Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Simple Request Leads to a "Smart" Candle Snuffer

     Okay, this story is a little different but still very much in keeping with my interest in the history of our sensible ancestors. My wife routinely makes beeswax candles, using a period style tin mold. For her, it's more about dealing with our predictable power-outages, rather than some kind of living history. She recently asked if I would make her a couple of candle snuffers, along the lines of the one we purchased years ago, at Sturbridge Village.

My Copies of 19th Century Tin Snuffers
Image Lindy Miller 2011

    Not the biggest of challenges but to keep it fun, I started with an image search on Google. I was looking for any original 19th century snuffers to use as models. I was successful in my initial search, finding a couple of suitable examples but then, one really cool version jumped right off the page. It suddenly reminded me of a "mechanical" snuffer I found on an online auction, years ago. Luckily, I had saved a picture of the "patented" automatic snuffer, in a file.

Patented Automatic Snuffer
from an Online Auction

     What I liked most about the Google image snuffer, was its simplicity and easily understood mechanics. I thought to myself, I can make the simple tin "Witch's Hat" versions to fill the need but a replica of the mechanical marvel would rate as a Christmas gift, for sure.

From "The End of Energy Obesity"
by Peter Tartzakian
Image Courtesy Google

     Continuing my research for examples of the automatic variety, I discovered a drawing from the 1860's of yet another version. The first Google image was identified in a book as 18th century and I seem to remember that the Patented example was from the 1880's ( I haven't found the exact record yet ). Either way, these little devices apparently saw service over time, or were just a recuring novelty.

The Reverend Thomas Butler's Version
Circa 1860's
Image Courtesy dorsetforyou.com

My Replica on the Job
      For the replica, I chose brass as I had some flat stock in various thicknesses. I used a springy brass for the clamp and a heavier gauge for the arms and snuffer. The best part is that the dang thing works. It works great. Such a simple idea but considering what candles cost our ancestors in time, it's no wonder they thought of a way to manage their consumption.

     For the curious, the way it works is, you clamp the mechanism on the candle below where you want it to burn to and then stab the arm into the candle's middle. The trick is to make sure the stabbing arm goes deep enough to allow the dropping arm (snuffer) to lean past straight-up, a little towards the candle. What happens is that when the candle burns down far enough, it releases the stabber and down comes the snuffer. It's actually fun to watch, but that's just me. My wife loved the gift and now has snuffers with options. As the saying goes, "waste not, want not".

"Good Night !"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Eureka Moments Revisited, Part 2, Exploring the Mysterious Origins of the Gold Rush Rocker / Cradle

         The intention of this post is to peel away some of the layers of speculation and hopefully shed a little light on the possible origins of the Gold Rush mining machine known in California as the Rocker or Cradle. When I had my carpenter's shop in Columbia State Historic Park (1998-2008), it was my "stock in trade" to build and sell authentic replica Cradles. Over the years I sold hundreds of copies of a plan I developed to build a smaller version, based on the original measured drawing by Joseph G. Bruff ( "Gold Rush", Vol. 1, pg 424). One of my favorite patterns of a period Cradle, was the one described by Israel Pelton Lord in his Gold Rush journal ( "At the Extremity of Civilization", pg. 221). It had all the attributes of a classic "coffin bottomed" Cradle and was small enough to be portable. I used a replica of Lord's Cradle for many years to teach mining history to 4th Graders by giving demonstrations in front of my shop, complete with dirt, water and of course....gold!.

Hands-on California History Lesson
Yours Truly and Eager 4th Graders

                                  What is a Cradle or Rocker ?

     For those that don't know, here is one description of a Cradle from 1861, my additions to the description are in italics, ( "Mining in the Pacific States of North America", John S. Hittell, pg. 129) "It resembles, in size and shape, a child's cradle, has similar rockers, and is rocked in a similar manner; whence the name. The cradle box is a wooden trough, about twenty inches wide and forty long, with sides four inches high. The lower end is left open ( the cradle is placed on a slope with the open end being lower). On the upper end sits a hopper or riddle, which is a box twenty inches square, with sides four inches high, and a bottom of sheet iron or zinc, pierced with numerous holes, half an inch in diameter ( the hopper is where you put the dirt and by pouring water on it and rocking the machine, begin the process of separating the gold from the surrounding earth). Under the hopper is an apron of wood or cloth, which slopes down from the lower end of the hopper to the upper end of the cradle box ( the apron deflects the dirt that washed through the hopper, forcing it to the back of the machine). A strip of wood an inch square, called a riffle bar, is nailed across the bottom of the cradle box, about its middle, and another at its lower end ( the riffle bars are like little dams to trap the heavier gold as it is released from the surrounding earth on its way to the open end). Under the bottom of the cradle box are nailed two rockers, so that a rocking motion may be given to the machine." One thing worth noting here is the size of the machine, rather small and very portable but that might not be the way they started out. Read on !

