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cv4 'Remance of~st


Nostalgia, progress, and the meaning of tools
'By '{)onovan Jfohn

Lches above the auctioneer, under the humid ignorance of tools. <lHe has no idea what he's sell-
eaves of an almost empty shed, wasps bounce as ing," Tom keeps whispering to me. A real profes-
if on strings, rending their paper nests. UFolks, sional, he says, would be done by now.
I've been doing this for thirty-five years," the Atop one of three hay wagons, a skinny teenage
auctioneer barks into his wire~ boy with a crew cut stoops
less headset. His voice, am- down to the rusty junk piled
plified by two portable speak- at his feet and hoists a bow saw
ers, crackles across the into the air. It is an exquisite
afternoon. "First thing I ever specimen, just like the ones
auctioned was a birdcage. It I've seen in books. "Lift her up
sold for $1.25. Bidding went nice and high, Ben," the auc~
up by a quarter back then." tioneer says. Bow saws are
He is a short man with a big shaped like the harps angels
gut and a scrunched face, the play in cornie strips. They are
face of a circus clown without both ingenious and primitive,
his makeup on. His denim held together by the tension
newsboy cap matches his den- in a twisted loop of rope.
im suspenders. "God's been "Howaboutabid, twenty,"
good to us so far," he observes, the auctioneer chants. "I've
interrupting his banter to gaze got twenty. Howabourabid,
anxiously at the horizon to the west. "But I'd twenty-five~five-five?Twenty~five. Twenty~seven­
better hurry. I want to beat the rain." and-a-half? Now thirty. Thirty, thirty, thirty?"
After one of the longest winters in recent mem- People have been using versions of the bow
ory, spring has finally arrived in Lower Michigan, saw for hundreds of years, but not until the tum
a fitful, moody spring full of sudden changes. Last of the twentieth century, when motorized jigsaws
night a thunderstonn scattered hailstones across were rendering them obsolete, did anyone think
Washtenaw County. Now the sun is out, steam is to salvage them from the scrap heap and preserve
rising off the fields of timothy and winter wheat, them for posterity. For decades, this particular
and the air smells pleasantly of mud. [f it does saw was as valuable as it was useful to the farmer
smrt raining again, Tom Friedlander will likely who owned it. Then one day the farmer grows
hold the auctioneer personally responsible. All too old to farm, his children excavate the molder-
day Tom has been complaining about this clown's ing contents of his bam, hire an auctioneer, the
lack of professionalism, his fondness for banter, his auctioneer runs advertisements in local papers

Donovan Hahn teaches English at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. His last essay for Harper's Magazine, "Anawmy
Lessons: Evan S. Connell and the Documentary School," appeared in the December 2001 issue.

Illustrations by Stan Fellows. Page border photogrnphs by Lisa Sacco. FOLIO 45

:.... ---====1
and in Auction Exchange, drags the saw out into pensive comfort food, or among handmade quilts
the sunlight along with the test of the fanner's be- and kerosene lanterns in the windows of West
longings-rakes with btOken handles, a wall clock Village lx)Utiques. I considered such Americana to
made out of a slab of polished wood, nails fused by be so much nostalgic gimcrack. The inflated prices
ruSt into pointy lumps-and the next thing you old tools commanded I attributed to an ambient
know, you could have purchased ten new saws dissatisfaction with modernity. The more ex,
for what this useless one is selling for. pendable we felt in our jobs, the more complicated
Earlier that morning, while we were inspecting and computerized our lives became, the more
the contents of the hay wagons, an old lady wig- hardware made of metal and wood seemed to sym-
gled what looked to be a miniature iron hoe at bolize all that we had lost-we Americans, but es-
Tom and asked him what it was. pecially we American men.
Until recently in America, manliness was pro'
portionate to handiness. The ancient Greeks had
Achilles and his shield. The British had Arthur
'!he more complicated and computerized and Excalibut. We had John Henry and his ham-
our lives become, the more old tools come mer, Paul Bunyan and his axe, Queequeg and his
manly harpoon. Our national poets sang hymns
to symbolize all that we have lost to the broad axe and the village blacksmith. Our
prophets didn't merely wander in the wilderness;
they built cabins there. The adzes and bow saws
"That's an ash rake," he informed her. "For with which anxiety-beset urban professionals
emptying ashes from a stove." now equip their apartments originally belonged
"I don't have a stove," the old lady replied, sen- to self-reliant, self-employed, self-made yeomen
sibly, "so I don't need ir." and artisans--or so the traffickers in nostalgia
Like het, most people imagine that the fonn of wished us to believe.
a tool is a pure expression of its function and It was a lie, I knew, this Luddite fantasy of an
that its value is a measure of its usefulness. Saws artisanal golden age. That legendary Yankee in,
cut. Hammers pound. On the antique~tool mar~ genuity was born not only out of an ardor for
ket, however, value is largely aesthetic and sym~ craftsmanship and independence but also out of
bolic. Hammers do not only pound, saws do not a shortage of skilled labor and an abundance of
only cur. They also mean. cheap, pilfered land. European settlen; had picked
As the bow saw transubstantiates from a piece up many of their cricks (hollowing a canoe with
of junk into a collectible before our eyes, Tom fire, fertilizing com with fish) from natives whom
Friedlander listens closely to the ascendant bids, they repaid with alcoholism and infectious disease.
stroking his beard, but stays out of it. Bow saws And besides, mowing a field of hay by hand
aren't his thing. Too pricey. Too desirable. Ever was backbreaking work, nothing romantic about
since bidding began several hours ago, he has it. Homespun textiles required endless, mind,
kept his head down, except when he wants to numbing cottage industry. Likewise the chum,
catch the auctioneer's eye. To place a bid, he will ing of butter, the curing of meat, the hewing of
glance up, nod gravely, and curl his fingers toward beams and chiseling of mortises. No wonder so
his heart, beckoning. So far today he has pur- many of our agrarian forebears fled to cities at the
chased a hand-forged chopper, a bam-beam auger, nrst chance they got, or else bet the farm on mo,
two antique motor~oil bottles with cone~shaped torized combines and harvesters.
spouts, a box of early automobile starter cranks, I also had personal reasons to be suspicious of
a set of speed wrenches, a fence stretcher, some~ tool collecting. Although I come from a family
thing called the Tox-O-Wick cattle oiler, and a of insufferably handy men-men able to wire a
plastic bucket full of implement wrenches mari~ house, rebuild a transmission, or frame a wall
nating in melted hail. without calling an expert or consulting a book-
"I've got fifty," calls the auctioneer, "fifty- I am profoundly unhandy. By the traditional
fi ve-fi ve~fi ve, fifty ~seven~and~a~ measures of American manhood, I am, essen-
~ half." tially, a Frenchwoman. When my brother and I
were teenagers, he and our father would adjourn
1 hree years ago if you had asked me what I to the garage after dinner, hook a cage light to
thought of tool collecting, I would have told you the underside of an elevated hood, and spend
that it sounded like the sort of sentimental pastime hours passing tools back and folth like shiny
pursued mainly by men with soft minds, thick thoughts. while upstairs I lay on the couch read-
wallets, and lonely wives. In Manhattan, where I ing mildly pornographic fantasy novels. To this
lived at the time, one sometimes encountered day, when I do it myself, I can never be sure
woodworking tools and funning implements on the whether I am improving my home or conduct-
walls of pastorally themed restaurants serving ex~ ing experiments upon it.

