Winter light

I have 14 windows down in this small workshop, and here in New England as winter solstice is approaching, I can’t see well enough to do any significant work by 4:30 in the afternoon. By 4pm it’s getting dim, but I can sweep, sort stuff – can’t cut joinery or do carving. I  think about the joiners of the 17th century with the small (& few) windows in their buildings, how did they do any work in this light? Maybe they didn’t work much in the winter?

A notion that shows up in several 20th-century writings about 17th-century joiners is that they concentrated their joinery work in the winter; being too occupied with crops and livestock the rest of the year. That’s a quaint notion, and might even have some merit. One way to see if this is valid is to see tradesmen’s probate inventories to see if there’s work underway. There’s lots of reasons stuff might be un-finished…but it’s a start.

One bit of evidence in favor of this argument is the inventory of Edward Brown of Ipswich, Massachusetts, his inventory is from February 1659/60:

3 wheeles, finished lennen 13s6d, wheeles woolen & linnen not finisht £1-16  work done toward chaires 3s  &  15—ills 6s9d  shope tooles £3-6

John Symonds of Salem, Massachusetts also had unfinished work when he died. His inventory was presented in court 19:7:1671 – so September according to the old calendar.

will: “…to my son James Symonds…I do assigne my servant John Pease to him dureing the term of time expressed in the Indenture… Further I give all my workinge tooles belonginge to my trade to my son James Symonds…”

inv:  Joyners Tools benches and lare £5-5-6  2 Bedsteds almost finished £3  3 stools and one half of a Box 12s6d  1/2 Grindstone & windlass & a Small grindstone 5s  Timber planke & board £5-12

part of a Chest… 3 Chests 3 Boxes and a wooden Tunnil 14s  2 Tables a forum & Chayres 16s  a Vice and an old Hatchet 10s  nayles 10d  an Ax 6s10d   …a p of Jemmils…5 wedges…one half of a Crosscut Saw…  Timber in the Woods £1-2  an apprentice of 17 years old who hath 3 year and 9 moneths and 2 weekes to serve

George Cole died in 1675. His inventory is dated 30:9:1675, back when the 9th month was November…his work is not called “unfinished” but he had “work done in his shop…”

will:  “…I give to my master John Davis all my timber…”

3 saues 8s,  2 goynters & foreplaine 6s, 3 smothing plains & a draing knife 3s6d, 2 plans & 2 revolvong plains 10s,  4 round plains 5s, 3 rabet plains 4s,  3 holou plains 3s6d,  9 Cresing plains 10s6d,  6 torning tools 9s,  3 plaine irons & 3 bits 1s6d,  1 brase stok, 2 squares & gorges 1s6d,  1 brod ax & 1 fro 2s, holdfast 1s6d,  hamer 1s6d,  6 gouges 2s,  9 Chisels 5s,  2 ogers & 1 draing knife 3s,  1 bench hooks, 2 yoyet irons 1s,  a gluepot 1s6d,  for what work he has done in his shop £1-10

My notes include a date of “1676/7” for  Matthew Macomber  of Taunton, in Plymouth Colony. The double-dating falls between January and mid-March, so this is another one for the “winter” crowd.

a parsell of cooper’s tooles 9s  (illegible) hoopes not finished 10d  five hundred of cedar bolts att the swamp £1-10  hewen timber in the woods 8s9d  200 of cooper stuff in the woods 5s  more in tooles and arms £2-10

Another vote for winter is William Savell, of Braintree, Massachusetts. He died February 1, 1699/1700. Included in his inventory are:

a green carpitt & covers for chairs  01-08-00

a douzen painted chairs & a sealskin trunk  01-18-00

a wainscott chest and a box  01-01-00

a square table a wainscott chest and a bedstead  02-12-00

tooles  02-10-00

timber and weare begun  03-00-00

Well, here’s one more – what I always call “When Things Go Wrong”  – court cases sometimes shed light on period practice. John Davis was asked to make 4 chests, did so, and had them delivered. But it all ended up in court. All I can see is that Davis was both pissed and pissed off in May of 1681, and things got messy…but these depositions tell us exactly nothing about what time of year John Davis made these chests:

Writ: John Davis v. John Tolly; debt; for four wainscot chests made by his order and delivered to him in his house, dated June 23, 1681; signed by John Fuller, for the court and town of Lyn; and served by Richard Prytherch, constable of Salem, by attachment of the bed of the defendant, the summons being left with Mrs. Tauly.

