Article by Larry Thompson

D

esign is implicit in the making of objects, and it originates with our hands. We are born with these essential, primary tools that shape not just the world around us, but our species, too. With jointed fingers and opposable thumbs, human beings have been able to create everything from simple clay pots to iPads. So it makes sense that Bill Dobson describes the 18th- and 19th-century tools of the agricultural trades in his Montague Tool Museum as natural extensions of the body, and titles his collection “From the Hand of Man.” The design and decoration incorporated into some of the tools suggest that this natural extension applies to the intellect and the creative soul, as well.


Dobson observes that all tools extend the utility of our bodies, sometimes in more ways than one. No single object in his collection makes this point better than a foot-long wooden stick for stirring dye into wool, its red-stained colour darkened by the passage of time. The maker has carefully carved the stir stick in the shape of a hand and forearm, elegant fingers extended, accurately reflecting the original tool—the hand—but freeing the hand from exposure to potentially caustic dye. More than just a useful tool, it is a thing of beauty in its own right.

Walking around the recreated workshop where the collection is housed on Dobson’s farm near Smiths Falls, Ontario, you can see examples of tools intended for the food and agricultural businesses, and the kitchen, fashioned primarily by and for pioneer blacksmiths and woodworkers. Numerous display cases show multiple examples, which help the viewer to understand the difference between strictly utilitarian tools; tools decorated or embellished by their makers or owners; and tools, like the dye hand, in which the design reflects its purpose.

Some tools show the refinement of schooled design while still being handmade. A delicately forged scissor-like iron candle snuffer could easily have graced a patrician home in Europe; when closed, the handles form two elegant swans. It is a highly decorative and clever design that has nothing to do with snuffing candles. The refinements are decorations for decoration’s sake.

There is a long folk tradition of joyous self expression in decorating objects, and Dobson’s collection contains several outstanding examples of this decorative impulse. One noteworthy piece is the block plane used by Renfrew County cabinet maker John Borutski, which has been skillfully carved to form the head and body of a stylized beast, possibly a horse, fox, or dog. Carpenters of the old school often made their own tools, so this heraldic beast was likely carved by Borutski out of a desire to bring another personal level of beauty and pleasure to the means of production, and perhaps also to promote his carving skill to fellow tradesmen and clients alike.

Folk motifs such as hearts, diamonds, and pinwheels appear on several tools in the collection, as well as other potent symbols. A finely made 19th-century ratcheted iron fireplace crane, made for holding pots over the fire, almost certainly originates from French Quebec, with a beautifully formed fleur-de-lys being the prominent decorative feature. Then, as today, it is a symbol packed with nationalistic pride, and laden with meaning. Likewise, throughout the collection, the heart symbol recurs in iron and wood, painted or scribed, carrying with it the suggestion of religious, familial, and romantic love. While not integral to the functioning of the tools, it is a poignant reminder of the sentimental and spiritual life beyond the workday of the labouring craftsman. These hearts can express solemnity, as with hearts conjoined in an iron trivet, or playfulness, like the heart-shaped feet on a boot jack.

Form, function, and beauty sometimes converge when the decorative design reflects the tool’s purpose. What separates one particular whetstone (used for sharpening iron tools) from dozens of others in the collection is a beautiful ivory sperm-whale plaque carved in relief and fixed to the stone’s wooden cover. On its own, the whale makes for a handsome, if somewhat incongruous embellishment, and for several years Dobson believed it to be one of the occasional decorative peculiarities found on tools. Later, he learned that sperm whale oil was used in the 19th century by craftsmen to lubricate their whetstones. The decorative feature thus becomes an understandable and functional part of the tool and its story.

One of Dobson’s favourite pieces in the collection is an 18th-century wool winder—a device used to measure carded wool into skeins. Even well into the 19th century, wool-winders required the operator to count the number of turns made before he or she completed a skein. The inventor behind this winder added a hand-hewn screw to the operation of the machine, which caused a hammer to slowly rise, then drop to sound the completion of a skein. On its own, the invention is clever, but the winder itself is an astonishing example of turned wood craftsmanship. Any plain piece of wood could have been used as the counter strike. But the maker chose to create a strike in the form of a claw-tooth hammer with an exquisitely carved shaft—a reflection of one of the tools used in the making of the piece, and an exceptional example of design.

Be it an eel knife hand-carved in the form of an eel, or a coiled snake forged in iron to scare rodents from the granary, or a heart-shaped trivet, the tools in Dobson’s collection express the social, spiritual, economic, and artistic aspirations of 18th- and 19th-century trades in rural Ontario and Quebec. They demonstrate Dobson’s idea that the tools our ancestors made and used, like those we all use today, are extensions of the hand, the arm, or the entire body. More than this, they show that the tools, with their decorations, embellishments, and designs, are also an extension of the human intellect and creative force.
Montague Tool Museum is located near Smiths Falls, Ontario, and is open to visitors or bus tours by arrangement. For more information, contact Bill Dobson at bdobson@ripnet.com.

Larry Thompson is a freelance writer specializing in antiques, as well as a letterpress printer, printmaker, and proprietor of Greyweathers Press (www.greyweathers.com). He lives in Merrickville, Ontario.

Used to stir dye into wool, the design of this tool reflects and extends the physical hand.

Photograph:
Lorraine Johnson