46 HARPER'S MAGAZINE JJANUARY 2005


One might, therefore, hnd it strange or worri~ been too busy to accept. Finally, in March of
some that for the last year and a half I've devot- 2002, feeling a bit dissatisfied with modernity
ed every waking hour I could spare to the study ourselves, my wife and I drove to Michigan in an~
of old tools. I've read books with titles like ticipation of moving there.
Wrenches: Antique and Unusual and The Ham- Upon entering the Friedlanders' house, I'
mer: The King of Tools. I've stayed up all nighr stopped short. Strung on wires and depending
browsing the searchable archives of the U.S. from nails hung thousands, or maybe even tens of
Patent and Trademark Office, encountering there thousands, of keys. Some strands drooped in el~
such exotic utensils as the Clamp Fur-Knife, liptical wreaths. Others contorted themselves
which, when "Edward Flint, of the city, county, into asymmetrical Mobius strips and figure eights.
and State of New York," invented it in 1837, was The longest strands described arcs across the t10~
"a new and useful Instrument for Extracting Hairs ral wallpaper, like bunting. The shortest bristled
from Fur~Skins," and I have met a vice pFesident in shiny bouquets. Later I asked Tom about these
of innovation and design in the cafeteria of the peculiar wall hangings. At auctions and flea mar~
Stanley Works corporate headquarters in New kets, he explained, dealers sold old tools by the
Britain, Connecticut. I've lurked in chat rooms box, and when he returned from his weekend
with discussion threads devoted to such subjects tool hunts, he often found keys buried at the bot-
as "A previously unknown Alberr Goodell brace tom, "like prizes." So he saved them. "People just
found in the wild." One sweltering summer mom~ give them away." Holding a lengrh of keys out for
ing, on the Jay County fairgrounds in the farm~ my inspection, he thumbed its tarnished con-
ing village of Portland, In- tents. Didn't I see how dif-
diana, I walked among ferent they all were? Their
fabulous machines as small lengths and shapes? The
as schnauzers and as huge words and numbers
as elephants, all gleaming stamped onto their varie~
in the August sun. Drive gated surfaces?
belts whirred, flywheels re- Tom led me down half a
volved, pistons fired, and flight of stairs to the tele-
a forest of smokestacks vision den, where a mob of
piped foul smoke and rude brass hose nozzles had
music into the otherwise stormed the mantelpiece
cloudless sky. Mostly, I and platoons of stove-plate
have ridden a Midwestern handles flanked the wood-
circuit of flea markets and burning stove. Other ob~
farm auctions in the pas~ jects had been mounted ac~
senger seat of an emerald cording to kind on graying
green Toyota pickup truck scraps of plywood, which
piloted by a fifty-five-year- leaned about the room~
old botanist with a ponytail, spectacles like against bookshelves, in comers~like canvases
windowpanes, and a beard verging on about a painter's studio. There was a board con~
~ the Whitmanesque. taining sillcocks, those spigot handles shaped
like cross sections of bell pepper, some of them red,
10m Friedlander is a tall, faintly melancholy some blue, some green, some rusty and bare. Oth~
man, prone to long silences and outbursts of goofi~ er boards contained screwdrivers, locks, shower~
ness, whom I have always known as Uncle Tom. heads. A few contained rusty things I failed to rec-
In 1976, after the borany department of the Uni- ognize. A bandolier of belt buckles dangled hom
versity of Michigan declined to approve his doc~ a hook originally intended for a houseplant. On
toral dissertation, a taxonomical study of the gray an end table beside a row of matching conch
dogwood, for which he had spent the better part shells lay a pair of eggs-fluted, geometric ob-
of three years scouring the continent for speci- longs of speckled glass. Electrical insulators, Tom
mens, Tom joined his wife, Martha, my father's explained, from telephone lines.
sister, on the faculty of a privare high school in He referred to these taxonomical arrays of his
Ann Arbor. The two have taught biology rhere as "experiments." When he retired from teach~
ever since. Childless and frugal, by the late 1980s ing, he would make more of them, he said,
they had saved enough to purchase a ranch house many, many more of them, so he could hang
in the rural exurbs, along with the thirty~seven them on walls where visitors could see them
acres of marshy, unprofitable farmland adjoining and "old~timers" could come and talk to him
it, which they subsequently let run wild. For years, about his tools, maybe even identify some of the
tyfartha had been inviting me to spend time on "whatsits," those objects whose original purpose
this nature sanctuary of theirs, and for years I'd had become mysterious.

FOLlO 47
As is true of many people who spend their television den represented only a small sample.
days working with kids, there is something «The rest," Tom told me, "are in
perennially youthful about Tom. At family the bam."
reunions when I was a child, he would tell my
brother and me that he kept things in his
beard--coins, bluebird eggs-and then he'd
S outheast Michigan can be beautiful in leaf or
under snow, but that winter it had hardly snowed
bend down so that, half believing him, we at all, and the Friedlanders' nature sanctuary was
could investigate its scratchy depths. He'd a desiccated, khaki-colored wasteland. The silver
catch insects with his bare hands and rell us blimp of a septic tank glowed between the bare
their names, both Latin and common, as well branches of bushes planted to obscure it. Behind
as their secrets-why fireflies lit up or why the house, where corn once grew, an ocean of
cicadas left their exoskeletons on the trunks of goldenrod-still brown and dormant-stretched
my grandmother's trees. He'd seemed omni~ to the woodlot on the horizon. On the way to the
scient to me then, wizard~like. He could recite tool bam, we passed the greenhouse Tom and
~ntire Monty Python routines by heart, as well Martha had built out of corrugated fiberglass.
as long portions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Two plastic barrels full of frozen rain stood sen,
Galaxy, and he sometimes spoke in peculiar try beside the entrance. Inside I could discern
voices, impersonating robots or masters of the shadowy forms of succulents (one of Tom's
Kung Fu. He said things like, "Take this marble previous taxonomical obsessions) weathering the
from my hand, Grasshopper, and your training hostile biome in balmy serenity.
will be complete." Although there was a barn-sized bam on the
That afternoon in his television den, I asked property-a dilapidated cavern full of owl shit,
Tom how large his tool collection was, and he led darkness, and mildewy hay where Tom kept the
me to his study, which contained a library of antique tractor he used to mow paths through the
botanical texts with titles like Trees, Shrubs, and goldenrod in the summer and plow the driveway
\Voody Vines of the Southwest, or Botanical Mi- in winter-the prefabricated steel structure in
crmechnique, or World Without Trees. On the oth~ which he stored his tools was scarcely bigger
er side of the room, home~ than a two~car garage. We
made bookshelves teetered entered through a side
under the weight of old door, stepping awkwardly
hardware catalogues and over three metal spheres
reference books about huge as medicine balls
tools, such as P. T. Rath- while fluorescent tubes
bone's History of Old Time flickered on overhead.
Farm Implement Companies My first impression was
and the Wrenches The)' Is- an abstraction: I did not
sued and Eric Sloane's clas- see the hundreds of hand-
sic A Museum of Early saws hanging from pegs like
American Too~. From a nail keys in a locksmith's shop,
in the doorway hung a clip, or the iron shoe lasts
board, to which was arranged in pigeonholes ac,
clipped a stack of sheets. cording to size, or the tow,
This was Tom's inventory.
• ering steel file cabinets with
Whenever he returned handwritten tags taped
from a tool hunt, he added
• above their handles, or the
his new quarry to the running tally. He'd ac- railroad jacks congregating on a shelf, or the flock
quired his fmt old tool by mistake while shopping of meat scales and wooden pulleys suspended
for a hole punch at the local Kiwanis thrift store. from the ceiling by hooks; what 1saw was the idea
The box lot that contained the punch he want- of multitude, Be fruirful and multiply, the Lord
ed also happened to contain a foot~long engi~ had commanded, and we had, we Americans;
neer's wrench. A few months later, discovering an here all ar9und us was our labor's rusty fruit.
identical wrench at an antiques store, he experi~ "There are over five hundred drawers full of
enced what he describes as "an instant vision of stuff in here," Tom told me. "That's the sort of
symmetry." 'TI,at was 1988. By March 2002, when scale. Plus the walls. Plus the floor. Plus con-
I first visited his home, he had accumulated, and tainers. It's all organized. For instance, this is the
rudimentarily classified, approximately 25,000 overflow hammer drawer." He yanked open the
formerly useful things, not counting the keys. drawer in question. Wooden hafts lay atop one an-
Almost 18,(){)() were wrenches (Tom's specialty), other like matches in a matchbox. Tom selected
a few thousand were screwdrivers, and several a mallet with a head like a half-melted marsh-
hundred were soldering irons. The exhibit in the mallow and held it up for my inspection. The

48 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / JANUARY 2005


beaten surface of its polls was fissured with tiny bone. Each of these species he'd subdivided fur-
cracks like the hide of an elephant. "Lead ham- ther according ro the number of their openings,
mer," Tom said. He returned it with a claner to or the material from which they were made, or
the drawer and selected another. "Composition the specialized purpose they'd served. Some of his
hammer." And another. "Farrier's horseshoe nail~ specimens represented transitional designs in
driving hammer." the evolution of the wrench. Some were tech-
Here and there, weighted down beneath what- nological chimeras that hybridized wrenches
ever tOol was most proximate, were pages tom with other implements.
from spiral notebooks on which Tom had cata~ Why wrenches? Why tools?
logued the contents of his five hundred drawers, Tom fell quiet, stroking his beard. "I don't
all of which he seemed to have memorized. If an know," he said finally. "I guess 1 just find them
itern caught my eye and I asked him about it, he beautiful." Although he could extemporize ani-
could almost always identify it by name and pur- . matedly about the history of the valve seat grinder,
pose, and when he couldnlt, his eyes shone with or the art of ropemaking, or how long it rook to
excitement. UThat," he would pronounce, "is a
whatsit." The steel balls we'd climbed over upon
entering were whatsits, though Tom did have a
theory about themo they might be ball bearings
I couldfeel my mind begin to jizz with
from the gun turret of a battleship. grandiose notions. Everything evolves, I thought_
As we made our way slowly down the crowd-
ed aisles, what struck me most was how zoologi~ Even hammers. Even keys
cal Tom's tools seemed, especially the more
exotic ones. Divorced from usefulness and sub-
jected to morphological classification, they manually drill blast holes into a deposit of coal,
looked like the fossils_of Cenozoic mollusks or aesthetics were another matter. The unlikely
the wristbones of tyrannosaurs. Certain pliers beauty of his rusty treasures defied elaboration. His
bore striking resemblances to the beaks of birds, critical vocabulary consisted mainly of the words
certain wrenches to the jaws of lizards. The "neat," "cool," and "fun." Tools he disliked were
points of chisels and awls looked like talons and simply Hjunk," a term he usually reserved for the
claws. Even the names of tools suggested zoolog~ cheaply mass-produced, or for a specimen dam-
ical comparisons; there was a goosewing axe, an aged beyond tescue.
alligator wrench, a mortising twivil called a bee His favorite tools dated from the turn of the
d'ane, French for "nose of a donkey." Loggets century, before the consolidation of the hard-
had once assembled their raftS with oversized ware industry, when thousands of new mechan-
staples known as "dogs.'l It is, in fact, impossible ical species appeared every year. "1880 to 1920,
to talk about tools withom resorting to biologi- TOughly the same time that Michigan was logged
cal metaphors. We refer to the "head" and over, that was the heyday of tractors," Tom in~
"claw" of a hammer, the "frog" and "throat" of a formed me. Because nut and bolt sizes had yet to
plane, the "jaws" of a vice, the "eye" of an adze. be thoroughly standardized, every new piece of
This had to be what motivated Tom's manic farm machinery came with its own wrenches,
collecting. He wasn't merely a collector of tools; creating the technological equivalent of biodi-
he was a taxonomist of tools, a nararalisr of rools. versity. "After the twenties, mass~produced steel
He'd progressed from gray dogwoods to succulents tOols came in, and virtually no specialty, plow or
to wrenches, as if the age~old distinction be~ tracror wrenches were made after that. It all JUSt
tween nature and culture were the folly of vanished." As extinctions went, this one seemed
philosophers. I could feel my mind begin to fizz hardly worth getting upset over. Who cared about
with grandiose, half-baked notions. Everything the lost golden age of implement wrenches?
evolves, 1 thought. Even hammers. Even keys. I Many collecrors and dealers restore their tools,
mentioned the zoological analogy, and Tom be- scraping away the rust, polishing the finish. Some
gan rummaging through drawers until he found will even apply a coat of paint, white for the em~
what he was looking for, an adjustable wrench bossed patent information and brand names,
with a distinctly avian silhouette. "The Puffin!" black for the rest. Such adulterations dismay
he exclaimed. Tom, who prefers used tools to the expensive
Nothing in the bam illustrated this theory of ones described in auction catalogues as "mint" or
technological Darwinism more dramatically than "like new." He will clean his finds, but delicate-
Tom's wrenches. He'd organized them first by ly, forensically almost, careful to preserve any
method of manufacture, separating the hand~ "use marks"-the particularizing derails that might
forged from the drop-forged, then by type, sep- disclose a rooFs secret life. He spoke of his spec~
arating crescent from box, socket from imple- imens as if they were alive, or had been once.
ment, ratchet from alligator, monkey from dog "I loved finding this," he said of a particularly