Basic Tools of the Gold Rush Miner
Note the Cradle at the Bottom
Drawing by Fritz Wikersheim, Circa 1850
Image Courtesy Bancroft Library

     It's generally agreed upon by historians, that the Cradle was introduced to California by the Georgia miner Issac Humphrey, who built the first one sometime around March 9th, 1848, on the American River( Bancroft, "History of California" Vol. VI 1848-1859, Chapter V, pg. 67).  It was recently brought to my attention by my friend Nelson Snook, that there is a noteworthy challenge to this supposed fact, that deserves attention. What I'm interested in exploring besides who gets the credit, is the origin of the machine itself. Granted, it saw service in the Georgia Gold Rush of 1829 but it wasn't invented there and certainly not by Humphrey, as some have claimed. I feel that the European miners who participated in the Georgia Gold Rush would certainly have used the technology they brought with them, but how did it all come together in California?

                           The Challenge to Humphrey

      The challenge to Issac Humphrey's title as the "first" to employ a cradle in California, comes from one of the Mormon laborers working on Sutter's mill. James Stephens Brown was an eyewitness to the beginnings of the Gold Rush and he wrote in his reminiscence, ( "California Gold", pg 14) published in 1894, " Alexander Stephens dug out a trough, leaving the bottom round like a log.........he commenced to rock the trough, which led to the idea of a rocker.......The rocker above mentioned led to the renowned gold rocker; I am under the impression that Stephens did make the first rocker ever used in California." Brown doesn't actually say when this happened and is only under the impression that this was the first rocker.

     Henry William Bigler ( another eyewitness) noted in his diary ( "Bigler's Chronicle of the West", Erwin G. Gudde, pg. 109) that "Elie (Alexander) Stephens dug out a wooden dish that he used to wash in..." This recounting of the mill workers using whatever was available for mining tools, is dated April 13, 1848, more than a month after Humphrey was cradling on the American River. Kenneth Owens in "Gold Rush Saints" (pg. 128) speculates "...Alexander Stephens, who had perhaps spent time in western Georgia's placer mining districts..." could quite possibly have built the first cradle, as Brown claimed. Stephens was actually from North Carolina and it's possible he might have participated in the region's gold rush.  We may never know for sure who deserves the full credit for the first cradle, as there may have been several "firsts" as the mining region expanded beyond the American River.

     So, what exactly did a North Carolina / Georgia cradle look like? The best account I have found to date comes from the "American Journal of Science and Arts", 1st series XIII, 1828 ("Remarks on the Gold Mines of North Carolina", Charles E.Roth, pg 208-209) " A rocker is a simple machine, made of inch,or three quarter inch plank, in the shape of a cylinder equally divided lengthwise. A common barrel thus bisected would, in form, make two of these rockers, though they would be rather smaller than is common. The rocker is placed on two poles, laid on the ground parallel with each other, and crosswise to the rocker, one near each end, so as to make it rock easily and regularly." The text goes on to describe the use of a dipper for adding water and a common hoe to stir the saturated earth as it moves along the incline. There is no mention of a sieve and / or riffles to catch the gold. It states that the fine gold was picked out with the point of a knife! What is fascinating to me is the primitive simplicity of this rocking trough even though more advanced machines existed before and during this time. Read on for more !

                                  The Earliest Origins of the Cradle

16th Century Gold Mining
Book VIII, Page 326
De Re Metallica

      The most compelling evidence I've uncovered for the origin of the cradle, comes from the first mining technology handbook, printed in 1556. Georgius Agricola published "De Re Metallica as a "Biographical Introduction, Annotations and Appendices upon the Development of Mining Methods, Metallurgucal Processes, Geology, Mineralogy & Mining Law from the earliest times to the 16th Century." It would have been too easy to open the book and find my proto-Cradle, but what I did discover instead was that the European Renaissance miner, used  machines that would have been recognizable to any 49er. Most appear to be simple sluices with staged riffles and some have attached riddle boxes or sieves at the upper end. I feel these machines have an ancestoral connection to what would become the Cradle and even the Long Tom, but the Tom's history is another story.

17th Century Gold Mining
From "The Miner's Own Book"
Note the Rocking Riddle Box

     Another enticing piece of the puzzle is in "The Miners' Own Book : California Mining ", published in 1858. On page 28 is an illustration of Placer Mining two hundred years ago. That would put it at 1658, a little later than De Re Metallica. It looks like the engraving might have been taken from an original illustration but no source is given. What makes this important is that the miners are rocking what appears to be the riddle box, suspended from chains. This addition of motion is a strong clue for the "rocking" aspect of our Cradle.

Oscar Willis' Ore Washer
Patented Sept. 5, 1832
Image Courtesy Google Patent Search

     Chris Worick of the Lumpkin County Georgia Historical Society suggested I look into early mining machine patents that pre-date the California Gold Rush. I discovered that several were the result of the Southern mining experience. Oscar Willis' "Ore Washer" patented Sept. 5, 1832 ( pat. 7222X) caught my eye, as it had many of the features of the 1658 apparatus and suggests that the earlier knowlege was available and understood.

      In the 1658 illustration's associated text, we have the perfect statement regarding the so called advancement of mining technology, ".....that most new discoveries are mere recoveries of things of value from the oblivion of past ages." So, in closing I would say that the Cradle's ancestry is very likely multi-cultural as it's clearly a child born of the world-wide pursuit of the "yellow stuff" but its actual origin might be lost in the murky shadows of the past. I'll just keep looking for clues.

