserved for the cheaply mass-produced, or for a specimen damaged beyond rescue.
His favorite tools dated from the turn of the century, before the consolidation of the hardware industry, when thousands of new mechanical species appeared every year. "1880 to 1920, roughly the same time that Michigan was logged over, that was the heyday of tractors," Tom informed me. Because nut and bolt sizes had yet to be thoroughly standardized, every new piece of farm machinery came with its own wrenches, creating the technological equivalent of biodiversity. "After the twenties, mass-produced steel tools came in, and virtually no specialty, plow or tractor wrenches were made after that. It all just vanished." As extinctions went, this one seemed hardly worth getting upset over. Who cared about the lost golden age of implement wrenches?
Many collectors and dealers restore their tools, scraping away the rust, polishing the finish. Some will even apply a coat of paint, white for the embossed patent information and brand names, black for the rest. Such adulterations dismay Tom, who prefers used tools to the expensive ones described in auction catalogues as "mint" or "like new." He will clean his finds, but delicately, forensically almost, careful to preserve any "use marks"--the particularizing details that might disclose a tool's secret life. He spoke of his specimens as if they were alive, or had been once.
"I loved finding this," he said of a particularly rusty implement wrench. "No serious fine-tool collector would want this, but I want it. Got it for a dollar. What a beautiful wrench. It was under water--a wet place--and it died." The wrench was beautiful, though I couldn't have told you why, any more than he could.
That spring, I was teaching high school English and had recently assigned excerpts from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the literary documentary in which writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans illuminate the material lives of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Great Depression. Examining Tom's tools, some of which bore the signatures of blacksmiths, others the stamped initials of extinct railroad companies, still others the tarnished trace of some dead laborer's sweaty palm, I was reminded of the passage in which Agee describes a pair of overalls. "They have begun with the massive yet delicate beauty of most things which are turned out most cheaply in great tribes by machines," Agee writes, "and on this basis of structure they are changed into images and marvels of nature." And yet Agee's had been a scavenger hunt for the present, not for the past. He and Walker Evans had sought "to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is"--not the quaint glimmer of what was. Where lies the boundary between meaning and sentiment? I wondered. Between memory and nostalgia? America and Americana? What is and what was? Does it move?
Martha appeared in the doorway of the tool barn, summoning us to dinner. Tom turned off the fluorescent lights and padlocked the door. Night had fallen. A city boy since birth, I was used to light-polluted skies. Here, only an hour southwest of Detroit, the stars were as bright and plentiful as in a planetarium show. The Friedlanders' ranch house, lamplight streaming from its windows, looked like a ship adrift upon black swells.
That night on my way to bed, I stopped in the carpeted hallway where an entire wall had been papered in cartography. From a pushpin in the corner of a particularly enormous map dangled a shoestring. This was, I saw upon inspection, the radius of a vast, Midwestern galaxy the nucleus of which was the Friedlanders' farm. Red hash marks divided the string into increments, counting off miles. Towns throughout Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Ontario had been circled in felt pen, and dates and distances scrawled beside them. Newspaper advertisements for estate auctions fluttered under pins. "Retired from farming," they typically began, "I will sell the following list ..." If the owner of an estate had died, as was often the case, the auctioneers resorted to participles: "Selling personal property of the late Hazel Skriba at public auction ..." I unpinned one. The personal property it inventoried--walnut dressers and whipple trees, old magazines and hay forks and Depression glass--read like a kind of material obituary, a portrait of a life in things.
"I've got fifty," calls the auctioneer. "Fifty-five-five-five, fifty-seven-and-a-half."
Ben, the teenage sideman, revolves atop the hay wagon, parading the bow saw like a trophy high above the tipped bills of a hundred baseball caps emblazoned with logos and slogans: RIFKIN SCRAP IRON & METAL CO., I'D RATHER BE HUNTING, WESTPHALIA AUTO SALVAGE, PURINA, GOD BLESS AMERICA, MR. ASPHALT. Across Tom Friedlander's blue ball cap a galleon embroidered from gold thread sails above the legend H.M.S. Victory. Most of the auctiongoers are elderly farmers; with his ponytail and great Victorian beard, Tom seems as out of place among them as Darwin among the Patagonians. Save for his blue cap, his brown hiking sneakers, and the turquoise decorations on his leather belt, he is dressed entirely in green--green work pants, green work shirt--and vaguely resembles an anthroporaorphized plant.
The bow saw finally sells for $87.50, and Ben the teenage sideman next lifts an ink-jet printer into the air. "Something for your computer," the auctioneer says doubtfully. He starts the bidding at fifty dollars but, getting no takers, lowers it: forty dollars, thirty-five dollars, twenty-five, fifteen, ten, seven-and-a-half. Finally, he gives up and banishes it to "the dog pond," a corner of the shed reserved for items no one wants. Only a few years old and still in its original box, the ink-jet printer has already passed into that limbo of worthlessness that exists between novelty and nostalgia.
"Nowadays things are almost obsolete before they leave the drawing board," Eric Sloane, the seminal romancer of antique tools, observed forty years ago. "How lucky we are that so many of the old tools and the things that were made with them were dated and touched with the craftsman's art." Sloane believed that the value of a thing should be a measure of its quality, much as reputation was once regarded as the measure of one's soul. My generation, more narcissistic but also more jaded than his, seems to treasure most the consumerist dross we remember from childhood, irrespective of its inherent worth. In our collecting we are autobiographers, not connoisseurs. I find myself wondering how long it will take before this ink-jet printer escapes the dog pond and ascends to the ranks of the collectible.
When he published A Museum of Early American Tools in 1964, Sloane almost single-handedly transformed old tools into Americana. There had been collectors before him, but they were mostly antiquarians and archaeologists who regarded tools as artifacts or aesthetic objects, not sacred relics. At first glance, Sloane's book appears to be nothing more than a pictorial dictionary or field guide. In truth it is a political tract, an illustrated manifesto of romantic, Yankee conservatism.
