Working Wood in 18th Century AmericaRecently I hopped in my trusty 2006 Jeep Liberty for the drive to visit my old friend Parnel in Connecticut. From Newport, the drive took a little over an hour and a half. As I was pulling into to the town where Parnel now lives I saw a sign that said “Incorporated 1786” and it caused me to speculate what that trip would have been like in 1786. I would say that on the combination of highways and two-lane country roads that got me there, my average speed was 50 miles per hour. So I asked Parnel, who is a life-long student of 18th Century American history, “How long would this trip have taken in 1786?” Three days. News in those days traveled at the same speed as people and horses. In so many ways, it was a very different time.
Many of my Great American web sites focus on the period of American history around World War Two. Looking back 70 years we see our great country in one of its finest hours, when Americans pulled together with mind-boggling work, determination, courage, and ingenuity to win the war. Having allowed our military strength to weaken after World War One, in the futile hope that it had been “the war that would end all wars,” we had to gear up fast and build thousands of planes, ships, and tanks in a herculean manufacturing endeavor the world had not seen before and has not seen since.
Somehow I see a connection between wood working in Colonial times and what we did to win World War 2. Great American web sites celebrate the uniquely American way of making things. When the first colonists arrived, they brought tools with them, mostly from England. And what the new land offered was a seemingly endless supply of timber, including many fine hardwoods. So the colonists made things from wood from log cabins to fine furniture. Before factories, before steel mills, Americans worked wood.
With large 2-man “pit saws,” they turned logs into beams and boards. One man stood on top of the log where he could follow a guide line, and the other man stood in the pit. I don’t know how long it took two men working a huge saw up and down to cut through a 10 ft. log, but it surely was hard work. This is how the building of our great nation started. The canals and railroads would come later. In the Colonial era, we needed homes, wagons, barrels, and furniture. The skills, as well as the tools, of the wheelwright, cooper, and cabinet maker came mostly from England. By the end of the 18th Century Americans had innovated some of their own styles and were making many of their own tools.
This section of the web site will focus on the skills and tools of the cabinetmaker. I am very fortunate to have a friendship with Parnel, because his knowledge passed down from many generations of carriage makers, wheelwrights, and cabinetmakers, and his understanding of the subject represents a lifetime of study.