                                      The First California Cradle

        So, what did that first Cradle built by Issac Humphrey or even Stephens really look like ? There is evidence that it may have been a little different than what we are use to seeing in later period images. Since no one was there with a camera or sketch pad when the Gold Rush was revolutionized with machinery, we must rely on someone's observations. My friend Derek Manov reminded me to dig into the highly detailed letters written by U.S.Consul to California, Thomas O. Larkin. ( "The Larkin Papers", Vol. VII, pg. 301-302)  Larkin wrote in a letter to James Buchanan (Sect. of State), dated June 28th, 1848, " These men...had two machines, each made from one hundred feet of boards,......made similar to a child's cradle ten feet long without ends." Later in the same letter he says, " I at last purchased a log dug out, with a riddle and seive made of willow boughs on it..... . My Californian has told me since, that himself, partner and two Indians obtained with this canoe eight ounces ...."

     Another reliable witness to the earliest cradles, was Jacques Antoine Moerenhout. Monsieur Moerenhout was the French consul at Monterey and when he heard about the discovery of Gold on the American River, he booked it to the diggins' as soon as he could. His reports back to the French goverment are full of details about those amazing first months of the Gold Rush. Moerenhout's observations are a little later than Larkin's and it appears that he is seeing less rude machines with metal riddles instead of woven willows. He states,("The Inside Story of the Gold Rush", part 2, pg. 18)  ".....these are wooden troughs or boxes that have exactly the form of a dugout canoe, but open at one end. This trough or dugout is 12 or 14 feet long and inside it pieces of wood or ribs are nailed or fastened, running across it at intervals of a foot or 15 inches, exactly like the ribs of a boat.......On top, at the front of the machine is affixed another box which is about two feet long of the same width as the machine and fits on it. At the bottom of this box is an iron grate or simply a sheet of copper, tinplate or iron (perforated) with holes from half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter."  What got me excited about these descriptions were the references to"dugout canoes" when describing the Cradle's forms and their enormous lengths.

A Miner With His Very Primitve Cradle
That Appears to Be a Dugout Log
Drawn By John Woodhouse Audubon in 1850

     In another account, Henry Vizetelly ( "Four Months Among the Gold-Finders, Being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold District", Chapter X) wrote in his diary, ".... building our cradles, or "gold canoes," as the Indians called them.....". Once again, Vizetelly's words support the idea that the "canoe" reference was understood. What I'm getting from this, is that these earliest Cradles ( and possibly later ones) were apparently crafted from hollowed-out logs ( like a dugout). Also, because of the natural roundness of the log, they could be rocked easily (no need for added rockers). They were apparently larger and more primitive than the later, more portable and carefully constructed versions, yet more sophisticated (with riddles and riffles) than the 1828 North Carolina versions. The rapid evolution of this machine in the California gold fields, was likely due to the increasing availability of sawn lumber, the restless prospector's need for mobility and his determination to improve on past technology.

      By late 1849-50, the Cradle's status as the primary mining tool of choice in California was soon diminished by more efficient devices like the Long Tom , but it continued to be used in small scale mining operations for many years to come by Chinese miners and others. The cradle, with its highly recognizable form, continues to this day to evoke the very spirit of a Gold Rush and as those 4th Graders always tell me, it's just "way cool"  fun to work one.

 The Chinese in California
Were Known to Favor Cradling 
Which They Excelled At 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another Chapter in Early Pipe Lore, Or How They Kept Their Clays Safe

     While investigating the early history of pipe smoking, I frequently found speculation on the supposed disposability of clay pipes. One writer even claimed that a smoker would break several a day and never worry about it because they were so throw-away cheap. Clumsy brute ! In my humble opinion, the enormous number of broken pipes found by archaeologists, is just a testament to their inherently fragile nature and a reminder of the once widespread popularity of smoking in general.

"The Card Players"
 by Josse van Craesbeek 1645
Note the Pipe in the Hat
Image Courtesy of the Getty Museum

     So how exactly did the early smoker keep his or her clay pipe safe ? There is no doubt, as evidence suggests, that some folks just tucked their pipes into their hat bands, keeping them out of harms way until needed. Period imagery supports the idea that in the early 19th Century, some Native Americans wore their clay pipes attached to a small tobacco pouch suspended from their necks. Contemporarily, fur trappers did the same with their Gage d'Amour pouches, supposedly crafted by their native brides.

A Fur Trapper Painted by Alfred Jacob Miller in 1837
Note His Heart-Shaped Gage d'Amour
Pouch and Clay Pipe

Delaware Chief  Tish - Co - Han
By McKenny Hall
Image Courtesy Philadelphia Print Shop

    My interest peaked when I discovered that begining in the 17th Century and far into the 19th, many smokers used specifically designed and carefully crafted wooden ( and occasionally metal ) cases to protect their pipes. This notion of a specially designed case challenges the disposability theory and  instead, celebrates the sensibility of our ancestors, a notion I always appreciate. I felt a project coming but first I would need a great pipe to build a case around.