The "ancient implements" it depicts, Sloane's dedication informs us, are not only tools but "symbols of a sincerity, an integrity, and an excellency that the unionized craftsman of today might do well to emulate." His story of decline has no room for tenant farmers, migrant workers, sweatshops, displaced natives, slaves, nor for early Americans who did shoddy work.* The harmony that the "fine craftsman" once felt with his material and tools is, as Sloane describes it, not unlike that which once existed between Adam and the beasts. "An extraordinary awareness of life and time permeated our early days," he writes. Again and again in the commentary that accompanies his old-timey pen-and-ink drawings of apple barrows and hay forks, he praises the craftsmen of yore at the expense of "modern workers," whose "constant aim is more to make the most money from their profession instead of producing the most honest and beautiful and lasting things."
To this day on the antique-tool market, Eric Sloane's romantic biases pertain. Wood sells better than metal, metal better than plastic. Carpentry tools sell better than those of other crafts and trades. The plane, certain rare specimens of which have been known to fetch $20,000 or more, is probably the most collectible tool there is. The wrench, Tom Friedlander's specialty, is among the least collectible.
Devised by carpenters of the Roman Empire, the plane could hypothetically have been used by Jesus Christ himself, before he gave up woodworking for fishing. A hundred years ago a carpenter's tool chest typically would have contained dozens of varieties of planes, and a typical hardware catalogue would list hundreds of varieties (astragals, fillisters, snipe bills, ogees, Grecian ovolos), each one adapted to a highly specialized purpose. Shipwrights smoothed the decks of ships with planes resembling horseshoe crabs, and violinmakers carved fiddle heads with planes, made from lignum vitae, that were smaller than a thumb. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, what the jigsaw did to the bow saw planing machines did to planes. According to Eric Sloane, in New England in the mid-1900s obsolete planes were being sold as firewood for as little as five dollars a barrel, including the barrel. Only when planes became less plentiful and more mysterious did collectors take interest, suggesting that death may be the mother of nostalgia as well as of beauty.
The twilight of the plane was the heyday of the wrench. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have doodled designs for an adjustable wrench in his notebooks; but it was with the invention of bolt-threading machines in the early 1800s that the wrench became as useful and as common as the hammer. In 1869 a writer for Scientific American, marveling at how "rude and uncouth" old tools were compared with the machine-lathed wonders of his day, described antebellum wrenches as being mostly of "the pot hook variety." The history of the wrench is the history of industrialism writ small. No matter how many farmers use them, no matter how mechanized agriculture becomes, on the antique-tool market wrenches symbolize pastoralism's antithesis. Of metal for metal, they are the emblem of mechanics and machinists, the standard raised in the fists of factory workers in revolutionary murals. They are the tool of the unionized masses, not the self-reliant yeoman or artisan. Wrenches assemble and adjust; they do not make. There are no wrenches in Eric Sloane's Museum.
Time, it seems, is an ironist. That spring, the spring of 2003, factory workers were being laid off in record numbers--Michigan alone lost 171,000 manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2003--and the riveters and machine operators Sloane derided seemed like skilled artisans compared with the technicians and sales associates replacing them. The era of the wrench, like the era of the plane before it, is ending. Predictably, the ranks of wrench collectors recently have begun to swell. Although still worth far less than a desirable plane, a rare and pristine John Deere tractor wrench can now fetch hundreds of dollars at auction. Partly this reflects the enthusiasm in rural America for the antique tractors with which such wrenches were originally sold. But the popularity of other wrench varieties--pipe wrenches, automobile wrenches, buggy wrenches, battery cable-pulling wrenches--is also growing. The decline of American manufacturing has given rise to pastoralism's postindustrial analogue: a romance of rust.
I leave Tom beside the hay wagon, a heap of treasures accumulating in the grass at his feet, and survey the premises. Parked in the rutted drive that runs between the house and the barn, a white camping trailer radiates patriotism and the smell of boiling kielbasa. NAN'S SNACK WAGON, a sign reads. Plastic American flags suction-cupped to the trailer's roof scroll and un-scroll themselves listlessly in the humid air. Across the trailer's side someone has airbrushed this poem:
Let the Eagle Fly Land of the Free Home of the Brave Love Your Country Thank God And the Veterans
Through a small concession window at the rear of the trailer a woman, presumably Nan herself, hands a hot dog to an old man whose suspenders spell ALASKA in vertical letters. Protruding from the purse of another customer is a leather-bound, gilt-edged volume titled Armageddon.
I hear people speculating about what will happen to this farm now that the owners have grown too old for it. I hear rumors of rest homes and funeral parlors, and notice among the larger items up for auction a motorized wheelchair, an electric hospital bed, a walker, a chamber pot. An estate auction, I realize, is part festival, part funeral. It's not just the owners of this farm who are dying but the farm itself. Splotches of lichen the color of toothpaste bloom everywhere, on the stone foundation of the barn, on the rusty farm equipment--cultipackers, harrows, plows--spread out like modernist sculpture across the sodden lawn.
Even in the too-insistent imperatives of the snack wagon's patriotic hymn, I think I can discern an undertone of foreboding and grief. It's there, too, along with happy chatter about last night's hailstorm, in the conversations of the auctiongoers. They walk among old furniture and collectibles as if through lost time. They spin the dial of the Lone Ranger radio and say to their spouses, look at this, check this out, remember these. They fondle the porcelain doll with the cracked skull and the jaundiced nightgown, then punch the keys of the old Remington cash register, smiling when the different prices--all charmingly low--spring up behind the little pane of glass.
That summer Tom and I drive to auctions all over Michigan, leaving sometimes as early as sunrise, when fog still eddies between the hills and the shadow of Tom's emerald pickup ripples on the grassy margin beside us. When we return at the end of the day, buckets and boxes of junk bungeed down in the bed of the truck, the shadows are just as long but stretch in the other direction. During fourteen years of collecting, Tom has memorized the state highways. He has his own personal landmarks--a yellow farmhouse that glows "like a beacon" from atop a ridge, a pair of boulders that he says are glacial eccentrics, an ice-cream stand called King Kone in the shape of an enormous soft-serve whose new owners no longer offer Tom's favorite flavor, orange-vanilla swirl. Everywhere we go, I see used cars for sale, parked in front lawns atop rectangles of uncropped grass.
Tom likes to get to auctions at least an hour or two early so that he can appraise the day's offerings and search for the treasures that unscrupulous bidders sometimes bury under scrap. This is his favorite part, and watching him rummage through the contents of a table or hay wagon, I think I know why. Here he is most like a naturalist in the field or an archaeologist on a dig. When he finds something that interests him, he holds it to his eyes, inspects it, rubs its finish, tests its moving parts. It wouldn't surprise me if he started tasting things. As he rummages he provides a running commentary for my benefit: "This is a seed-corn planter. Everybody had one. The American Standard. You put your seed corn in there. You jab it in the ground, and this spring pops open the door as it sinks in and releases one seed at a time."