Nathaniall Kirtland, aged about thirty-four years, deposed that he brought from John Davis’ shop at Lyn four chests and delivered them to John Tauly at his house in Salem. Davis told the deponent that Tauly had them to carry to Newfoundland. Sworn in court.

Bill of cost 3£

Eleaser Lenesey, aged about thirty-five years, deposed that Davis looked at a chest in Tawleay’s house and the latter told him to make two or three as good as that for 25s. each. Sworn in court before William Browne, assistant, and owned in court.

Richard Croade, aged about fifty-two years, testified that, on May 7, 1681, he heard Mr John Tally read from his book his account with John Davis, and the latter did not disown it. Sworn, May 11, 1681, before William Browne, assistant.

Samll Blyghe, aged about twenty-two years, deposed that, being in the house of Mr Wing of Boston in company with John Tawly of Salem and Joseph Cawly, he heard Tawly ask John Davis, joiner, of Lynn, to make the chests, saying he would rather Davis have his money than any one else, at the same time giving him 5s. Sworn, June 23, 1681, before William Browne, assistant.

John Longley, aged about forty-two years, testified that on May 6, 1681, he heard Davis at Taulely’s house call the latter a cheating knave, with many other absurd expressions, challenging him out of his own house to fight, threatening him. He also took hold of a wainscot chest in the room, threw it up and down the room, breaking several pieces of the front of the chest, etc. Davis was very much in drink. Elizabeth Tawley testified to the same. Sworn, June 28, 1681 before Bartho Gedney, assistant.

Joseph Calley, aged about thirty-seven years, deposed. Sworn, June 7, 1681, before John Richards, assistant.

Eleazer Lenesey, aged about thirty-five years, testified that, being in John Davis’ house at Line, after he had brought home the cloth, a whole piece of kersey, he said he had bought it of John Tawleay of Salem. Sworn before William Browne, assistant.

Mary Ivory, aged about forty-two years, deposed that she was at Taulie’s house when he received the chests. Sworn in court.

Samuell Ingols, aged about twenty-seven years, and Nathanil Willson, aged about nineteen years, deposed that the chests were worth 30s. each. Sworn in court.

John Longley, aged about forty-two years, and Thomas Eleat, aged about twent-six years, deposed concerning the assault and that neither Tawley nor his wife could have any peace while Davis was in the house. Sworn. May 9, 1681, before Bartho Gedney, assistant.”

 

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10 thoughts on “Winter light

  1. This is a very interesting subject – how long did it take? It still surprises me how effective and efficient hand tool working can be. I’ve no doubt you could do all of the carving on a large box in the couple of hours of good light on a winter day. I can plane 8 board feet of oak in an hour, no doubt someone more experienced would be faster. Would a tradesman of the period have done much of his own farming, or concentrate on his paying job? I don’t care what the kings did, what did the joiners and smiths do? Like you’ve said, we can’t really know.

  2. Peter, this is fantastic research. I’d be interested in seeing inventories like this–of joiners’ and cabinetmakers’ shops–for the 18th century. If it’s not too painful, do you know any sources that would get me started?

  3. Pray tell, have you any clue as to what is the “draing knife”? I’d be curious. Fanscinating post, Peter. I do know that many a joiner had their work space in the main room of the abode, perhaps candle light or the light from a fireplace made for winter light……

  4. My first thought is that people didn’t live as long and optometry was not as advanced as it is today, so maybe they were able to work in winter simply because they were young and their eyesight had not yet deteriorated. Also, perhaps the buildings they worked in and the few windows they did have were positioned to make the most of the winter light? Who can know for sure?

    What I do find interesting is that these inventory records still exist at all! So wonderful that you are documenting these things here on this blog for us all to be privy to. Thank you.

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