    A few years back, I learned about Heather Coleman and her clay pipes. Heather lives in the UK and has a studio called Dawnmist. One of her many talents is to craft historic clay pipes that I believe are some of the most authentic out there. Many of today's replica clays are made of clay slip, poured in a mold, unlike the originals that were formed by pressing solid clay in a mold. The difference is obvious when you compare the two. Heather makes hers in the traditional manner, so I went ahead and ordered her classic 17th Century example, copied from 1630-1670 originals.

Heather Coleman's 1630-1670 Clay Pipes
One of those is mine !

     While researching the surviving examples of wooden cases, it became apparent that there were two basic versions defined by how they functioned. You either had a case with a sliding lid, that allowed for the pipe's removal from the top or you had a hinged cover variety, with its swinging opening at the bowl end of the pipe case, which allowed for removal out the end. In a museum newsletter on one of my favorite sites, the Dutch Pijpen Kabinet, there was a discussion of a recently aquired pipe case having the "earlier" style sliding lid. I also found several sliding lid examples from a Christies Auction, identified as 18th Century. Some of these were carved to resemble pistols. Way cool ! Many cases appear to be professionally carved and were most likley products of specialized shops.

Three Examples of the "Sliding Lid" Variety
Image Coutesy Christies

A Classic Example of the "Hinged End" Variety
Image Courtesy Christies

     I did discover a more homey "whittled" version of the sliding top, pistol form case, on a fantastic French Archaeology site called La Natiere. This little treasure was recovered from the wreck of the frigate La Dauphine, which was lost in 1704. As a bonus, the case still held its clay pipe. Isn't that amazing ! I'm sure the sailor who made it was quite proud of his work. It also proves that some cases were home-made.

Top View of Sailor's Pipe Case from the Wreck of La Dauphine 1704
Image Courtesy of La Natiere

Bottom View
Image Courtesy La Natiere

    At this point in the process, I decided to make my version of a pipe case as a sliding lid variety. I chose a piece of easy-to-carve cedar for my first attempt, even though most of the originals seem to be boxwood or fruitwood. Before my pipe arrived, I scaled a paper template from Heather's photo of it and crafted the main two parts of the case. The hardest part was getting the tapered channels to fit properly in order for the sliding lid to function.

First Stage of the Case Replica
Roughly Profiled and Lid Fitted
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

      It didn't go unoticed that the sailor's version had an ingenious swinging slide design that kept the lid attached. I decided to make my lid removable as was suggested by other examples. This is all guesswork, you know, as I rarely get to study original examples in person.

Pipe Arrives !! Now the Interior is Hollowed Out
and the Form is More Rounded

    This is one of those projects that needs to evolve to some unknown point. I'm not sure if I should do some decorative chip carving on this one, or make another case from hardwood.  Okay.....let's finish this one with some beginner chip carving and worry about a "better" case later.

Ta - Da, It's Done and Not Too Bad
But I Love the Pipe !

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Journey to Recreate a 17th Century Pipe Tong or Smoker's Companion

     When I was researching the material for my 17th century conviviality post, I came across a curious object associated with pipe smoking in the period. I'm familiar with the notion of lighting a pipe with an ember and surviving examples of rather large,18th century pipe / ember tongs are well known but it appears that a smaller, pocket-size version may have come first. These smaller tongs are absent from the Dutch still life paintings I studied but I felt it was worth investigating their part in early smoking culture. One thing that got me interested, was the overwhelming evidence for their use in early colonial America. It's very likely that many were created by colonial craftsmen.

Painting of a German Smoker
 Using (large) Tongs to Light His (large) Pipe
  Image Courtesy of pijpenkabinet

    After surveying many examples recovered by archaeologists, I began to wonder if any completely intact versions had survived "above ground". Archaelogists call these little tools Smoker's Companions as they were apparently designed for multiple functions. I discovered that the Jefferson Patterson Park site has an archaeology section with a "Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland" chapter devoted to helping identify Smoker's Companions. Even though many of the featured examples are degraded relics, it's interesting to see the variety of interpretations of this object. A classic version of the tool was found at Jamestown and is posted on their Preservation Virginia site. The fact is, these small, iron objects seem to turn up in 17th century sites all over the east.

 Smoker's Companion, Before and After Lab Treatmennt
Image Courtesy of Crista Alejandre's
flickr Photostream

A Smoker's Companion Found at Jamestown
Image Courtesy preservationvirginia.org

A Nice Example From a Maryland Site
Image Courtesy jefpat.org

     The hunt was on, as I needed to find a more complete example if I was going to make an accurate reproduction. I love the internet when it works and this is a perfect case of why it's worth digging. The example I dreamed of turned up on a relic hunter's forum called treasurenet and lucky for me the owner had posted multiple views of his find.  It was truly a wonder to see a nearly 400 year old iron object so perfectly preserved, even though it had come out of the ground.

     As mentioned earlier, historians have speculated that this tool had multiple functions, not the least of which was its use as a flint striker to spark that neccessary ember. The larger mass of the lower part of most examples does suggests a striker. It's easy to understand the tong function and the turned up and rounded end of the upper handle definitely looks like it could be used as a tamper. Every pipe smoker knows, you need a tamper (or as they called them in the 1600's, stoppers). Lastly, the larger, rounded paddle end of the lower handle has lead to speculation that it functioned as a reamer to clean the clay pipe bowl. Sounds reasonable, don't you think, except when you consider how tiny some of the early pipe bowls were.

