Friday, March 7, 2008

More on Carriage Wheels

Some days ago I wrote about what kinds of artifacts we might find in connection with a carriage shop, specifically cast-iron wagon boxes, also called skeins. These are bearings that were inserted into the hub and through which the axle extended. Packed in grease, they allowed horse-drawn vehicles to move smoothly.

This picture, taken by me years ago at the Museums at Stony Brook on Long Island (they have a world class collection of carriages), shows a partly disassembled carriage wheel in a shop. In the wooden box below, just to the left of the leftmost spoke, is a wagon box. Obviously, it is for a wagon wheel hub and could not possibly have fit into the small wheel hub of a carriage.

The picture to the right shows a wagon wheel with a new-fangled patent wheel. These machine-made hubs eliminated the very specialized skill necessary in turning a wooden hub on a lathe and then cutting the mortises for the spokes. Machine-made hubs and wheels made the appearance in the marketplace as early as the late 1860s and by the 1880s dominated the market. Sarven and Palmer were among the most popular types. Their introduction was part of a general de-skilling of the American workforce. When they appear on carriage, wagon, and wheelwright shops, they indicate a postbellum date for the deposit in which they are found and a craftsman who by choice or the demands of his customers is part of a larger market system through which he purchases parts for repair work rather than making new parts.

The Atzerodt shop probably will not have these artifacts unless it continued in operation after George Atzerodt's execution for his part in the Lincoln conspiracy. We know from the census work that Carol is doing that wheelwrights and blacksmiths continued to work in Port Tobacco at least into the 1880s, so we can expect to find old-style wagon boxes and new-style patent wheel hub parts in town.


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