Other collectors and some auctioneers greet Tom with nods. Regulars on the local auction circuit seem to regard him asa harmless eccentric, a wildman cum nutty-professor figure. Acquaintances and strangers alike bring tools for him to identify. Just as often, though, Tom is the one asking questions. This is how he has learned so much. The intensity with which he listens elicits uncharacteristically voluble explanations from farmers accustomed to silence. His inquisitiveness dignifies the obsolete knowledge they possess, and they proffer it gladly. At the same time, I am surprised by how many of Tom's questions leave his interlocutors dumbfounded. Even recognizable tools baffle: Sure it's a hammer, but what was it used for? To break peanut brittle? To tenderize meat? To adjust the inner workings of a watch? See how it's got a little cutter on it?
Just past sunrise on a June morning, we drive north on M-52, a highway that runs vertically up the mitten of Michigan, farming towns strung along its length like beads. Somewhere between Saginaw and Hemlock, the arrow on a hand-lettered PARKING sign directs us into a pasture where a small contingent of other trucks--up to their wheel hubs in winter wheat, fins of dried mud sprayed across their doors--have already convened. The recently deceased owner of this pasture, a farmer named Dale Krause, was himself an obsessive collector of agro-industrial relics. The list of items up for sale today is varied and long. Bidding will begin at 9:00 A.M., an hour or two earlier than usual, and may go on past dark. "This is a all day large auction," reads the ad in Auction Exchange. "Many of the outbuildings are full with oldies too numerous to mention! Bring your trailers. Be there!!!"
Along with the usual rust-laden hay wagons, the numerous oldies arrayed across the trampled clover this morning include the remains of an old handloom, a buggy with a bearskin blanket disintegrating on the upholstered seat, and a dozen antique tractors, some of which are as shiny and colorful as brand-new toys and some of which look like partially dissected mechanical cadavers. Amid them towers an elephantine monstrosity of galvanized sheet metal, like something out of Jules Verne or the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This, I learn upon investigation, is a McCormick Deering 38" grain thrasher. Its wheels are made of bare iron. Its drive belt is part metal, part wood. Its bolt heads are not hexagonal but square. Across one side someone has performed mysterious calculations in chalk. "That," Tom says, "should be in the Smithsonian."
By the time the auction begins, three hundred or more vehicles have arrived, nearly all of them pickup trucks. The crowd is so large, two spotters stand in its midst. When they spy a bidder, they shout, "Hep!" and point. The auctioneers--there are two of them as well--wear matching white cowboy hats and travel from item to item in a four-wheel John Deere all-terrain vehicle outfitted with loudspeakers and a pulpit, above which, like the drooping head of a dying flower, a yellow, pyramid-shaped parasol dangles from a hook. In Tom's opinion, these guys are "real pros." They know what they're selling and sell it well, which is to say, speedily and honestly.
A farm auction has a discernible shape, a heliotropic arc. Early in the morning, when the dew is still on the grass, there is something almost worshipful in the way the scavengers encircle the hay wagons. Rusty things scrape and clink. Parked in pastures and tilted along the shoulders of the road, the trucks multiply. Expectation grows. Small talk crescendos to hubbub. The auctioneer does his sound check. The bidding begins. By noon, the atmosphere feels carnivalesque. Then, by mid-afternoon, a post-prandial drowsiness sets in. Sun-drugged, their acquisitiveness and inquisitiveness slaked, the bidders look for places to sit--in tractor seats, on pallets of lumber, on the edges of hay wagons--and wait for the auctioneer to get around to whatever special items he is saving for last. One by one, the trucks depart.
Tom buys more tools at the Krause auction than he has at any auction so far this summer, and when it's over, after heaving several hundred pounds of junk into the back of his truck, including an enormous grinding wheel and a complete set of blacksmith's tools, we are both exhausted. Driving home, we stop at King Kone. Tom orders blackberry--not as good as orange-vanilla swirl, but good enough. While we sit at picnic tables licking melted soft-serve from our knuckles, white tufts blizzard all around us, gathering at the edges of the parking lot in drifts. I ask Tom what they are. "Cottonwood seeds," he tells me.
It is a commonplace that in the era of consumerism we are what we possess. Usually this is noted as a cause for worry, another symptom of cultural decline, and perhaps it is. Still, when you visit auctions, it is hard not to be moved to pity and awe. Gathered on lawns and hay wagons, items explain one another, like words in a language. However miscellaneous they seem, these belongings share a kind of logic--the ordering principle of human personality. One can trace among them the lineaments of an inner life. Political affiliations, religious beliefs, memories, vanities, even dreams, are spread out for strangers to browse through. Here is a man's hairpiece, here his wooden crutches, here his numismatic map of the world festooned with faded stamps. Here is the Carter-Mondale button he once wore. At another auction on another farm in another material universe, the items on offer include the October 1959 issue of Marriage: The Magazine of Catholic Family Living, a USDA bulletin called Making Cellars Dry, a miniature souvenir toolkit commemorating the Catholic Shrine at Indian River, Michigan ("largest crucifix in the world"), and three framed jigsaw puzzles of pastoral scenes--sheep, glades, brooks.
Walter Benjamin blamed mechanical reproduction for diminishing the auras of unique works of art, but mass-produced artifacts also exude auras--auras created through ownership and use. They become, as Agee wrote, "images and marvels of nature." Even separated from their owners, even incoherently grouped, objects remain faintly numinous, like the relics discovered in ancient tombs. This is especially true of tools, which perhaps retain the traces of their owners more strongly than do most human artifacts.
Today we refer to anything useful, from computer programs to ideas, as tools. This was not always the case. According to Eric Sloane, in antebellum America the word "tool" denoted an implement that could make one thing at a time. Reconstruction-era industrialization broadened the meaning of the word to include any implement involved in the manufacture of a product, necessitating the coining of the term "hand tool" to distinguish traditional implements from what came to be known as "machines."