The Holy Grail, Lucky Me
Lucky Bob !
Image Courtesy of Bob and treasurenet.com

    So, armed with some idea of size, form and function, it was time to make my own version of this fascinating object. Let me start by saying that I am no blacksmith but I know enough to begin with a sample of high-carbon, hardend steel for the lower, "striker" part of the tool. This came in the form of a 1/4 inch thick leaf spring scrap I scored from work. With an abrasive blade on my saw, I cut out a roughly shaped piece to start . With the help of an acetylene torch, the piece was twisted on one end to roughly define the reamer. By heating the piece, I also removed some of the temper. This really helped, as I was looking at a lot of grinding and filing to bring out the final shape. The upper part of the tool was challenging for different reasons, with its sculptural form and decorative elements. For this I used a piece of 1/4 mild steel stock, which was a lot easier to work with than that old leaf spring.

The Main Two Parts of My Replica, Near Finished,
With Templates and Remaining Scrap
Photo Courtesy Lindy Miller 2011

     After the rough shaping and some tweeks (with the aid of a torch) I filed the two pieces to their final shape and sanded their surface to a near polish. The next step was to heat the lower part to the critical temp and quench in oil. My research pointed to quenching the striker area first and then later lowering the remaining part into the oil. This would hopefully harden the working part (striking surface) more and leave a little temper in the rest. Following this came the final polish of all parts with varying grits of abrasive paper. After riveting the spring in place, the main parts were joined by peening over the pivot pin.

My Replica Version of a Smoker's Companion
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Now that was a fun project but with all the filing and shaping, it's no wonder these tiny tongs aren't all over the place as reproductions. Now....where's my pipe, I want to try this thingy out !

    Try it out I did, and here's what I learned about a possible way they lit their pipes when a ready source of fire was absent. There is a specific technique that works well when trying to ignite Amadou or Tinder Fungus with flint and steel. Once you've figured it out, it's amazingly simple. I had previously purchased some pieces of this earliest, natural tinder material from Jas. Townsend, so I was ready for the experiment. In one hand I held a nice, sharp shard of flint with a piece of Amadou (about the size of a fingernail ) on top, just back from the edge of the flint. With the pipe tongs in the other hand and the striker surface held out, I struck down on the flint, with the steel. In this manner, you can easily catch a hot spark on the Amadou (it caught on the second try !). With the pincher end of the tongs, I picked off the glowing part of the Amadou (after some gently blowing) and layed it in my clay pipe full of tobacco. WIth a few draws on the pipe, I was puffing away in no time. It might work equally well by just holding on to the ember with the tongs turned sideways and maintain contact with the tobacco until ignition. The Amadou has a pleasant smell when it's burning and didn't conflict with the tobacco's taste at all. Now that was fun and a great lesson about our amazing ancestors.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My "Flags of California History Project" Revisited or Everybody Loves a Parade

     This last weekend, September 10, 2011, the Native Sons of the Golden West sponsored their annual Admission Day Parade in Columbia State Historic Park. The parade commemorates California's Admission to the Union on Sept. 9, 1850. Previous to this year's event, I had been approached by my friend Danette Oydegaard with an idea for a parade entry.

     Danette is the founder and director of the Columbia Girl's Academy and the Columbia Boy's Academy. Through historical studies and living history interpretation, the Academys  promote character building, good citizenship, manners and all sorts of positive stuff for youth. Danette's idea for the parade was to have her students carry my replica historic flags. Her husband Floyd would write a narration to explain the various flags and their importance to our State's history. This would be read to the crowd as the flags passed by in chronological order. The whole thing was a great success and I thought the viewer would enjoy the chance to see the flags in their best context carried by Danette's costumed students.

The Red Star of the Republic Flag
from the Rebellion of 1836
Photos Courtesy Danette Oydegaard

     California has always been a rebellious place and so we start with the 1836 lone red star of the republic flag, commonly refered to as the Juan Alvarado / Issac Graham flag. In 1836 Juan Alvarado, Monterey's customs inspector, overthrows governor Guterrez with the help of American and English firepower under the leadership of Issac Graham. This appearance of a red star of the republic is apparently unique to California. The original flag still exists and is in the collections at the Autry. My replica is about 1/2 scale.

John C. Fremont's American Flag
1842 - 1846

    Next in order is the personal flag of John C.Fremont, "The Great Pathfinder". This flag, which was designed and probably made by John's wife Jessie, was carried on his many expeditions in the west during the 1840's. Family history records that Fremont had it and flew it in California in 1846 in defiance of Mexican authority during the standoff between Fremont's topographical expeditionary force and General Jose Castro's soldiers. The original flag survives and is in the collections at the Autry. My replica is full size.