FOLIO 49
rusty implement wrench. "No serious fine-tool scrawled beside them. Newspaper advertisements
collector would want this, but I want it. Got it for for estate auctions fluttered under pins. "Retired
a dollar. What a beautiful wrench. It was under from fatming," they typically began, "1 will sell
water-a wet place-and it died." The wrench the following list ..." If the owner of an estate had
was beautiful, though I couldn't have told you died, as was often the case, the auctioneers re~
why, any more than he could. sotted to participles: "Selling personal ptopetty
That spring, I was teaching high school Eng- of the late Hazel Shiba at public auction ..." I
lish and had recently assigned excerpts ftom Let unpinned one. The personal property it inven~
Us Now Praise Famous Men, the literary docu~ toried-walnut dressers and whipple trees, old
mentary in which writer James Agee and pho~ magazines and hay forks and Depression glass--
tographer Walker Evans illuminate the material
lives of tenant farmers in Alabama during the
Great Depression. Examining Tom's tools, some
"1 read like a kind of material obitu~
ary, a portrait of a life in things.

of which bore the signatures of blacksmiths, oth- 've got fifty," calls the auctioneer. uFifty~fi.ve~
ers the stamped initials of extinct railroad com~ five~five, fifty~seven-and~a~half."
panies, still others the tarnished trace of some Ben, the teenage sideman, revolves atop the hay
dead laborer's sweaty palm, I was reminded of wagon, patading the bow saw like a trophy high
the passage in which Agee describes a pair of above the tipped bills of a hundred baseball caps
overalls. "They have begun with the massive yet emblazoned with logos and slogans: RIFKIN SCRAP
delicate beauty of most things which are turned IRON & METAL CD., I'D RATHER BE HUNTING, WEST-
out most cheaply in great tribes by machines,u PHALIA AlJID SALVAGE, PURINA, GOD BLESS AMER-
Agee writes, "and on this basis of structure they ICA, MR. ASPHALT. Across Tom Friedlandet's blue
are changed into images and marvels of nature." ball cap a galleon embtoidered trom gold thread
And yet Agee's had been a scavenger hunt for the sails above the legend H.M.S. Victory. Most of the
present, nor for the past. He and Walker Evans auctiongoers are e1de"y farmers; with his ponytail
had sought "to perceive simply the cruel radi- and great Victorian beard, Tom seems as out of
ance of what is"-not the quaint glimmer of what place among them as Darwin among the Patago~
nians. Save for his blue cap, his brown hiking
sneakers, and the turquoise decorations on his
leather belt, he is dressed entirely in green~reen
Where lies the boundary between meaning work pants, green work shirt-and vaguely re-
and sentiment? I wondered. 'Between memory sembles an anthropomorphized plant.
The bow saw finally sells for $87.50, and Ben
and nostalgia? What is and what was? the teenage sideman next lifts an ink~jet printer
into the air. "Something for your computer," the
auctioneer says doubtfully. He starts the bidding
was. Where lies the boundary between meaning at fifty dollars but, gefting no takers, lowers it:
and sentiment? I wondered. Between memory forry dollars, thirty-five dollars, twenty-five, fif-
and nostalgia? America and Americana? What is teen, ten, seven-and-a-half. Finally, he gives up and
and what was? Does it move? banishes it to lithe dog pond," a corner of the
Martha appeared in the doorway of the tool shed reserved for items no one wants. Only a few
bam, summoning us to dinner. Tom turned off the years old and still in its original box, the ink~jet
fluorescent lights and padlocked the door. Night ptinter has already passed into that limbo of worth-
had fallen. A ciry boy since birth, I was used to lessness that exists between novelty and nostalgia.
light-polluted skies. Here, only an hour southwest "Nowadays things are almost obsolete before
of Detroit, the stars were as bright and plentiful they leave the drawing board," Eric Sloane, the
as in a planetarium show. The Friedlanders' ranch seminal romancer of antique tools, observed forty
house, lamplight streaming from its windows, years ago. "How lucky we ate that so many of the
looked like a ship adrift upon black swells. old tools and the things that were made with
That night on my way to bed, I stopped in them wete dated and touched with the crafrs-
the carpeted hallway where an entire wall had man's art." Sloane believed that the value of a
been papered in cartography. From a pushpin in thing should be a measure of its quality, much as
the comer of a particularly enormous map dan- reputation was once regarded as the measure of
gled a shoestring. This was, I saw upon inspec~ one's soul. My generation, more narcissistic but
tion, the radius of a vast, Midwestern galaxy the also more jaded than his, seems to treasure most
nucleus of which was the Friedlanders' fatm. Red the consumerist dross we remember from child~
hash marks divided the string into increments, hood, irrespective of its inherent worth. In our
counting off miles. Towns throughout Michi~ collecting we are autobiographers, not connois-
gan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Ontario had seurs. I find myself wondering how long it will
been circled in felt pen, and dates and distances take before this ink~jet printer escapes the dog

50 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I JANUARY 2005


pond and ascends to the ranks of the collectible. better than metal, metal better than plastic.
When he published A Museum of Early Amer- Carpentry tools sell better than those of other
ican Tools in 1964, Sloane almost single-handedly crafts and trades. The plane, certain rare spec~
transformed old tools into Americana. There had imens of which have been known to fetch
been collectors before him, but they were most~ $20,000 or more, is probably rhe most collecrible
Iy antiquarians and archaeologists who regarded tool there is. The wrench, Tom Friedlander's
mols as artifacts or aesthetic objects, not sacred specialty, is among the leasr collectible.
relics. At first glance, Sloane's book appears to be Devised by carpenters of rhe Roman Empire, rhe
nothing more than a pictorial dictionary or field plane could hypothetically have been used by Je-
guide. In truth it is a political tract, an illustrat~ sus Christ himself, before he gave up woodwork-
ed manifesto of romantic, Yankee conservatism. ing for fishing. A hundred years ago a carpenter's
The "ancient implements" it depicts, Sloane's tool chest typically would have contained dozens
dedication informs us, are not only tools but of varieties of planes, and a typical hardware cat;
"symbols of a sincerity, an integrity, and an ex- alogue would list hundreds of varieties (astragals,
cellency that the unionized fillisters, snipe bills, ogees,
craftsman of today mighr do Grecian ovolos), each one
well to emulate." His story of adapted to a highly special-
decline has no room for ten- ized purpose. Shipwrights
ant farmers, migrant workers, smoothed the decks of ships
sweatshops, displaced natives, wirh planes resembling horse-
slaves, nor for early Ameri; shoe crabs, and violinmakers
cans who did shoddy work.' carved fiddle heads with
The harmony rhat the "fine planes, made from lignum vi~
craftsman" once felt with his tae, that were smaller than a
material and tools is, .as rhumb. Then, ar rhe end of
Sloane describes it, not un~ the nineteenth century, what
like that which once existed the jigsaw did to rhe bow saw
between Adam and the planing machines did to
beasts. "An extraordinary planes. According ro Eric
awareness of life and time Sloane, in New England in
permeated our early days'" he rhe mid-l900s obsolete planes
writes. Again and again in were being sold as firewood
the commentary that accompanies his old-timey for as little as five dollars a barrel, including the
pen-and-ink drawings of apple barrows and hay barrel. Only when planes became less plentiful
forks, he praises the craftsmen of yore at the ex~ and more mysterious did collectors take interest,
pense of "modem workers," whose "constant aim suggesting that dearh may be the mother of nos-
is more to make the most money from their pro~ talgia as well as of beaury.
fession instead of producing the most honest and The twilight of the plane was the heyday of
beautiful and lasting things." the wrench. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have
To this day on the antique-tool market, Eric doodled designs for an adjustable wrench in his
Sloane's romantic biases pertain. Wood sells notebooks; but it was with the invention of bolt;
rhreading machines in the early 1800s that the
wrench became as useful and as common as the
* In fact, the early Americans Sloane glorifies were on hammer. In 1869 a writer for Scientific American,
average versatile but mediocre craftsmen compared with
the members of European guilds. "Al'hough the rural and marveling at how "rude and uncouth" old tools
smaU~town economy of the eighteenth century supported were compared with the machine~lathed won;
a number of specialized artisans," explains Paul B. ders of his day, described antebellum wrenches
Kebabian, author of American Woodworking Tools, as being mostly of "the pot hook variety." The
",he majority of ,he population farmed. And each farmer
history of the wrench is the history of indusrrial-
hod w be something of a jack-of-aU-trade" he was
wagon-maker; house- and bam-builder; maker of hots, ism writ smalL No matter how many farmers use
cloth, tools, furniture, nails and handspikes, staves and them, no matter how mechanized agriculture
heading and hoops frYr barre~, potash, maple sugar, rYr becomes, on the antique;tool market wrenches
any of a host of other products frYr use a' home and frYr symbolize pastoralism's antithesis_ Of metal for
trade and sale." The abundance and variety of American
tools, in fact, testifies to a shortage, not a preponderance, metal, they are the emblem of mechanics and
of skill. The carpenter on the Pequod, whom Melville machinists, the standard raised in the fists of fac;
describes as "omnirooled," is "to a certain ofrhanded, tory workers in revolutionary murals. They are
practical extent, alike experienced in numerous trades the tool of the unionized masses, not the self-
and callings collateral to his own." In addition to main;
reliant yeoman or artisan. Wrenches assemble
raining the seaworthiness of the ship, he perfarms dental
surgery, repairs Ahab's prosthetic leg, and decorates the and adjust; they do not make. There are no
second mate's favorite oar with a constellation of stars. wrenches in Eric Sloane's Museum.