The difference between these two mechanical species, it seems to me, may be more a matter of culture than of engineering. Machines are both the rival and the antithesis of humanity. In their complexity, they resemble us. In their simplicity (all those parts, and yet no Oedipus complex, no withdrawal symptoms, no fear of death, no ecstasy), they are monstrous--or as Blake put it, "Satanic." Machines are largely autonomous and threaten us with obsolescence, whereas a tool is nothing without us.
"Considered functionally," British paleontologist Kenneth P. Oakley wrote in his influential 1949 monograph, Man the Tool-Maker, tools "are detachable extensions of the forelimb"--a definition that any potter, toeing his wheel, might reasonably protest. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that tools are detachable extensions not of our forelimbs but of ourselves.
"Like the nails on a beast's paws," Eric Sloane writes, "the old tools were so much an extension of a man's hand or an added appendage to his arm, that the resulting workmanship seemed to flow directly from the body of the maker and to carry something of himself into the work."
Although Sloane was an anti-unionist libertarian, on the meaning of tools he and the author of the Communist Manifesto agree. "Estranged from labor," writes Marx, "the laborer is self-estranged, alien to himself."
For the most serious tool aficionados, or "galoots," as they sometimes call themselves, the hegemony of mind and machine over hand and matter entails an estrangement more profound even than the one Marx imagined, an estrangement not only from self but from time. Old tools imply an entire way of being, an artisanal cosmology. One night, lurking on a newsgroup for galoots, I come upon the following credo:
I refuse to be in such a hurry that I squeeze the aesthetic value out of everything to gain a few minutes of time--time which will then just be filled with more rushing and more mass-produced, soulless junk. In the drive to achieve instant gratification, we have spent a century trying to shorten the learning curve and eliminate the chance of error in every human activity. There is much good in this, but something has been almost lost in the process. The Galoots are the guardians of that which was almost lost: the challenge of trying to master a skill that can never be fully mastered, the creative freedom that comes from intimacy with a medium as complex as wood, the sense of self-sufficiency that comes from knowing that you can make a useful object with tools so simple that you can make the tools too, and the peaceful meditation of trying to bring eye, hand and wood together into harmony through finesse and understanding rather than brute force.
Here, old tools are relics of a mythic past, but they are also antidotes to automation, standardization, acceleration, infantilization, and to the docile brand of utopianism that holds all change to be progress.
Many of the galoots I have encountered in chat rooms and at auctions fulfill my worst expectations. Unlike other collectors, galoots can at times resemble the members of a fraternal order or a medieval guild, imagining themselves to be latter-day Knights Templar, keepers of the code, "guardians of that which was almost lost." The Mid-West Tool Collectors Association insists upon the traditional divisions of labor, consigning women and the artifacts of women's work to a special "ladies auxiliary." And the association's aging members wonder why so few men of my generation care to learn about the old tools and the old ways.
Still, uncomfortable as I am in their company, wary as I am of their nostalgia, I have begun to wonder whether they are at least partly right; maybe handiness does matter. Once upon a time, we referred to all forms of manufacturing (a Latinate word for "making by hand") as "the arts," and once upon a time all artists, manual as well as fine--masons, blacksmiths, and mechanics as well as sculptors, musicians, and poets--could find meaning in their work.
"There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human being: the need to make," the poet Frank Bidart observed in a recent sequence of poems devoted to the topic of making. "The culture in which we live honors specific kinds of making (shaping or mis-shaping a business, a family) but does not understand how central making itself is as manifestation and mirror of the self, fundamental as eating or sleeping." The worship of old tools arises, I have begun to suspect, from the epidemic frustration of this need.
Of course, Americans still use hand tools. Although the professional crafts and trades have dwindled, the do-it-yourself market that emerged in the 1940s is large and growing. Proportionally few of us use tools skillfully anymore, but hordes of us love to play with them. We love doing it ourselves so much, in fact, that in 2003 the Stanley Works, arguably the most successful tool manufacturer in U.S. history and certainly the most iconic, sold $2.7 billion worth of tools.
In July, after two months on the Michigan auction circuit, I head east to Stanley's corporate headquarters, in New Britain, Connecticut, once a capital of industry, now little more than a stagnant exurb of Hartford. Gary van Deursen, corporate vice president of innovation and design, and Carl Stoutenberg, the former company historian, now retired, have agreed to meet with me.
My route to New Britain takes me tantalizingly close to the Sloane-Stanley Museum on the banks of the Housatonic, where, atop the picturesque ruins of an iron mill, Eric Sloane's collection of edifying implements now resides. I decide to make time for the detour. According to the posted hours, the museum is open for business, but when I try the front door to the main building, I find it locked. I snoop among the deserted grounds, silent but for the crunch of my footsteps on the gravel drive. There's a flagpole with a limpid flag, a few picnic tables splattered with bird droppings, an enormous tractor wheel planted like a monolith in the grass, a miniature green-and-yellow steam engine arrested in the act of pulling a miniature boxcar down a miniature section of track. Finally, a man emerges from a shed. He informs me that the tool museum is indefinitely closed due to cuts in the state budget and suggests I return when the economy improves.
Onward to New Britain. Of the dozens of manufacturers that once operated here, Stanley is the only one left. A year before my visit, CEO John Trani made national news by recommending that the toolmaker reincorporate in Bermuda. Lawmakers, labor leaders, shareholders, and New Britain residents began impugning Trani's patriotism. In the end, Stanley decided to stay put, at least on paper, at least for now. Already the company has sent most of its manufacturing jobs elsewhere (nearly 50 percent of Stanley employees work overseas), and has reduced its New Britain workforce from 5,000 fifty years ago to 1,000 today. American do-it-yourselfers are buying iconic American tools made in China in order to do amateur manual labor while workers laid off by the manufacturer of those tools seek employment in the service sector. There is irony in this.
A tall man with a grizzled mustache and a cell phone clipped to the waist of his pleated chinos, Gary van Deursen is not a galoot. He has studied and admired the tools made by his predecessors, but he thinks his are better. His great enthusiasm is industrial design--the practice of it, the idea of it, exquisite examples of it. What he designs almost doesn't seem to matter. Before joining Stanley, he worked at Black & Decker. A large poster of a DustBuster hangs on one wall of his office. He drives a blue Porsche 996 and mentions it frequently, even when he is talking about tools, as an example, a paragon, of good design. Van Deursen is goofy for Progress, gonzo for Change. Everything is getting better. And this is very exciting.