Peter Storm / Nancy Kelsey Bear Flag

    Now comes a very obscure flag that deserves some attention. This is possibly the first flag created during the stirrings of the Bear Flag revolt. The story goes that Peter Storm and Nancy Kelsey stayed back at Bale Mill and crafted this flag as the rest of the party of Americans marched on Sonoma. After the capture of Sonoma on June 14, 1846, Storm and Kelsey arrived with the flag but it was cooly received. It may or may not have flown on the pole in the plaza until replaced by the Todd flag. There is no conclusive evidence that any of this is true but you can certainly see how it might have influenced the final Bear Flag or been influenced by it.  My replica is based on the photo of Peter Storm and his flag, taken late in his life. The student carrying the sign somehow got out of order on this one.

William L. Todd Bear Flag of the California Republic

    Next is everybody's favorite, the William Levi Todd Bear Flag. It was crafted sometime on or around June 14, 1846 as a statement of rebellion against Mexican authority in California. As the symbol of the Bear Flag Revolt and the banner of the California Republic, it flew on the pole in the Sonoma Plaza until replaced by the Stars and Stripes on July 9, 1846. This flag has a long and curious history ( which you can read in an earlier post) and is the ancestor of our contemporary State flag with its updates and improvements. One interesting thing was the use of the red star for the republic. Did the Bear flaggers remember the Alvarado incident, or was the star inspired by the Republic of Texas ?

31 Star National Flag
1850 (officially recognized July 4, 1851)

       And last but never least is the 31 star flag of The United States of America. I like to call it my 62 star flag as I appliqued the stars on both sides of the canton. California is the 31st State and was admitted into the Union of States on September 9, 1850. If you want to read about my replica, you should go to my first post on this blog. Note the liberty cap on the top of the pole courtesy of Danette Oydegaard. A nice 19th century touch. Good Show boys and girls of the Academys !!  Thank You Mrs. Oydegaard !!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Take on Ancestor Worship and Celebrating 17th Century Conviviality

      This particular post explores a recent interest of mine to learn a little more about the lives of my colonial ancestors. It also combines my curiosity about tobacco history, early American material culture and even Dutch "still life" paintings of the 17th century. Which by the way, are incredible documents of past life.

     My earliest American ancestor was Robert Ellyson ( my 10th great grandfather). Sometimes listed as Dr. or Capt. Ellyson. He was a Scot who came to the Colonies in 1643 and did quite well for himself. It's recorded that he was a barber / surgeon, militia captain, high-sheriff of James City County and later a Burgess through the 1650's. I have no doubt he was a Virginia Tidewater planter too, as history records that he paid his debts in tobacco. I began to wonder what it would have been like to sit at a table with my predecessor and discuss colonial politics over a glass of German wine and a pipe of fine Virginia tabac? Hmmmm.

A Classic Toebackje Painting by Pieter Claesz circa 1636
Many of the Objects Depicted are Discussed Below

    I thought it would be challenging to create a three-dimensional version of a Dutch golden age vanitas style painting as an exploration of 17th century material culture.  With the focus of my creation being "conviviality", the type of painting know as Toebackje was a perfect choice. Generally, Toebackje paintings depict contemporary smoking and drinking related objects. They were very popular in their time and I think some of the best were painted by Pieter Claesz ( 1597-1660).

Another Claesz Masterpiece
Showing Brazier, Fidibus, Tobacco Box,
 Berkemeyer Style Glass and of Course, Clay Pipes

     The first order of business was to identify the objects in the paintings and decide whether I should attempt to replicate them or find authentic reproductions that already exist. Mid-to-late 17th century style clay pipes are readily available today as reproductions, so I purchased one from Columbia Booksellers and Stationers.

     During this time period, there were many styles of clay vessels used to ship and serve liquid refreshment. Since I wasn't trying to copy any one painting exactly but still wanted to make good choices, I began to research some of my possible options. With the Dutch paintings as a basis for my selections, I learned about the world wide trade in this type of stoneware and discovered it was produced in different regions of Europe. One of the styles that caught my eye, were the Bartmann jugs from the Rhineland. Many of these 17the century stoneware jugs have been found by archaelogists in early American colonial settlement sites so they seemed like a good choice for my project.

Bartmann Jug from Jamestown Virginia
image courtesy historicjamestowne.org

      Lucky for me, Bartmann Jugs have been reproduced by several people for a number of years. I discovered a modern potter named J.Henderson Artifacts who replicates many early period styles. My timing was perfect as he had a fine, salt glazed example of the classic jug, bearded man and all, in stock. It turned out to be a very nice replica indeed and at a good price.

My Replica Bartmann Jug from J. Henderson
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Next in line was an appropriate piece of glassware to hold that spirit. As I surveyed a number of paintings, it seemed a toss-up between the Berkemeyer Style with its flared form and spikey prunts or the more rounded Roemer Style. These are being reproduced today but aren't easily found. Lady luck smiled on me again when I visited Goose Bay Workshops  and found a beautiful Roemer style glass ( maker unknown)  in their "sale" section.

My Roemer Replica
Courtesy of Goose Bay Workshops

    One of the objects in these paintings that was unfamiliar to me, were the small, unglazed and footed bowls that appear to be holding coals or embers. It turned out that these "Braziers" were the source of fire to light your pipe and were in common use by smokers. Remember, matches are 170 years in the future, so one way to transfer the fire to the pipe was by igniting a tightly rolled piece of paper known as a Fidibus. Another choice was to use a Spall, which was a sulphur tipped splint. Both are seen in bundles in many of the paintings. As this great drawing by Adriaen van Ostade shows, sometimes smokers just tipped their pipes into the braziers to catch the fire.

image courtesy wikimedia

      I decided that the brazier was something I could reproduce although I have never thrown a pot in my life. Truth is, no one is currently reproducing period stoneware braziers, so I really had no choice.