FOLlO 51
Time, it seems, is an ironist. That spring, the color of toothpaste bloom everywhere, on the
spring of 2003, factory workers were being laid off stone foundation of the barn, on the rusty farm
in record numbers-Michigan alone lost 171,000 equipment~cultipackers, harrows, plows~
manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2003- spread out like modernist sculpture across the
and the riveters and machine operators Sloane de~ sodden lawn.
rided seemed like skilled artisans compared with Even in the too~insistent imperatives of the
the technicians and sales associates replacing snack wagon's patriotic hymn, I think I can dis~
them. The era of the wrench, like the era of the cern an undertone of foreboding and grief. It's
plane before it, is ending. Predictably, the ranks there, too, along with happy chatter about last
of wrench collectors recently have begun to swell. night's hailstorm, in the conversations of the
Although still worth far less than a desirable auctiongoers. They walk among old furniture and
plane, a rare and pristine John Deere tractor collectibles as if through lost time. They spin the
wrench can now fetch hundreds ofdollars at auc~ dial of the Lone Ranger radio and say to their
tion. Partly this reflects the enthusiasm in rural spouses, look at this, check this out, remember these.
America for the antique uactors with which such They fondle the porcelain doll with the cracked
wrenches were originally sold. Bur the populari~ skull and the jaundiced nightgown, then punch
ty of other wrench varieties-pipe wrenches, au~ the keys of the old Remington cash register, smil-
tomobile wrenches, buggy wrenches, battery ing when the different prices-all charming-
cable~pulling wrenches~is also growing. The ly low-spring up behind rhe little
decline of American manufacturing has given ~ pane of glass.
rise to pastoralism's postindustrial ana-
logue: a romance of rust. 1 hat summer Tom and I drive to auctions all

I leave Tom beside the hay wagon, a heap of


treasures accumulating in the grass at his feet,
over Michigan, leaving sometimes as early as_sun~
rise, when fog still eddies berween the hills and the
shadow of Tom's emerald pickup ripples on the
and survey the premises. Parked in the rutted grassy margin beside us. When we return at the end
drive that runs between the house of the day, buckets and boxes of
and the barn, a white camping junk bungeed down in the bed of
trailer radiates patriotism and the the truck, the shadows are just as
smell of boiling kielbasa. NAN'S long but stretch in the other di-
SNACK WAGON, a sign reads. Plas- rection. During fourteen years of
tic American flags suction~cupped collecting, Tom has memorized
to the trailer's roof scroll and un- the state highways. He has his own
scroll themselves listlessly in the personal landmarks-a yellow
humid air. Across the trailer's side farmhouse that glows "like a bea-
someone has airbrushed this poem: con" from atop a ridge, a pair of
boulders that he says are glacial
Le, the Eagle Fly eccentrics, an ice~cream stand
Land of the Free called King Kane in the shape of
Home of the Brove an enonnous soft~serve whose new
Love Your CormO)'
Thank God owners no longer offer Tom's fa-
And the Veterans vorite flavor, orange-vanilla swirl.
Everywhere we go, I see used cars
Through a small concession win- for sale, parked in front lawns atop
dow at the rear of the trailer a rectangles of uncropped grass.
woman, presumably 1 an herself, Tom likes to get to auctions at
hands a hot dog to an old man least an hour or two early so that
whose suspenders spell AU,SICA in he can appraise the day's offerings
vertical letters. Protruding from the purse of an~ and search for the treasures that unscrupulous
other customer is a leather-bound. gilt,edged vol~ bidders sometimes bury under scrap. This is his fa-
ume titled Armageddon. vorite part, and watching him rummage through
I hear people speculating abour what will hap- the contents of a table or hay wagon, I think I
pen to this farm now that the owners have grown
too old for it. I· hear rumors of rest homes and fu-
know why. Here he is most like a naturalist in the
field or an archaeologist on a dig. When he finds

neral parlors, and notice among the larger items something that interests him, he holds it to his
up for auction a motorized wheelchair, an elec~ eyes, inspects it, rubs its finish, tests its moving
tric hospital bed, a walker, a chamber pot. An es~ parts. It wouldn't surpri~e me ifhe started tasting
tate auction, 1 realize, is part festival, part fu~ things. As he rummages he provides a running
oeral. It's not j list the owners of this fann who are commentary for my benefit: uThis is a seed~corn
dying but the farm itself. Splotches of lichen the planter. Everybody had one. The American Stan-

54 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I JANUARY 2005


dacd. You put your seed com in there. You jab it or more vehicles have arrived, nearly all of them
in the ground, and this spring pops open the door pickup trucks. Th~ crowd is so large, two spotters
as it sinks in and releases one seed at a time." stand in irs midst. When they spy a bidder, they
Other collectors and some auctioneers greet shout, "Hep!" and point. The auctioneers-there
Tom with nods. Regulars on the local auction are two of them as well-wear matching white
circuit seem to regard him as a harmless eccen~ cowboy hats and travel from item to item in a
tric, a wildman cum nutty~professor figure. four-wheel John Deere all-terrain vehicle outfit-
Acquaintances and strangers alike bring tools ted with loudspeakers and a pulpit, above which,
for him to identify. JUSt as often, though, Tom is like the drooping head of a dying flower, a yellow,
the one asking questions. This is how he has pyramid-shaped parasol dangles from a hook. In
learned so much. The intensity with which he Tom's opinion, these guys are "real pros." They
listens elicits uncharacteristically voluble know what they're seUing and sell it well, which'
explanations from farmers accustomed to is to say, speedily and honestly.
silence. His inquisitiveness dignifies the obso~
lete knowledge they possess, and they proffer it
gladly. At the same time, I am surprised by how
many of Tom's questions leave his interlocutors
Sure it's a hammer; but what was it usedfor? TO
dumbfounded. Even recognizable tools baffle: break peanut brittle? TO tenderize meat? See
Sure it's a hammer, but what was it used for? To
break peanut brittle? To tenderize meat? To how it's got a little cutter on it?
adjust the inner workings of a watch? See how
it's gOt a little cutter on it?
Just past sunrise on a June morning, we drive A farm auction has a discernible shape, a
north on M-5Z, a highway that runs vertically heliotropic arc. Early in the morning, when the
up the mitten of Michigan, farming towns strung dew is still on the grass, there is something
along its length like beads. Somewhere between almost worshipful in the way the scavengers
Saginaw and Hemlock, the arrow on a hand~ encircle the hay wagons. Rusty things scrape
lettered PARKING sign directs us into a pasture and clink. Parked in pastures and rilted along
where a small contingent of other trucks-up the shoulders of the road, the trucks multiply.
to their wheel hubs in winter wheat, fins of dried Expectation grows. Small talk crescendos to
mud sprayed across their doors-have already hubbub. The auctioneer does his sound check.
convened. The recently deceased owner of this The bidding begins. By noon, the atmosphere
pasture, a farmer named Dale Krause, was him~ feels carnivalesque. Then, by mid-afternoon, a
self an obsessive collector of agro-industrial relics. post-prandial drowsiness sets in. Sun-drugged,
The list of items up for sale tOday is varied and their acquisitiveness and inquisitiveness slaked,
long. Bidding will begin at 9:00 A.M., an hour or the bidders look for places to sit-in tractor
two earlier than usual, and may go on past dark. sears, on pallers of lumber, on the edges of hay
IlThis is·a all day large auction," reads the ad in wagons-and wait for the auctioneer to get
Auction Exchange. "Many of the outbuildings are around to whatever special items he is saving for
full with oldies too numerous to mention! Bring last. One by one, the trucks depart.
your trailers. Be there!!!" Tom buys more tools at the Krause auction
Along with the usual rust-laden hay wagons, than he has at any auction so far this summer, and
the numerous oldies arrayed across the trampled when it's over, after heaving several hundred
clover this morning include the remains of an pounds of junk into the back of his truck, in-
old hand loom, a buggy with a bearskin blanket cluding an enormous grinding wheel and a com-
disintegrating on the upholstered seat, and a plete set of blacksmith's tools, we are both ex-
dozen antique tractors, some of which are as shiny hausted. Driving home, we stop at King Kone.
and colorful as brand-new toys and scme of which Tom orders blackberry-not as good as orange-
look like partially dissected mechanical cadavers. vanilla swirl, but good enough. While we sit at
Amid them towers an elephantine monstrosity of picnic tables licking melted soft~serve from our
galvanized sheet metal, like something out of knuckles, white tufts blizzard all around us, gath-
Jules Verne or the notebooks of Leonardo da Vin- ering at the edges of the parking lot in drifts. I ask
r ci. This, I learn upon investigation, is a Mc~ Tom what they are. "Cottonwood
Connick Deering 38" grain thrasher. Its wheels are seeds," he tells me.
made of bare iron. Its drive belt is part metal,
part wood. Its bolt heads are not hexagonal but
square. Across one side someone has performed
l is a commonplace that in the era of con-
sumerism we are what we possess. Usually this is
mysterious calculations in chalk. "That," Tom noted as a cause for worry, another symptom of
says, Il should be in the Smithsonian." cultural decline, and perhaps it is. Still, when
By the time the auction begins, three hundred you visit auctions, it is hard not to be moved to