Over lunch in the corporate cafeteria, I ask van Deursen and Stoutenberg if they are familiar with Sloane's museum. "Very," Stoutenberg says, rolling his eyes.
I concede that Sloane was "a cranky guy" with strong opinions and a romantic view of the past. Still, many of the tools I've seen at tool auctions look superior--sturdier, prettier, more finely wrought--than those on sale at Home Depot. I sound like a regular galoot. I'm speaking the gospel.
"I would use the analogy of the cars," van Deursen says. "It's easier to say that the old cars were better because they were thicker steel, but yet if you were going to have even a forty-mile-an-hour collision, what car do you want to be in? Give me any new car. And that's because of the technology that's involved."
Van Deursen begins to get excited. "Look at the measuring tape," he says, in a way that reminds me of Tom Friedlander. "From the 1922 Farrand tape to the tape we made a few years ago, the end would break off after multiple retractions. In the past three years, looking at that, addressing that problem, we figured out how to solve it with technology that was invented for helicopter blades in Desert Storm. We applied clear armor made by 3M to the last six inches of the tape and increased its strength ten or twenty times."
After lunch we head to the design department, where van Deursen gives me one of these high-tech, battle-tested measuring tapes to keep as a souvenir. PowerLock REINFORCED WITH BladeArmor 2X BLADE LIFE, the package says. This is an extreme measuring tape. This is a tape you could measure warheads and spider holes with. Packaging, I learn that after, noon, is where much of Stanley's innovation and design now occurs. Even the tools themselves have been packaged, decorated, and branded with superfluous design elements--ribbed black blobs of rubber, accents of Stanley yellow--all in order to outperform the competition not in the workshop or at the construction site but at Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Functional refinements, like BladeArmor, are minor compared with the cosmetic changes the tools neverendingly undergo.
Van Deursen's job would be easier if this weren't the case--if he could simply design the best tool possible, and "best" today means sale and user-friendly as well as functional. But his customers often shop irrationally, nostalgically. In California, Stanley's framing hammer comes with a black, wooden axe-handle because in California that's what house framers have traditionally used. No one at Stanley knows why. When van Deursen set out to turn Stanley's top-of-the-line chisel into an ergonomic marvel, he learned that both amateur and professional carpenters prefer chisels with translucent yellow handles, even though translucent plastic was itself a novel material only fifty years ago. As a group, tool users are late adopters. "We wanted to add rubber," van Deursen says. "We add too much rubber, and the guy isn't going to buy this, because he doesn't see his traditional material." The result is a quintessentially twenty-first-century tool, ergonomic, user-friendly, accompanied by safety precautions, made from a combination of space-age metals and polymers, including translucent yellow plastic, and exhibiting, in van Deursen's words, "all the cues, on a global basis, of a chisel."
Just before I leave, van Deursen lets me have a sneak peek at the hot new hand tool Stanley will be rolling out in time for Christmas, the redesigned SportUtility[TM] Outdoorsman[TM] Knife, the name of which came to him, like inspiration from on high, while listening to a news report about SUVs. Invented to cut roofing the and drywall, the traditional Stanley utility knife, market research showed, had become popular with hunters and fishermen. So van Deursen and his team added a 3 1/2 inch "folding sport blade," some sporty styling, thought up a snazzy name, and doubled the suggested retail price. This is what tools in the twenty-first century have become: not hardware, gear.
History tends to memorialize great changes, which, technologically speaking, means great inventions. Tools are inherently conservative and humble artifacts. Their history is largely accidental, written in the margins--of warfare, architecture, economics, religion. In the history of technology, inventions are the generals, the geniuses, the monarchs; tools are the commoners, the craftsmen, the serfs. This is one reason old tools have become Americana. At once democratic and utilitarian, individualistic and traditional, they resemble us. They are technological leaves of grass.
"Democratic nations," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, "will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful and they will want the beautiful to be useful." And tool-collecting literature is replete with evidence of this American preference for the useful. Eric Sloane's epigraph for A Museum of Early American Tools, taken from a "tool pamphlet" written in 1719, declares that "the Carpenter who builds a good House to defend us from Wind and Weather, is far more serviceable than the curious Carver who employs his art to please his Fancy."
Tools are to American civilization what amphorae and urns were to the ancient Greeks, common artifacts the ubiquity and durability of which attest to their cultural importance and ensure that they will last. Like the Grecian urn in Keats's famous ode, they are the foster children of silence and slow time. Long after the mills crumble into the millponds and the cornfields sprout subdivisions, long after the sweatshops are condemned and the machines sold off as scrap, tools remain.
"Tools outlast the worker and the work and the products," David H. Shayt, the Smithsonian Institution's specialist in crafts and trades, told me. "We can't collect people here--we even do worker's clothing very poorly--but the tool we can study and honor."
Although the history of tools is longer than that of any other human artifact, tool historians such as Shayt are comparatively novel. The first scholars to take tool collecting seriously were Victorian archaeologists, and, like Victorian naturalists, the specimens they studied first were those from distant places and distant times. Most hoped to do for civilization what Darwin had done for life. In 1898, David Shayt's predecessors at the Smithsonian prepared a taxonomy of inventions, including musical instruments, weapons, and eating utensils as well as tools, for exhibition at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition held in Omaha, Nebraska. The first item in the exhibit's genealogy of the hammer was a quartzite pounding stone; the last, a steam-powered hammer as huge and terrible as an iron god. The published caption offers this moral: "The triumphs of human effort and ingenuity may be realized by comparing the stone hammer, still in use by half the race, with the machine hammer of today." This is also the lesson of the exhibit as a whole: Behold, the triumphs of progress. Pity your ancestors. Envy your descendants.
Many of the tools then considered highest on the evolutionary ladder--the mechanical drill, the cutter head of a planing machine, crosscut saws--are ones I've seen at auctions. Now antique and collectible, only a century ago these artifacts of the age of mechanical reproduction betokened the future, much as the quaint water wheels that ornament calendars and the bucolic suburbs of New England were in their day the very engines of change.