Original 17th Century Stoneware Brazier
Collection of the National Pipe Museum
in the Netherlands

     Don Duco, curator of the National Pipe Museum, in the Netherlands, was very helpful to send me the dimensions of an original 17th century brazier in their collection. After the purchase of some clay and with access to a borrowed potter's wheel, I bravely jumped into a new craft. Their is no substitute for patience or experience and my first attempts at this little crude bowl were horrible. After struggling along for a couple of hours at the wheel, (centering the clay is the hardest)  I finally threw four passable examples. After air curing for 2 weeks, I fired the best two in my wife's kiln. To my great surprise, I was rewarded for my efforts with two fairly decent braziers. What Luck !

My Replica 17th Century Braziers
I liked the one on the left best
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Moving right along the list of neccessities for this project, I started looking into tobacco boxes. My research discovered that in general, most were small ( 3"-4") during this time period. Historians feel this was likely due to the cost of tobacco in the 1600's. It makes sense when you consider that the contemporary pipe bowls were equally tiny. A popular shape for the boxes was oval but I also discovered octagon forms and no doubt there were others. Materials for these boxes could be metals like silver, brass, copper, pewter or even lead. Wooden varieties are rarer but it's most likely due to their frailty that few survived to the present. I'm sure that there were horn and even papier mache versions but I didn't find any that were dated to my period.

  Original  Brass Tobacco Box with Engraved Sentiment from 1672
Image Courtesy independent.co.uk

 Late 17th Century Tobacco Box and Pipes
Image Courtesy history.org

     At first I thought I might luck-out and turn up a good replica box but I couldn't find exactly what I wanted. I decided to go ahead and create my own interpretation in brass. Using the information I collected from existing boxes, I chose my pattern and made a cardstock mock-up. Once I was satisfied with the shape, I transfered the pattern to the sheet brass and cut out the parts. I free-formed the domed shape of the top and bottom first and then rolled their edges down to form a lip. By first annealing (heating and quenching) the cut-out pieces to a workable state, it's easy to hammer-raise the domed shape. I use a rawhide mallet and a solid, rounded form for a backing. After the form work was completed, I hard-soldered the joints that would be stressed (hinge parts and band joint) and soft-soldered the rest (top and bottom). I think it turned out pretty sweet. I just wish I knew how to engrave, as many of the originals are embellished with sayings, scenes etc.

My Interpretation of a Tobacco Box
Rear View
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

Front View

     So when all was said and done, I assembled my version of a classic 17th century scene that hopefully reflects the same "frozen in time" feeling of those incredible Dutch masterpieces. I think my Virginia ancestor would find it quite familiar, maybe even inviting. What do you think?


Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Great Button Story and a Shirt Tale Too

     When one considers the vast world of antique buttons, even with the myriad of styles, forms, materials and eras to choose from, it's still hard to resist the charm of the humble, unassuming "china calico". These endearing and colorfully decorated china buttons were manufactured from the 1840's to the early 1900's, in hundreds of patterns ( 326 according to The National Button Society) and a multitude of colors and sizes. In their day, they were known as fancy agate buttons but their resemblance to the patterns of calico fabric eventually led to their current title.

China Calico Buttons
Image Courtesy National Button Society

     The briefest history of calicos I can assemble is that these buttons were first produced in England by Minton and Prosser, followed by a short-lived American version, courtesy of Charles Cartlidge & Co. But by far, the largest and most successful producer was Jean-Felix Bapterosse of Briare, France. At its peak, his factory was producing almost a million china buttons a day! Today's button scholars agree that the 10,000 calico buttons salvaged from the 1856 wreck of the Steamboat Arabia, were most likley made by Bapterosse. That large a number of calico buttons, on a steamboat heading to the American frontier, is an undeniable testament to their popularity and common use. The late period china calicos were produced in Bavaria by Gehr. Redlhammer and others, in limited colors and patterns but still resembled the earlier examples.

A Sample of the Thousands of Calico Buttons From
The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City.

     So, there's your calico button history lesson but what does this have to do with the theme of my blog, you ask ? What follows is one of the best success stories of reproducing an historical object that I'm aware of. This success was achieved by one of the most dedicated and driven people I know, my wife Lindy and can now be told, after the fact, with her approval. I was very fortunate to help in this project but the credit goes to Lindy Miller as the first person to successfully replicate and market new china calico buttons in a hundred years.

     Since the early 1980's, I had occasionally purchased original calico buttons when I found them at swap meets or antique shops. It wasn't a large collection but more like a nice sampling. After I became a docent at Columbia State Historic Park in 1991, my interest in period dress lead to my eventual co-chairmanship of the costume committee. My female counterpart was Lindy Dubner, who had a long history of interest in 19th century clothing. Lindy's first encounter with calico buttons came when I showed her an original mid-19th century woman's dress that I owned. The dress was made from a rather plain, brown cotton calico but it has all of its original green calico buttons. In addition to the dress, I also brought along my sample collection of loose buttons. It's fair to say she was forever smitten by those tiny charmers and the stage was set for what was to follow.