FOLIO 55
pity and awe. Gathered on lawns and hay wagons, death, no ecstasy), they are monstrous---or as
items explain one another, like words in a lan~ Blake put it, "Satanic." Machines are largely
guage. However miscellaneous they seem, these autonomous and threaten us with obsolescence,
belongings share a kind of logic-the ordering whereas a tool is nothing without us.
principle of human personality. One can trace "Considered functionally," British paleontol-
among them the lineaments of an inner life. Po~ ogist Kenneth P. Oakley wrote in his influential
litical affiliations, religious beliefs, memories, 1949 monograph, Man ,he Thol-Maker, rools
vanities, even dreams, are spread out for strangers "are detachable extensions of the forelimb"-a
[Q browse through. Here is a man's hairpiece, . definition that any potter, toeing his wheel,
here his wooden crutches, here his numismatic might reasonably protest. Perhaps it would be
map of the world festooned with faded stamps. more accurate to say that tools are detachable
Here is the Carter-Mondale button he once wore. extensions not of our forelimbs but of ourselves.
At another auction on another farm in another "Like the nails on a beast's paws," Eric Sloane
material universe, the items on offer include the writes, "the old tools were so much an exten~
October 1959 issue ofMan-;age: The Magazine of sion of a man's hand or an added appendage to
his arm, that the resulting workmanship seemed
to flow directly from the body of the maker and
to carry something of himself into the work."
Gathered on lawm and hay wagons, items Although Sloane was an anti~unionist liber~
explain one another; like words in a tarian, on the meaning of tools he and the
author of the Communise Manifesto agree.
language. 'I'hey share a kind oflogic "Estranged from labor," writes Marx, "the labor~
er is self-estranged) alien to himself."
For the most serious tool aficionados, or Uga~
Ca,holic Family Living, a USDA bulletin called loots," as they sometimes call themselves, the
Making Cellars Or)t, a miniature souvenir tool kit hegemony of mind and machine over hand and
commemorating the Catholic Shrine at Indian matter entails an estrangement more profound
River, Michigan ("largesr crucifix in the world"), even than the one Marx imagined, an estrange~
and three framed jigsaw puzzles of pastoral ment not only from self but from time. Old tools
scenes-sheep, glades, brooks. imply an entire way of being, an artisanal cos~
Walter Benjamin blamed mechanical repro~ mology. One night, lurking on a newsgroup for ga~
duction for diminishing the auras of unique loots, I come upon the following credo:
works of art, but mass~produced artifacts also
exude auras-auras created through ownership I refuse to be in such a hurry that I squeeze the aes~
and use. They become, as Agee wrote, "images thetic value our of everything to gain a few min~
and marvels of nature." Even separated from utes of time-time which will then just be filled
their owners, even incoherently grouped, with morc rushing and more mass~prod.uced, soul-
less junk. In the drive ro achieve instant gratifica-
objects remain faintly numinous, like the relics
tion, we haye spent a century trying to shorten the
discovered in ancient tombs. This is especially learning curw and eliminate the cha,!ce of error in
true of tools, which perhaps retain the traces of every human activity. There is much good in this,
their owners more strongly than do most but something has been almost lost in the process.
human artifacts. The Galoots are the guardians of that which was
Today we refer to anything useful, from com~ almost lost: the challenge of trying to master a skill
puter programs to ideas, as tools. This was not that can never be fully mastered, the creative free~
. always the case. According to Eric Sloane, in dom that comes from intimacy with a medium as
antebellum America the word "tool" denoted an complex as wood, the sense of self,sufficiency that
implement that could make one thing at a time. comes from knowing that you can make a useful
object with tools so simple that you can make the
Reconstruction~era industrialization broadened
tools too, and the peaceful meditation of trying to
the meaning of the word to include any imple- bring eye, hand and wood together into harmony
ment involved in the manufacture of a product, through finesse and understanding rather than
necessitating the coining of the renn "hand brute force.
tool" to distinguish traditional implements from
what came to be knQ\\Tl as "machines." Here, old tools are relics of a mythic past, but
The difference between these twO mechani~ they are also antidotes to automation, standard-
cal species, it seems to me, may be more a mat- ization, acceleration, infantilization, and to the
ter of culture than of engineering. Machines are docile brand of utopianism rhar holds all
borh rhe rival and the antithesis of humaniry. change to be progress.
In rheir complexity, they resemble us. In their Many of the galoots I have encountered in
simplicity (all those parts, and yet no Oedipus chat rooms and at auctions fulfill my worst
complex, no withdrawal symptoms, no fear of expectations. Unlike other collectors, galoots

56 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I JANUARY 2005


can at times resemble the members of a fraternal My route to New Britain takes me tantalizing~
order or a medieval guild, imagining themselves Iy close to the Sloane;Stanley Museum on the
to be latter-day Knights Templar, keepers of the banks of the Housatonic, where, atop the pic~
code, "guardians of that which was almost lost." turesque ruins of an iron mill, Eric Sloane's col-
The Mid-West Tool Collectors Association lection of edifying implements now resides. I de;
insists upon the traditional divisions of labor, cide to make time for the detour. According to the
consigning women and the artifacts of women's posted hours, the museum is open for business, but
work to a special "ladies auxiliary." And the when I try the front door to the main building, I
association's aging members wonder why so few find it locked. I snoop among the deserted grounds,
men of my generation care to learn about the silent but for the crunch of my footsteps on the
old tools and the old ways. gravel drive. There's a flagpole with a limpid flag,
Still, uncomfortable as I am in their company, a few picnic tables splattered with bird droppings,
wary as I am of their nostalgia, I have begun to an enormous tractor wheel planted like a mono~
wonder whether they are at least partly right; lith in the grass, a miniature green;and-yellow
maybe handiness does matter. Once upon a time, steam engine arrested in the act of pulling a minia;
we referred to all {onus of manufacturing (a Lati~ ture ooxcar down a miniature section of track.
nate word for "making by hand") as "the arts," and Finally, a man emerges from a shed. He informs me
once upon a time all artists, manual as well as that the tool museum is indefinitely closed due to
. fine-masons, blacksmiths, and mechanics as well cuts in the scate budget and suggests I return when
as-sculptors, musicians, and the economy improves.
poers-eould find mean~ Onward to New Britain.
ing in their work. Of the dozens of manufac-
"There is something turers that once operated
missing in our definition, here, Stanley is the only
vision, of a human being: one left. A year before my
the need to make," the visit, CEO John Trani
poet Frank Bidart observed made national news by rec;
in a recent sequence of po~ ommending that the tool-
ems devoted to the topic of maker reincorporate in
making. "The culture in Bermuda. Lawmakers, la;
which we live honors spe; bar leaders, shareholders,
cific kinds of making and New Britain residents
(shaping or mis-shaping a began impugning Trani's
business, a family) but does patriotism. In the end,
not understand how cen- Stanley decided to stay put,
tral making itself is as man~ at least on paper, at least
ifestation and mirror of the for now. Already the com-
self, fundamental as eating pany has sent most of its
or sleeping." The worship of old tools arises, manufacturing jobs elsewhere (nearly 50 percent
I have begun to suspect, from the epi; of Stanley employees work overseas), and has re;
f{) demic frustration of this need. duced its New Britain workforce from 5,000 fifty
years ago to 1,000 today. American do-it-
V f course, Americans still use hand tools. yourselfers are buying iconic American tools
Although the professional crafts and trades have made in China in order to do amateur manualla;
dwindled, the do-it-yourself market that emerged bar while workers laid off by the manufacturer of
in the 1940s is large and growing. Proportional- those tools seek employment in the service sec;
ly few of us use tools skillfully anymore, but hordes tor. There is irony in this.
of us love to play with them. We love doing it our- A tall man with a grizzled mustache and a cell
selves so much, in fact, that in 2003 the Stanley phone clipped to the waist of his pleated chinOS,
Works, arguably the most successful tool manu- Gary van Deursen is not a galoot. He has stud-
facturer in U.S. history and certainly the most ied and admired the tools made by his predeces-
iconic, sold $2.7 billion worth of tools. sors, but he thinks his are better. His great
In July, after two months on the Michigan auc- enthusiasm is industrial design-the practice of
tion circuit, I head east to Stanley's corporate it, the idea of it, exquisite examples of it. What
headquarters, in New Britain, Connecticut, once he designs almost doesn't seem to matter. Before
a capital of industry, now little more than a stag~ joining Stanley, he worked at Black & Decker.
nant exurb of Hartford. Gary van Deursen, cor- A large poster of a DustBuster hangs on one wall
porate vice president of innovation and design, and of his office. He drives a blue POTSche 996 and
Carl Stoutenberg, the former company histori- mentions it frequently, even when he is talking
an, now retired, have agreed to meet with me. aoout tools, as an example, a paragon, of good