In 1897, a year before the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, Henry Chapman Mercer, a forty-one-year-old archaeologist from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, visited the premises of a neighbor "who had been in the habit of going to country sales and buying what they called 'penny lots.'" There, Mercer experienced a revelation of near-Pauline proportions. "When I [saw the] disordered pile of old wagons, gum-tree salt boxes, flax brakes, straw beehives, tin dinner horns, rope machines and spinning wheels, things I had heard of but never collectively saw before, the idea occurred to me that the history of Pennsylvania was here profusely illustrated." Mercer subsequently abandoned his studies of prehistory and started obsessively buying penny lots, hoping to salvage "all things illustrating the life of a people at a given time," by which he mainly meant tools, but also the objects wrought with them. In 1929 he published Ancient Carpenters' Tools, a novel-sized study whose encyclopedic, esoteric detail makes it only slightly less impressive than the museum Mercer constructed in Doylestown to house his 15,000 illustrious things. Since Mercer's death, with the addition of posthumous acquisitions, the collection has more than tripled.
At the recommendation of David Shayt, Carl Stoutenberg, and numerous galoots, before returning to Michigan, I decide to make what is for any serious student of American tools a necessary pilgrimage. Mercer, a practitioner as well as a historian of traditional arts and crafts, earned a fortune manufacturing Moravian tiles. Terrified of losing his collection to tire, his museum, an inflammable fortress built entirely from reinforced concrete (6,000 tons of it) and illuminated entirely by natural light (the windows comprise 5,000 panes), is intended to endure until the end of time. Witold Rybczynski, who made the pilgrimage in the late 1990s while researching One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, aptly compares the building to "a baronial castle transplanted from the Transylvanian Alps."
Like Rybczynski, I find the experience of touring the museum dizzying. The central gallery vaults six stories to the roof, and standing at the middle of it is like standing at the bottom of a twister that has sucked the entire nineteenth century into its windy coils. Buggies, wagons, and sleighs float in midair, one above the other. A thirty- by six-foot whaleboat hangs from the ceiling on chains. Every surface is encrusted with the antiquated remains of America's material culture. Across one wall, a trio of ox yokes fly like strange pelicans.
A walkway at the periphery of the central gallery spirals me upward past dozens of alcoves, each devoted to a different craft or trade, from wheelwrighting to glassblowing, nearly every single one of which industrialism has rendered obsolete. My favorite of the many tools I encounter on my ascent is the hatter's bow, a yard-long implement that looks just like a cellist's bow, only larger. Haberdashers would pluck the bow's taught, catgut string above a mass of loose fur, causing it, the curator's caption explains, "to interlace and produce a semicompact, oval sheet of fibers called a 'batt.'"
On the third floor, inside a glass display case, I come upon a diagram of Mercer's taxonomy, his "Classification of Historic Human Tools," an elegant scheme that is to the Byzantine classification system devised by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office what Linnaean taxonomy is to genetic sequencing. The USPTO organizes tools first according to the action they perform, and further according to highly particularized nuances of engineering and design. The wrench, for instance, belongs to Class 81 (tools), Subclass 52 (wrench, screwdriver, or driver therefor), which contains tools "for engaging a work part and exerting or transmitting a twisting strain thereto, of means for imparting or transmitting an actuating force to such a tool." Subclass 52 is in turn divided into sub-subclasses, sub-sub-subclasses, and so on. A particular kind of Allen wrench belongs to sub-subclass 436 (having work-engaging and force-exerting portion inserted into cavity, e.g., Allen wrench, screwdriver), sub-sub-subclass 442 (inserted portion having relatively movable components), sub-sub-sub-subclass 443 (having camming or wedging element for moving components), sub-sub-sub sub-subclass 444 (axially shiftable element located between and wedging against components), and, finally, sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-subclass 445 (with threaded surface for cooperating with mating-tool structure).
Mercer, on the other hand, divides all human artifacts into two kingdoms, primary and secondary, which he subsequently organizes not formally or functionally but culturally, relativistically, according to how the tool was used. Primary tools are those used to make or procure necessities--Food, Clothing, Shelter, Transportation, and, of course, other Tools. Secondary tools are those used in human activities less rudimentary to survival, which Mercer groups into seven categories: Language, Religion, Commerce, Government, Art, Amusement, and Science. For each class, primary and secondary, he offers a single exemplary object. A tuning fork falls under Art, a pair of spurs under Transport. A multipurpose device might belong to several different categories, depending on who used it and how. An apothecary's mortar and pestle is an artifact of Applied Science, but a baker's mortar and pestle would be an artifact of Food. The museum itself is a kind of three-dimensional, seven-story magnification of this scheme, a taxonomical honeycomb of dioramas.
It is a beautiful thing, this taxonomy, like a good, old tool, elegant and useful even today, despite its simplicity. I can think of objects that might blur Mercer's lines but none that would fall outside of them. Unlike Eric Sloane, Mercer regards objects as artifacts, not symbols. He insists that his tools not be treated as romantic, nationalistic icons, for ancient antecedents to early American tools can be found worldwide. Not only does his book include primitive examples of the wrench; he expresses disbelief that archaeologists have paid so little attention to this implement, given its importance in the history of machines.
"This singular collection is the child of an opportunity which will certainly never occur again," Mercer is quoted as saying in a display near the museum's entrance. "Let my words inspire you one and all to refrain from destroying historical specimens of this kind which happen to be in your possession." There is something poignant about this wish, poignant because the idea that one could possibly preserve the material world, make time pause, arrest "all things illustrating the life of a people at a given time," is itself antique. Mercer's elegant classification system, the vestige of a far more knowable world, contains a fatal flaw: it cannot accommodate whatsits. To classify a tool, he must first know how it was used.
For practical reasons, Mercer limited his collection to pre-industrial tools. Had he included tools of the age of mechanical reproduction, he would have needed a concrete, fireproof Library of Babel to house them. Not even the Smithsonian has room for hand tools anymore. Most of the collection David Shayt curates has been moved to a warehouse in Maryland. During the last two centuries, depending on how you measure it, the manufactured world may have become even more various than the natural one, as infinite in its variety, to paraphrase Freud, as the daydreams of mankind.
