Why are mid-19th century British tools so much prettier than North American ones of the same era? I have been asking this question for months wherever I can around the web and I haven’t received a qualified answer yet.
When you don’t get an answer to a question, you tend to develop your own, and that is exactly what I have done here. If you agree - good. If you don’t agree - even better, but tell me why. The one thing I hope you won’t do, however, is take offense.
First on the agenda is a disclaimer. I am not a historian, although I do read a great deal about the people and events during this particular timeframe. The following opinions are based on those readings and from my limited understanding of people.
On Stephen’s blog, The Full Chisel, I posted a comment to his entry, “Think of Old England”, in which I asked this specific question – “Why are British tools so much prettier than the ones available from the same time period in the United States and Canada?” This resulted in a number of further comments that spilled over onto WoodCentral and the discussion continued, and continued, and continued. I didn’t participate in this discussion, but I did read the aftermath. Where you guys learned all this stuff is beyond me. What a wealth of information. The problem I had with it all, though, is that it didn’t answer my question – Why are British tools so much prettier than the ones available from the same period in the United States and Canada?
What all of that discussion focused on was the importers' and manufacturers’ end of the equation and any good capitalist will tell you, manufacturers fill a need, they don’t create it. You can manufacture and import whatever you want, however you want, in any style you want, but if the public ain’t buyin’ it – you ain’t sellin’ it.
There was consensus of opinion reached through all of this discussion, though, and that is, British toolmakers in the mid-19th century produced pretty tools, while the American manufacturers in that same time period produced utilitarian tools. This fact, that we all agree on, tells me, and this is where I will probably get into trouble, that the British craftsmen of that timeframe held the tools of his trade in greater esteem than his counterparts in America.
Before I go further, let me qualify my position about where Canada fits in to this discussion. When it comes to tools, throughout our history, Canadians generally used American made tools rather than British made ones and we still do. We did so even in the middle of the 19th century when we weren’t even Canada yet, but still a British colony made up of two relatively separate sovereigns. To give you an example of how we Canadians like to suck on the straw from both ends, the United States declared war on the British on June 18th, 1812 and established the front for this war as being the borders of both Upper and Lower Canada. On June 19th, 1812, Mr. John Jacob Astor, an American and owner of The South West Company, which was headquartered in New York, negotiated with the governments of the two Canadas to be allowed to continue his trade for furs across the borders even though war had been declared. He was quickly given permission. One of the items Mr. Astor traded were tools made by American manufacturers. Here in Canada, we were British, unless, of course, it cost extra.
So now, if I may, I’ll rephrase the question, “Why did we, in North America, not desire pretty tools?”
I think the answer to this question can be found in the different types of societies found on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as how their respective craftsmen choose to view themselves and their positions within those societies.
From what I have read about cabinetmakers on both sides of the Atlantic during this timeframe, neither was making money hand over fist. While the daily earnings of the British craftsman were higher than that of his counterpart in the United States, he also faced a much higher cost of living, so the two equaled out, I think, surprisingly well.
In Britain, a tradesman was held to his post by the aristocratic social order and as a result he held his craft in higher regard than his equivalent in the North America. That is not to say that, as craftsmen, the British version was better than the North American, or the reverse. It is just stating, in my opinion, that, as individuals, the British craftsmen viewed their “lot in life” differently. I believe the greater emphasis British tradesmen placed on their trade Guilds, Unions and apprenticeships support this position
In the United States, there was a completely different kind of social order. There, a man’s position was based more on what he became after he was born, rather than what he was before he took his first breath. The emphasis was less on what type of labor a man did for his living, and more on what type of living a man did with his labor. A good example to support this is residential architecture in both countries during this timeframe; the one referred to as the “Victorian Era”. During this era homes in North America were build with gingerbread fronts, fretted millwork, and large and ornate porches. Even smaller, less expensive homes were built with much of this decoration. Homes in Britain, during this same timeframe, were built, by comparison, rather restrained and remember, "Victoria" was their monarch. While North Americans painted these homes in elaborate color schemes, the more austere homes in Great Britain were painted any color you could want – as long as it was white. Another strong example of the differences in the perception regarding their trade, while unions were strong in North America, apprenticeships by the 19th century had lost a bit of their charm and Guilds were almost non-existent.
Within these differences regarding each man’s opinion of his self worth, I believe you find the answer to the question of tool styles. The British craftsmen found self-worth and self-respect within his craft. His craft was who he was. To support that opinion he insisted his tools be accented with different woods, metals and decorative materials, more ornate and therefore, more impressive, and he was more than willing to pay for those additions. To the North American craftsman, on the other hand, his tools were a means to an end and therefore he insisted on them being as utilitarian as possible and, of course, acquired as cheaply as possible.
I think the answer to all this is that, while the men were equal, they’re trades similar and the performance of their tools comparable, the societies that they lived and worked in caused them to differ in their perception of how those tools should look. To one, looks were important in recognition of his station in life, to the other, the look of his tools had little to do with his station and everything to do with his life.