FOLIO 57
desi~~ Van Deurs~n is goofy for Progress: g~nzo possible, and "best" today means safe and user-
for Change. Everything is getting better. And friendly as well as functional. But his customers
this is very exciting. often shop irrationally, nostalgically. In.Califor-
Over lunch in 'the corporate cafeteria, I ask nia, Stanley's framing hammer comes with a
van Deursen and Stoutenberg if they are famil~ black, wooden axe-handle because in California
iar with Sloane's museum. "VerY,1l Stoutenberg that's what house framers have traditionally used.
says, rolling his eyes. No one at Stanley knows why. When van Deursen
I concede that Sloane was "a cr~nky guy" set out to turn Stanley's rop-of-the-line chisel
.\vim strong opinions and a romantic view of the into an ergonomic marvel, he learned that both
past. Still, many of the tools l've seen at tool amateur and professional carpenters prefer chis~
auctions look superior-sturdier, prettier, more els with translucent yellow handles, even though
finely wrought-than those on sale at Home translucent plastic was itself a novel material
Depot. I sound like a regular galoot. I'm speak- only Hty years ago. As a group, tool users are late
ing the gaspe!. I adopters. U\Ve wanted to add rubber," van Deursen
"I would use the analogy of the cars," van says. "We add too much rubber, and the guy isn't
Deursen says. "It's easier to say that the old cars going to buy this, because he doesn't see his tra-
were better because they were thicker steel, but ditional material." The result is a quintessen[ia}~
yet if you were going to have even a forry,mile, ly twenty,first,century tool, ergonomic, user,
an~hour collision, what car do you want to be friendly, accompanied by safety precautions, made
in? Give me any new car. And that's becf-use of from a combination ofspace'age metals and poly~
the technology that's involved." mers, including translucent yellow
Van Deurscn begins to get excit~
l
plastic, and exhibiting, in van
cd. "Look at the measuring tape," Deursen's words, "all the cues, on a
he says, in a way that reminds me of global basis, of a chise!."
Tom Friedlander. "From the 1922 Just before I leave, van Deursen
Farrand tape to the tape we made a lets me have a sneak peek at the hot
few years ago, the end would break new hand tool Stanley will be rolling
off after multiple retractions. In the out in time for Christmas, the fe,
past three years, looking at thar, ad~ designed SporrUtility ™ Outdoors,
dressing that problem, we figured man ™ Knife, the name of which
out how to solve it with technolo~ came [Q him, like inspiration from
gy that was invented for helicopter on high, while listening to a news
blades in Desert Storm. We applied report about SUVs. Invented to cur
clear armor made by 3M to the last roofing tile and drywall, the tradi-
six inches of me tape and increased tional Stanley utility knife, market re-
its strength ten or twenty times." search showed, had become popular
Aftet lunch we head to the design with hunters 'and fishermen. So van
department, where van DeuTSen gives Deursen and his team added a 3Y2,
me one of these high-tech, battle- inch "folding sport blade," some
tested measuring tapes to keep as a sporty styling, thought up a snazzy
souvenir. Power Lock REINFORCED name, and doubled the suggested re,
WITH BladeArmor 2X BLADE LIFE, the tail price. This is what tools in Lhe
package say'S. This is an extreme mea- twenty,first century have
suring tape. This is a tape you could become: not hardware, gear.
measure warheads and spider holes
With. Packaging, I learn that after-
noon, is where much of Stanley's in-
H istory tends to memorialize
great changes, which, technologi'
novation and design now occurs. cally speaking, means great inven-
Even the tools themselves have been tions. Tools are inherently conserv-
packaged, decorated, and branded ative and humble artifacts. Their
with superfluous design elements- history is largely accidental, writ~
ribbed black blobs of rubber, accents ten in the margins-of warfare,
of Stanley yellow-all in order to outperfonn the architecture, economics, religion. In the history
competition not in the workshop or at the con- of technology, inventions are the generals, the
struction site but at Home Depot and Wal~Mart. geniuses, the monarchs; tools are the common-
Functional refinements, like BladeArmor, are mi~ ers, the craftsmen, the serfs. This is one reason
nor compared with the cosmetic changes the old tools have become Americana. At once
tools neverendingly undergo. democratic and utilitarian, individualistic and
Van Deursen's job would be easier if this weren't traditional, they resemble us. They are techno,
the case-if he could simply design the best tool logical leaves of grass.

58 HARPER'S MAGAZINE,! JANUARY 2005


"Democratic nations," wrote Alexis de betokened the future, much as the quaint water
Tocqueville in 1831, "will habitually prefer the wheels that omament calendars and the bucolic
useful to the beautiful and they will want the suburbs of New England were in their day the
beautiful to be useful." And tool-collecting liter- very engines of change.
ature is replete with evidence of this American In 1897, a year before the Trans-Mississippi
preference for the useful. Eric Sloane's epigraph Exposition, Henry Chapman Mercer, a forry-
for A Museum of Early Amencan Tools, taken one~year-old archaeologist from Doylestown,
from a utool pamphlet" written in 1719, declares Pennsylvania, visited the premises of a neigh-
that "the Carpenter who builds a good House to bor "who had been in the habit of going to
defend us from Wind and Weather, is far more country sales and buying what they called
serviceable than the curious Carver who 'penny lots.''' There, Mercer experienced a rev,
employs his art to please his Fancy." elation of near-Pauline proportions. "When I
Tools are to American civilization what [saw the] disordered pile of old wagons, gum-
amphorae and urns were to the ancient Greeks, tree salt boxes, flax brakes, straw beehives, tin
common artifacts the ubiquity and durability of dinner horns, rope machines and spinning
which anest to their cultural importance and
ensure that they will last. Like the Grecian urn
in Keats's famous ode, they are the foster chil-
dren of silence and slow time. Long after the
cv4.1though the history of tools is longer than
mills crumble into the millponds and the corn- that ofany other human artifact, tool historians
fields sprout s~bdivisions, long after the sweat-
shops are condemned and the machines sold off are comparatively novel
as scrap, tools remain.
"Tools outlast the worker and the work and
the products," David H. Shayt, the Smithsonian wheels, things I had heard of but never collec-
Institution's specialist in crafts and trades, told tively saw before, the idea occurred to me that
me. uWe can't collect people here-we even do the history of Pennsylvania was here profusely
worker's clothing very poorly-but the tool we illustrated." Mercer subsequently abandoned
can study and honor." his studies of prehistory and starred obsessively
Although the history of tools is longer than buying penny lots, hoping to salvage "all things
that of any other human artifact, tool historians illustrating the life of a people at a given time,"
such as Shayt are comparatively novel. The first by which he mainly meant tools, but also the
scholars to take tool collecting seriously were objects wrought with them. In 1929 he pub-
Vicrorian archaeologists, and, like Victorian lished Anciem Carpemers' Tools, a novel-sized
naturalists, the specimens they studied first were study whose encyclopedic, esoteric detail
those from distant places and distant times. makes it only slightly less impressive than the
Most hoped ro do for civilization what Darwin museum Mercer constructed in Doylestown to
had done for life. In 1898, David Shayt's prede- house his 15,000 illustrious things. Since
cessors at the Smithsonian prepared a taxono- Mercer's death, with the addition of posthu-
my of inventions, including musical instru- mous acquisitions, the collection has more
ments, weapons, and eating utensils as well as than tripled.
tools, for exhibition at the Trans-Mississippi At the recommendation of David Shayt,
Exposition held in Omaha, Nebraska. The first Carl Stoutenberg, and numerous galoots,
item in the exhibit's genealogy of the hammer before returning to Michigan, I decide to make
was a quartzite pounding stone; the last, a what is for any serious student of American
steam-powered hammer as huge and terrible as tools a necessary pilgrimage. Mercer, a practi-
an iron god. The published caption offers this tioner as well as a historian of traditional arts
moral: "The triumphs of human effort and inge- and crafts, earned a fortune manufacturing
nuity may be realized by comparing the stone Moravian tiles. Terrified of losing his collection
hammer, still in use by half the race, with the to fire, his museum, an inflammable fortress
machine hammer of today." This is also the les- built entirely from reinforced concrete (6,000
son of the exhibit as a whole: Behold, the tri- tons of it) and illuminated entirely by natural
umphs of progress. Pity your ancestors. Envy light (the windows comprise 5,000 panes), is
your descendants. intended ro endure until the end of time.
Many of the tools then considered highest on Witold Rybczynski, who made the pilgrimage
the evolutionary ladder-the mechanical drill, in the late 1990s while researching One Good
the cutter head of a planing machine, crosscut Tum: A Natural His,ary of ,he Screwdriver and
saws-are ones I've seen at auctions. Now the Screw, aptly compares the building to
antique and collectible, only a century ago these u a baronial castle transplanted from the
artifacts of the age of mechanical reproduction Ttansylvanian Alps."