Since 1790, when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was established, 6.7 million inventions have been patented in this country alone--more than three times the number of life-forms identified to date by biologists. Of these, more than 33,000 are hand tools "not structurally limited to any classified art," a number that is itself fairly staggering when you consider that from the Iron Age to the dawn of the age of mechanical reproduction the tools of most trades remained essentially the same. The claw-headed hammer, the plane, the brace, the saw, the drill--nearly all the tools in a woodworker's toolbox predate the birth of Christ. There were good reasons for their longevity: namely, human anatomy, raw materials, and the laws of physics. A hammer swung by a Roman carpenter in 286 B.C. differed only superficially from that swung by an American in 1786 A.D., because in both cases the tool turned the carpenter's hand into a fulcrum; in both cases, the hammer's head would likely have been made of iron, and its half from a wood such as oak, strong enough to withstand repeated shock but soft enough to conform ergonomically to the body of the man swinging it; in both cases, a well-aimed blow would have delivered comparable force and an errant one comparable harm.
With the emergence of machine lathes and modern metallurgy at the turn of the nineteenth century, it suddenly became possible to mass-produce tools so specialized they could substitute for skills. "The productivity of labour depends not only on the proficiency of the worker, but also on the quality of his tools," Karl Marx wrote in a section of Das Kapital, "The Specialized Worker and His Tools." By 1867, Marx reports with a hint of surprise and dismay, 500 different varieties of hammer were being manufactured in Birmingham, England. Flip through The Hammer: The King of Tools, a collector's field guide; behold the fabulous, many-headed throng pictured therein--snow knockers and hoofpicks, thrifts and mauls, stonecutting hammers with polls like picket fences, commanders with massive heads of burl, fencing hammers with "wire twisting cheeks"--and you can appreciate Marx's astonishment.
The same year Marx published Das Kapital, the number of U.S. patents totaled 60,658, an increase in three decades of more than 5,000 percent. In 1928, the year Mercer completed Ancient Carpenters' Tools, Americans patented 42,376 inventions, and in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, they patented not fewer but more--45,243 in all. This is because patents exist in the realm of fantasy, not in the realm of market economics. They represent the American dream in its purest, most lottery-like form. Of course, many if not most patented inventions never earn a dime, and a majority of those that do quickly become extinct. Proof of this technological mass extinction is all around us. In fields and barns, foreclosed factories and abandoned mines, in plastic buckets of melted hail, the Bessemer age of mechanical reproduction is vanishing into rust. For this reason, the database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, like Tom Friedlander's barn, resembles both a cabinet of wonders and a catacomb of follies.
What Mercer's museum most reminds me of is Oxford. University's natural-history museum, a cathedral-like building crowded with display cases I visited once during a year abroad. American museums of natural history, with their animatronic dinosaurs, IMAX screens, and laserized planetarium shows, increasingly resemble amusement parks. The Oxford museum, by comparison, has the feel of a postcolonial curiosity shop, as if the curators had wandered amid the wreckage of the British Empire, scavenging haphazardly whatever marvels and oddities they could find. Walking from display case to display case, one skips across continents and centuries. Here is the foot of a dodo bird, here the shriveled head of a pygmy, here the plaster-of-paris likeness of an iguanodon.
There is something funereal about all natural-history museums. They are zoos of the dead, not only because they exhibit herds of skeletons and flocks of stuffed birds but because so many of their specimens are extinct. On one of my scavenger hunts with Toro, I picked up a battered copy of Darwin's Journal of Researches and, reading it, was struck by how anachronistic--how innocent, even--his exuberant curiosity seemed. His entries are rhapsodies of descriptive prose. Forms of the words "interesting" and "surprising" toll among his sentences like a refrain of wonderment. "I was much surprised to find particles of stone above the thousandth of an inch square, mixed with finer matter," he writes of a handful of dust. It is as if no one in the history of the world had ever paid attention before, as if Darwin and other Victorians had been born at the dawn of creation, rather than at the twilight of an empire.
For Melville, too, the seas were a sublime chaos of Leviathan mysteries--mysteries that, in a famously dense chapter on "Cetology," Ishmael endeavors to solve, wielding taxonomy as deftly as Queequeg does a harpoon. Although he "swam through libraries and sailed through oceans," a systematic classification of the whale, he concedes, would take generations to complete. Never could Melville have predicted that within seventy-five years of Moby-Dick's publication, when the last American whaling bark, Wanderer, sank off Cuttyhunk, not only would all the species of the once unfathomable cetacean order have been fathomed but many would be nearly extinct and the whale fisheries nearly exhausted. One wonders to what degree Darwin, Melville, and other taxonomical Victorians realized that their travelogues were eulogies.
Upon my return to Michigan, I decide to take one last field trip into American junkyard. For five days in late August, the thirty-eighth annual Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Show will be held at the Jay County fairgrounds in Portland, Indiana, a town 200 miles from Ann Arbor. Hundreds of tool dealers will be in attendance. To get a jump on other collectors, Tom drives down ahead of time and spends the eve of the show in a motel. I arrive the following morning a little before noon. The dirt parking lots reserved for the show are nearly full. Throughout the surrounding neighborhood, people are renting out parking spots on their front lawns. The cars, hailing from across the Midwest, may very well number in the thousands.
Imagining that Tom's blue cap and long beard will make him easy to spot, I procure a map and head to the section of the grounds labeled ANTIQUES. Among the tables of John Deere memorabilia and hand-painted weather vanes I find a few tool dealers, but Tom is nowhere to be seen. I wander the grounds, past concession stands peddling corn dogs and fried dough, and septuagenarian blacksmiths demonstrating their lost art. On and on I search, up and down the seemingly endless rows of gas engines and tractors, whose proud owners sit beside them in folding chairs, drinking beer and playing cards. A hundred years ago, these antique machines, nearly all of them now lovingly restored, brought industry to the farm. They are, in effect, factories on wheels. Passover is thought to have begun as a shepherds' feast, the rituals and symbols of which outlasted the way of life that gave rise to them. Something similar, it seems to me, is happening here, at this celebration of obsolete technology. Caravaning multitudes have made the pilgrimage in order to sacrifice a few gallons of fossil fuel to the Gods of Industry. Out of the smokestack of a Leviathan diesel mill with a flywheel weighing three tons, perfect rings of smoke chuff one by one at rhythmic intervals, expanding as they rise.