Our Original Chile-n-Cracker's Logo

      In 1997, Lindy and I became romantically involved and decided to redirect our destinys based on mutual love and respect for each other and history. Part of that new life was to move to Nevada and pool our creative ideas and talents, forming a history driven team. We founded Chile-n-Cracker's Reproductions as a new source for accurate replica goods for use in Living History. As you might have guessed, one of our first projects was to figure out how to reproduce calico buttons. Research had provided the information on how the "original" buttons were produced but we needed to find a way to create the same product with more available technology. Everyone we talked to in the ceramics hobby encouraged experimentation as the best way to develop a technique and formula for creating buttons in quantity.

      In the 19th Century, the buttons were formed by pressing powdered clay into metal molds under tremendous pressure, following Richard Prosser's 1840 Patented process. Lindy finally decided to make her version using clay slip that she could pour into a gang mold. Each of her button blanks were stamped or impressed on the back with the letter "L" to distinguish them from originals. The next step was the removal of the casting sprues and then they were set aside to air dry. After they were bone dry, each was hand drilled with four holes and checked for shape. Next came a clear glaze and then their first firing in the kiln.

One of the Sample Books of Lindy's Buttons
The Chile-n-Cracker's Buttons Catalog Sheet ( Printed by Will Dunniway)
and a Sample Card of Buttons
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     In the original buttons' production process, colored patterns were applied using the transfer method that employed tissue paper, printed with the desired design. The tissue was dampened and patted down on the buttons before they were fired in the kiln. Lindy chose modern, water-transfered ceramic decals, created from her artwork. These tiny decals were applied to the button blanks before the final firing fixed the design. This careful and tedious 9 step procedure was repeated over and over and over for each button, regardless of their size.

A Close-up of the Sample Card
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     After some nice publicity in Victoria and Threads magazines, the orders started to roll in. We ran several ads in reenactor mags but the response from the living history community was surprisingly cool. Most of the early orders were for modern use on contemporary garments and jewelry. It was a little discouraging that reenactors were slow to see their value but we knew our research was solid. In fact, this is where the shirt tale begins ( remember this post's title ?) as it is a very important part of the story.

Original Calico Shirt with Calico Buttons
Formerly in the Collection of Bill Brown III
Photos Courtesy of Whitaker Auctions

     Saundra Altman of Past Patterns was a champion of Lindy's repro calico buttons from the very start. She saw the value in their use as a wonderful period choice for garments made from her accurate patterns. Sometime before Lindy and I went back east in 1999, Saundra suggested that we contact the late Bill Brown at the National Parks Center in Harpers Ferry Virginia. Mr. Brown owned an original mid-19th century man's printed calico cotton shirt with its original calico buttons. This was a great opportunity to study the use of the buttons on men's clothing. When we got to Virginia, it was worth a shot to try and see this rare bird and after only a phone call introduction, Mr. Brown was kind enough to bring the shirt to the Center for us to view the following day. It was an amazing chance to study a rare survivor and even though we weren't allowed to photograph the shirt ( Bill Brown's book, "Thoughts on Men's Shirts in America, 1750-1900" hadn't been released yet), the owner kindly provided a picture for us to have. When Mr. Brown's book was released, not only was the shirt featured but he provided measurements as well.

Close-up of Original Shirt's Cuff
Showing the Calico Button

     Years later I decided that it would be fun to make a close-copy of this shirt if I could find a cotton print that was similar enough. I had already tucked away a set of Lindy's buttons and when I finally found some repro shirting that was at least in the same family of prints, I finally made my copy. The original shirt is completely hand sewn and rather casually constructed. The pleats in the bosom vary in width enough to be almost random. Thanks to Mr. Brown's attention to details and the accuracy of the drawings in his book, I was able to pull off a pretty sweet shirt. Having a "great" set of buttons didn't hurt.

My Version of the Shirt With Matching Replica Buttons

Close-up of My Shirt's Cuff Showing Lindy's Button

Bill Brown's Book on Men's Shirts
Photo Courtesy Amazon

     This is not where the "shirt tale" ends though, a few years ago, Mr. Brown's historic clothing collection was auctioned off and we were the lucky bidders on the man's calico shirt. It is an incredible piece of history and will be studied by us for many years to come. We continue to collect original 19th Century garments with calico buttons, even though they are few and far between. The common, everyday garments of the past are rarely found today.

     As far as the final chapter on Lindy's replica calicos, after 5 years of production and thousands of buttons made one at a time, by hand, she no longer produces them. One of her favorite customers was the gift shop at the Steamboat Arabia Museum and one of her best customers was Grandmother's Buttons, a jewelry business in Louisiana. She even made a pilgrimage to Briare France to visit the Bapterosse factory, still going strong but now making tiles. I told you she was dedicated ! For those that enjoyed Lindy's efforts and are lucky enough to have some of her buttons, we thank you for your support and appreciation.