FOLIO 59
Like Rybczynski, \ find the experience of tour- sub-subclass 444 (axially shiftable element
ing the museum dizzying. The central gallery located between and wedging against compo~
vaults six stories to the roof, and standing at the nenrs) , and, finally, sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-
middle of it is like standing ar rhe bortom of a class 445 (with threaded surface for cooperat-
twister that has sucked the entire nineteenth ing with mating~tool structure).
century into its windy coils. Buggies. wagons, Mercer, on the orher hand, divides all human
and sleighs float in midair, one above the other. artifacts into two kingdoms, primary and sec~
A thirty- by six-foor whaleboar hangs from rhe ondary, which he subsequently organizes not for~
ceiling on chains. Every surface is encrusted with mally or funcrionally but culturally, relativisti-
the antiquated remains of America's material cul~ cally, according to how the tool was used. Primary
rure. Across one wall, a trio of ox yokes fly like tools are those used to make or procure necessi~
strange pelicans. ties-Food, Clothing, Shelter, Transportation,
A walkway ar the periphery of rhe cenrral and, of course, other Tools. Secondary tools are
gallery spirals me upward past dozens of those used in human activities less rudimentary
alcoves, each devoted to a different craft or to survival, which Mercer groups into seven cat~
egories: Language, Religion, Commerce, Gov~
ernment, Art, Amusement~ and Science. For
~ favorite ofthe tools I encounter at each class, primary and secondary, he offers a sin~
gle exemplary object. A tuning fork falls under
eM/?rcers Museum is the hatters bow, Art, a pair of spurs under Transport. A multi~
purpose device might belong to several different
which looks like a cellists bow, only larger caregories, depending on who used it and how. An
apothecary's mortar and pestle is an arrifucr of Ap-
plied Science, but a baker's mortar and pestle
rrade, from wheelwrighring ro glassblowing, would be an artifact of Food. The museum itself
nearly every single one of which industrialism is a kind of three~dimensional,seven~storymag~
has rendered obsolere. My favorite of the many nification of this scheme, a taxonomical honey~
tools I encounter on my ascent is the hatter's comb of dioramas.
bow, a yard-long implemenr thar looks just like It is a beautiful thing, this taxonomy, like a
a cellist's bow, only larger. Haberdashers would good, old tool, elegant and useful even today,
pluck the bow's taught, catgut string above a despire its simpliciry. I can think of objects thar
mass of loose fur, causing it, the curator's cap~ might blur Mercer's lines but none that would
tion explains, "co interlace and produce a semi~ fall outside of them. Unlike Eric Sloane, Mercer
compact, oval sheer of fibers called a 'barr.'" regards objects as artifacts, not symools. He
On rhe third floor, inside a glass display insists that his tools not be treated as romantic,
case, I come upon a diagram of Mercer's tax~ nationalistic icons, for ancient antecedents to
onomy, his uClassification of Historic Human early American tools carl be found worldwide.
Tools," an elegant scheme that is to the Not only does his book include primitive exam~
Byzantine classification system devised by the pies of the wrench; he expresses disbelief rhar
u.s. Parenr and Trademark Office whar archaeologists have paid so little attention to
Linnaean taxonomy is to genetic sequencing. this implement, given its importance in the his~
The USPTO organizes tools firsr according ro tory of machines.
the action they perform, and further according "This singular collection is the child of an
to highly particularized nuances of engineering opportunity which will certainly never occur
and design. The wrench, for instance, belongs again," Mercer is quoted as saying in a display
to Class 8\ {tools}, Subclass 52 (wrench, near the museum's entrance. "Let my words
screwdriver, or driver therefor), which con~ inspire you one and all to refrain from destroy~
tains tools ufor engaging a work part and exert~ ing historical specimens of this kind which hap-
ing or transmitting a twisting strain thereto, or pen to be in your possession." There is some~
means for imparting or transmitting an actuat~ thing poignant about this wish, poignant
ing force to such a tool." Subclass 52 is in turn because the idea rhar one could possibly pre-
divided into sub~subclasses,sub~sub~subclasses, serve the material world, make time pause,
and so on. A particular kind of Allen wrench arresr "all things illustrating the life of a people
belongs to sub-subclass 436 (having work- at a given time," is itself antique. Mercer's ele~
engaging and force~exerting portion inserted gant classification system, the vestige of a far
into cavity, e.g., Allen wrench, screwdriver), more knowable world, contains a fatal flaw: it
sub-sub-subclass 442 (inserred portion having cannot accommodate whatsits. To classify a
relatively movable components), sub~sub~sub~ tool, he must first know how it was used.
subclass 443 {having camming or wedging ele- For practical reasons, Mercer limited his col~
ment for moving components}, sub~sub~sub~ lection to pre-industrial rools. Had he included

60 HARPER'S MAGAZINE JJANUARY 2005


tools of the age of mechanical reproduction, he guide; behold the fabulous, many-headed throng
would have needed a concrete, fireproof Library pictured therein-snow knockers and hoof-
of Babel to house them. Not even the Smith- picks, thrifts and mauls, stonecutting hammers
sonian has room for hand tools anymore. Most of with polls like picket fences, commanders with
the collection David Shayt curates has been massive heads of burl, fencing hammers with
moved to a warehouse in Maryland. During the "wire twisting cheeks"-and you can appreciate
last two centuries, depending on how you mea~ Marx's astonishment.
sure it, the manufactured world may have be~ The same year Marx published Das Kapical, the
come even more various than the natural onc, as number of U.S. patents totaled 60,658, an in-
infinite in its variety, to paraphrase Freud, as the Ctease in three decades of more than 5,000 percent.
daydreams of mankind. In 1928, the year Mercer completed Ancient Car-
Since 1790, when the U.S. Patent and Trade- pemers' Tools, Americans patented 42,376 in~
mark Office was established, 6.7 million inven~ ventions, and in 1930, at the beginning of the
tions have been patented in this country alone- Great Depression, they patented not fewer but
more than three times the number of life~fonns more--45,243 in aIL This is because patents ex~
identified to date by biologists. Of these, more ist in the realm of fantasy, not in the realm of
than 33,000 are hand tools u not structurally llm~ market economics. They represent the Ameri~
ited to any classified aft," a number that is itself can dream in its purest, most lottery~like fon.n. Of
fairly staggering when you consider that from the course, many if not most patented inventions
Iron Age to the dawn of the age of mechanical re- never earn a dime, and a majority of those that do
production the tools of most trades remained es~ quickly become extinct. Proof of this technolog~
sentially the same. The claw~headed hammer, ical mass extinction is all around us. In fields and
the plane, the brace, the saw, the drill-nearly all bams, foreclosed factories and abandoned mines,
the tools in a woodwork~ in plastic buckets of melt-
er's toolbox predate~ the ed hail, the Bessemer age
birth of Christ. There were of mechanical reproduc~
good reasons for their tion is vanishing into mst.
longevity: namely, human For this reasoo, the data~
anatomy, raw materials, base of the U.S. Patent and
and the laws of physics. A Trademark Office, like
hammer swung by a Ro~ Tom Friedlander's bam, re-
man carpenter in 286 B.C. sembles both a cabinet of
differed only superficially wonders and a catacomb
from that swung by an offollies.
American in 1786 A.D., What Mercer's museum
because in both cases the most reminds me of is Ox-
tool turned the carpenter's ford University's natural-
hand into a fulcrum; in history museum, a cathe~
both cases, the hammer's • dral-like building crowded
head would likely have with display cases I visit~
been made of iron, and its ed once during a year
haft from a wood such as oak, strong enough to abroad. American museums of natural history,
withstand repeated shock but soft enough to con~ with their animarronic dinosaurs, IMAX screens,
form ergonomically to the body of the man swing- and laserized planetarium shows, increasingly
ing it; in both cases, a well~aimed blow would resemble amusement parks. The Oxford museum,
have delivered comparable force and an errant by comparison, has the feel of a postcolonial cu-
one comparable harm. riosity shop, as if the curators had wandered amid
With the emergence of machine lathes and the wreckage of the British Empire, scavenging
modem metallurgy at the tum of the nineteenth haphazardly whatever marvels and oddities they
cenwry, it suddenly became possible to mass- could find. Walking from display case to display
produce tools so specialized they could substitute case, one skips across continents and centuries.
for skills. "The productivity of labour depends Here is the foot of a dodo bird, here the shriveled
not only on the proficiency of the worker, but head of a pygmy, here the plaster-of-paris likeness
also on the quality of his tools," Karl Marx wrote of an iguanodon.
in a section of Das Kapical, "The Specialized There is something funereal about all natural~
Worket and His Tools." By 1867, Marx reports history museums. They are zoos of the dead, not
with a hint of surprise and dismay, 500 different only because they exhibit herds of skeletons and
varieties of hammer were being manufactured in flocks of stuffed birds but because so many of
Birmingham, England. Flip through The their specimens are extinct. On one of my scav-
Hammer: The King of Tools, a collector's field enger hums with Tom, I picked up a battered

