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

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Eureka Moments Revisited, Part 6, "A Pocket Full of Rocks."

     During the California Gold Rush, some hopeful argonauts would brag about returning home with a "pocket full of rocks". This saying suggests a clothing pocket stuffed with nuggets but it might be the archaic use of the word "pocket", defined as a bag or poke.

The Routine Ritual of Weighing the Gold Dust
(and other pursuits)
note the gold bag on the table
Image Courtesy artknowledgenews.com

     After the precious dust, flakes and nuggets were wrestled from the earth, miners were faced with the problem of how to safely store their reward. Back in March of 2011, I posted on Gold Porters (vests) but barely touched on the leather bag or poke, used for storing raw gold. In this post, I will explore the subject a little more and talk about the replica bags, I've made.

     Very little has been written about this simple leather bag, so I'm left to my own speculations and conclusions. By studying surviving examples, I began to see similar features, but no two are exactly alike. There were commercially made versions and they may have been standardized (one example is featured in this post), but the evidence suggests that many were homemade.

Original Gold Bags
One in the Foreground Has a Name and Number
Image Source Unknown

    The basic form is an elongated  tube with a rounded bottom. Many are made of one piece of leather with a side seam that continues down one side and around the bottom. Some examples have a separate, second piece for the bottom. Most all have welted seams, with a strip of leather sandwiched between the two sewn sides. I'm no expert when it comes to leather identification but soft buckskin seems to have been a popular choice. From photos of originals and the few that I've had the chance to study, it appears that the flesh side of the leather was turned to the outside and the smoother, hair side ended up on the inside. This makes perfect sense, as you wouldn't want your gold dust clinging to rough side of the leather. Finally, the string ties used to close the bag, were occasionally attached at the side seam during construction and located near the opening of the bag.

An Original Gold Bag with Evidence of Wax Seals
Source, Online Auction

     An interesting clue as to how these bags were used, is the telltale bits of sealing wax that seem to decorate many original bags. After the bag was tied shut and weighed, sealing wax would be dripped on the string ties to deter tampering during shipment. In the example shown, the seals were probably intended to identify the handlers prior to or during shipping as they are not near where the ties would be. You will also see original bags with a name, location and the amount of gold, written on the outside in ink (see "California's Best", Brad & Brian Whitherell, pg. 115 for several examples).

Unused Original Gold Bag
Manufactured for and Sold by
John C. Morrison Jr. & Co. S.F. Cal.
Circa Mid-1850's
Source, Online Auction

     Not long ago, a facinating gold bag appeared on an online auction. It turned up far away from the California gold fields and in unused condition. What made this bag interesting to me, was how well it was marked.
Near the open end of the bag, is the stamp of John C. Morrison, Jr. & Co.  Mr. Morrison is listed as an "importer" in the San Francisco directory of 1852-1853, but at a different address than the stamp. Since the label claims "Manufactured expressly for", the bag might have been discovered near it's orignal source and never actually made the trip West.

Close-up of Original Label
on the Morrison Bag

     After I made my replica of the Morrison bag, I tried a little experiment to simulate the printed label found on the original. Using Microsoft Word, I composed a facsimile of the label with similar typefaces and shrunk it to size. My wife then reversed the image on her computer. I printed this final example on our copier, with the ink set to dark. With the printed label face down on the finished bag, I pressed the back side of the paper with a hot iron for a few seconds, to transfer the image to the leather. I think it worked quite nicely as an impression of the original.

    A little trick I learned while making my replica bags, (purists, please forgive me) is to carefully apply Aleene's Tacky Glue to hold the layers of leather together at the seam, before punching the holes and hand sewing with waxed linen thread. The object is to use only enough glue along the outer edge of the three layers to hold them until they're secured with a tight, overcast stitch. Once the bag is turned to the outside, you can carefully trim the welt back with sharp scissors and hopefully no glue will show.

My Replica Bags
Photo Lindy Miller 2012

    Of the three replica bags in the picture, my favorite is the J. App & Co. from Jamestown. The original is on display at the Museum in Columbia State Historic Park and secured in a case.  I could only guess the dimensions but still managed to pull off a decent replica. I love the hand lettering and how it dissapears into the seam. To me, this suggests that the bag was most likely locally made as the inking was done before the seam was stitched.

     It's hard to imagine how many "rocks" it would take to fill one of these large "pockets", let alone the amount of labor to dig them up. Just routine business in Gold Rush California.