The day is well past its meridian when I realize that the Jay County fairgrounds are far larger than I had thought. In one corner of my map, north of the spark-plug exhibit and east of the tractors, the word "parts" appears twice, adrift in a terra incognita of white space. Here, in a vast and shadeless field, I discover a postindustrial bazaar. The place feels like a makeshift village or the camp of a bivouacking army. Booths and tables, overspread with mechanical organs and implements, form thoroughfares several acres long. There are dealers who specialize in antique spark plugs, antique railroad jacks, antique wooden pulleys, antique hog oilers, antique tractor-seat cushions. There is even a magazine stand peddling such periodicals as Green, a John Deere fanzine, and Farm Collector ("Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment").
When I finally locate Tom, he is standing alone at a Coca-Cola kiosk, tinted shades clipped to his glasses, two duffle bags at his feet, both bulging with loot. Since not long after sunrise, he has been working his way from dealer to dealer, filling his bags and returning to his truck to empty them. He has already acquired more wrenches on this hunt than on any other in all his years of collecting, and he still has a few more dealers he means to hit before we go.
next day, back in Ann Arbor, I drive out to the Friedlanders' farm to help Tom unload, tally, and classify this bounteous haul. Spreading his treasures out on the lowered tailgate of his pickup, he is boyishly giddy. "Whee!" he sings. "Christmas in August!" Today the world delights him with surprises. A wasp swoops down from the eaves of the tool barn, snatches a grasshopper from the dirt, and carries it away. "Grasshopper killer!" Tom exclaims. It is a perfect late-summer afternoon. The cattails have grown as tall as trees. Martha's vegetable garden is in fruit. The light is golden. The goldenrod is a yellow sea. The grass beside the tool barn is long and spangled with dandelions. Among them, I notice first one little Day-Glo orange flag, then another, then another. There are four in all.
"That's where the new barn will go," Tom explains when I ask about the flags. The new barn has been a fantasy of his for years. At last, he is ready to build it. As we sort yesterday's quarry into piles--wrenches here, non-wrenches there, hand-forged wrenches there, drop-forged wrenches here Tom describes his plans. The new barn will be bigger than the last barn, he says, and more brightly lit--an exhibition space worthy of his collection. He will mount his tools on plywood and hang them from walls. I wonder who it is he imagines his museum will attract, or if it even matters. As much as he enjoys my interest in his tools, I doubt that his excitement would diminish if I weren't there. If he were his museum's only patron, I am certain that he would keep rescuing tools, keep classifying them, keep putting them on display. Identification is, for him, akin to benediction, and salvage is akin to salvation. His cosmology, I have come to learn, is essentially elegiac. The universe he inhabits is at once wondrous and endangered. He is not a religious man. He does not believe that The End is nigh. Trained as a botanist, he does not believe in The End at all but in evolution, change without end. And yet, unlike some neo-Darwinists, Tom knows that change entails loss, and he does not confuse evolution with progress.
That afternoon, when we have finished archiving Tom's new acquisitions, I linger in the barn, alone. Outside, the world is hot and bright, but inside it is cool and dark. It smells of grease, dirt, concrete, rust. There are no windows. One might as well be underground, in a cave--or in a dream. The shapes of the tools are fabulous, as is their multiplicity, and their glimmering is faintly sentient, like the eyes of dolls.
I choose an item at random and take notes. Copper-headed hammer, nine-inch handle made of tapered iron. No maker's mark, no patent number. One poll cracked, the other poll scurfy with blue-green oxides that come off, like butterfly scales, when you touch them. Copper mines riddle northern Michigan and southern Ontario, on land stolen from natives for its ore. Now many of the mines are depleted, and the copper, at least a small part of it, is dissolving onto my fingertips.
In the first chapter of Democracy in America, de Tocqueville characterized the European settlers of the American Midwest as "the great people to whom the future of the continent doubtless belongs." No longer. The future lies elsewhere now, in suburban business parks, in the coastal metropolises, or perhaps on another continent altogether. Perhaps the future belongs to the employees of Stanley's factory in China.
Today the residents of "that inexhaustible Mississippi Valley" resemble those other peoples de Tocqueville describes in his first chapter, a mysterious, vanished, and--as history would later prove--wholly imaginary tribe who allegedly preceded the Indians. "Along the banks of the Ohio and in all of the central valley," de Tocqueville wrote, "every day one still finds mounds raised by the hand of man. When one digs to the center of these monuments, they say, one can scarcely rail to encounter human remains, strange instruments, arms, utensils of all kinds--made of metal, or recalling usages unknown to current races."
Like a rusty, obsolete machine that was once as silvery and marvelous as the future itself, the New World, that European pipe dream, has grown old. This is one of the meanings I have scavenged from the junkyard.
"Democratic peoples scarcely worry about what has been," de Tocqueville also wrote, "but they willingly dream of what will be, and in this direction their imagination has no limits; here it stretches and enlarges itself beyond measure." To the degree that this was ever true--and the suicidal immigrants in Willa Cather's novels present at least one caveat--I doubt it is any longer. At some point in the 175 years that have elapsed since the French aristocrat came to have a look at the American experiment in democracy--perhaps when the frontier closed, or perhaps when men became, in Thoreau's words, "the tools of their tools," of perhaps when Henry C. Mercer acquired his first penny lot--the future loosened its purchase upon our dreams. This is not to say that Americans have collectively lost faith in progress, only that our imaginations face in two directions. Newer is still better, but now we are nostalgic for almost everything.
* In fact, the early Americans Sloane glorifies were on average versatile but mediocre craftsmen compared with the members of European guilds. "Although the rural and small-town economy of the eighteenth century supported a number of specialized artisans," explains Paul B. Kebabian, author of American Woodworking Tools, "the majority of the population farmed. And each farmer had to be something of a jack-of-all-trades: he was wagon-maker; house- and barn-builder; maker of hats, cloth, tools, furniture, nails and handspikes, staves and heading and hoops for barrels, potash, maple sugar, or any of a host of other products for use at home and for trade and sale." The abundance and variety of American tools, in fact, testifies to a shortage, not a preponderance, of skill.. The carpenter on the Pequod, whom Melville describes as "omnitooled," is "to a certain off-handed, practical extent, alike experienced in numerous trades and callings collateral to his own." In addition to maintaining the seaworthiness of the ship, he performs dental surgery, repairs Ahab's prosthetic leg, and decorates the second mate's favorite oar with a constellation of stars.
Donovan Hohn teaches English at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. His last essay for Harper's Magazine, "Anatomy Lessons: Evan S. Connell and the Documentary School," appeared in the December 2001 issue.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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