FOLIO 61
copy of Darwin's Journal of Researches and, read- head to the section of the grounds labeled AN-
ing it, was struck by how anachronistic-how TIQUES. Among the tables of John Deere mem-
innocent, even-his exuberant curiosity orabilia and hand-painted weather vanes I find
seemed. His entries are rhapsodies of descriptive a few tool dealers, but Tom is nowhere to be
prose. Forms of the words "interesting" and "sur~ seen. I wander the grounds, past concession
prising" toll among his sentences like a refrain of stands peddling corn dogs and fried dough, and
wonderment. "I was much surprised to find par~ sepmagenarian blacksmiths demonstrating their
tides of smne above the thousandth of an inch lost art. On and on I search, up and down the
square, mixed with finer matter," he writes of a seemingly endless rows of gas engines and trac-
handful of dust. It is as if no one in the history of tors, whose proud owners sit beside them in fold-
the world had ever paid attention before, as if ing chairs, drinking beer and playing cards. A
Darwin and other Victorians had been born at hundred years ago, these antique machines, near~
the dawn of creation, rather than at the twilight Iy all of them now lovingly restored, brought in-
of an empire. dustry to the farm. They are, in effect, factories
For Melville, [QO, the seas were a sublime on wheels. Passover is thought to have begun
chaos of Leviathan mysteries-mysteries that, as a shepherds' feast, the rituals and symbols of
in a famously dense chapter on l<Cetology," Ish~ which outlasted the way of life that gave rise to
mael endeavors to solve, wielding taxonomy as them. Something similar, it seems to me, is hap-
deftly as Queequeg does a harpoon. Although he pening here, at this celebration of obsolete tech~
"swam through libraries and sailed through nology. Caravaning multitudes have made the
oceans," a systematic classification of the whale, pilgrimage in order to sacrifice a few gallons of fos-
he concedes, would take generations to com~ sil fuel to the Gods of Industry. Out of the smoke-
plete. Never could Melville have predicted that stack of a Leviathan diesel mill with a flywheel
within seventy-five years of Moby,Dick's publi~ weighing three tons, perfect rings of smoke chuff
cation, when the last American whaling bark, one by one at rhythmic intervals, expanding as
Wanderer, sank off Cuttyhunk, nOt only would all they rise.
the species of the once unfathomable cetacean The day is well past its meridian when I real-
order have been fathomed i,e that the Jay County fair-
but many would be nearly grounds are far larger than
extinct and the whale fish~ I had thought. In one cor-
eries nearly exhausted. ner of my map, north of the
One wonders to what de~ spark-plug exhibit and east
gree Darwin, Melville, and of the tractors, the word
other taxonomical Victori- "parts" appears twice, adrift
ans realized that their in a terra incognita of white
travelogues were sp~ce. Here, in a vast and
eulogies. shadeless field, I discover a
postindustrial bazaar. The
U o n my return to place feels like a makeshift
Michigan, [ decide to take
one last field trip into the
American junkyard. For
,. village or the camp of a
.- bivouacking army. Booths
and tables, overspread with
five days in late August, ....:~.. mechanical organs and im-
the thirty~eighth annual plements, form thorough-
Tri-State Gas Engine & fares several acres long.
Tractor Show will be held at the Jay County There are dealers who specialize in antique spark
fairgrounds in Portland, Indiana, a town 200 plugs, antique railroad jacks, antique wooden
miles from Ann Arbor. Hundreds of tool deal- pulleys, antique hog oilers, antique tractor-seat
ers will be in attendance. To get a jump on cushions. There is even a magazine srand peddling
other collectors, Tom drives down ahead of such periodicals as Green, a John Deere fanzine,
time and spends the eve of the show in a motel. and Farm Collecwr ("Dedicated to the Preserva-
I arrive the following morning a little before tion of Vintage Farm Equipment").
noon. The dirt parking lots reserved for the When I finally locate Tom, he is standing
show are nearly full. Throughout the surround- alone at a Coca-Cola kiosk, tinted shades
ing neighborhood, people are renting out park- clipped to his glasses, two duffle bags at his feet,
ing Spots on their front lawns. The cars, hailing both bulging with loot. Since not long after
from across the Midwest, may very well number sunrise, he has been working his way from deal~
in the thousands. er to dealer, filling his bags and returning to his
Imagining that Tom's blue cap and long beard truck to empty them. He has already acquired
wi II make him easy to spot, I procure a map and more wrenches on this hunt than on any other

62 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I JANUARY 2005


in all his years of collecting, and he still has a I choose an item at random and take notes.
few more dealers he means to hit Copper-headed hammer, nine-inch handle
()-' before we go. made of tapered iron. No maker's mark, no
patent number. One poll cracked, the other poll
1he next day, back in Ann Atbot, I dtive out scurfy with blue-green oxides that come off, like
to the Friedlanders' farm to help Tom unload, butterfly scales, when you touch them. Copper
tally, and classify this bounteous haul. mines riddle northern Michigan and southern
Spreading his treasures out on the lowered tail~ Ontario, on land stolen from natives for its ore.
gate of his pickup, he is boyishly giddy. "Whee'" Now many of the mines are depleted, and the
he sings. "Chtistmas in August!" Today the copper, at least a small part of it, is dissolving
wotld delights him with surprises. A wasp onto my fingertips.
swoops down from the eaves of the tool bam, In the first chapter of Democracy in America,
snatches a grasshopper from the dirt, and carries de Tocqueville characterized the European set-
it away. "Grasshopper killed" Tom exclaims. It tlers of the American Midwest as "the great
is a perfect late-summer afternoon. The cattails people to whom the future of the continent
have grown as tall as trees. Martha's vegetable doubtless belongs." No longer. The future lies
garden is in fruit. The light is golden. The gold- elsewhere now, in suburban business parks, in
enrod is a yellow sea. The grass beside the tool the coastal metropolises, or perhaps on anoth-
barn is long and spangled with dandelions. er continent altogether. Perhaps the future
Among them, I notice first one little Day-Glo belongs to the employees of Stanley's facrory
orange flag, then another, then another. There in China.
are four in all. Today the residents of "that inexhaustible Mis-
"That's where the new bam will go," Tom ex- sissippi Valley" resemble those other peoples de
plains when I ask about the flags. The new barn Tocqueville describes in his first chapter, a mys-
has been a fantasy of his fot years. At last, he is teri.ous, vanished, and-as history would later
ready to build it. As we sort yesterday's quarry prove-wholly imaginary tribe who allegedly pre-
into piles-wrenches here, non-wrenches there, ceded the Indians. "Along the banks of the Ohio
hand-forged wrenches there, drop-forged wrench- and in all of the central valley," de Tocqueville
es here-Tom describes his plans. The new barn wrote, "every day one still finds mounds raised by
will be bigger than the last barn, he says, and the hand of man. When one digs to the center of
more brightly lit-an exhibition space worthy these monuments, they say, one can scarcely fail
of his collection. He will mount his tools on ply- to encounter human remains, strange instru-
w.ood and hang them from walls. I wonder who ments, arms, utensils of all kinds-made of met-
it is he imagines his museum will attract, or if it al, or recalling usages unknown to current races."
even matters. As much as he enjoys my interest Like a rusty, obsolete machine that was once
in his tools, I doubt that his excitement would di- as silvery and marvelous as the future itself, the
minish if I weren't there. lfhe were his museum's New World, that European pipe dream, has
only patron, I am certain that he would keep res- grown old. This is one of the meanings I have
cuing tOols, keep classifying them, keep putting scavenged from the junkyard.
them on display. Identification is, for him, akin "Democratic peoples scarcely worry about
ro benediction, and salvage is akin to salvation. what has been," de Tocqueville also wrote, "but
His cosmology, I have come ro learn, is essentially they willingly dream of what will be, and in
elegiac. The universe he inhabits is at once won- this direction their imagination has no limits;
drous and endangered. He is not a religious man. here it stretches and enlarges itself beyond
He does not believe that The End is nigh. Trained measure." To the degree that this was ever
as a botanist, he does not believe in The End at true-and the suicidal immigrants in Willa
all but in evolution, change without end. And yet, Cather's novels present at least one caveat-I
unlike some neo-Darwinists, Tom knows that doubt it is any longer. At some point in the 175
change entails loss, and he dqes not years that have elapsed since the French aristo~
( ) - ' confuse evolution with progress. crat came to have a look at the American
experiment in democracy-perhaps when the
1hat afternoon, when we have finished archiv- frontier closed, or perhaps when men became,
ing Tom's new acquisitions, I linger in the barn, in Thoreau's words, "the tools of their tools," or
alone. Outside, the world is hot and bright, but perhaps when Henry C. Mercer acquired his
inside it is cool and datk. It smells of grease, dirt, first penny lor-the future loosened its pur-
concrete, rust. There are no windows. One might chase upon our dreams. This is not to say that
as well be lll1derground, in a cave--or in a dream. Americans have collectively lost faith in
The shapes of the tools are fubulous, as is theit progress, only that our imaginations face in two
multiplicity, and their glimmering is faintly sen- directions. Newer is still better, but now we are
tient, like the eyes of dolls. nostalgic for almost everything. •

FOLIO 63

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