Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wood, Tools, Factories and Patents – Part Two of the Continuing Tale of Levi Chapin

(Note: this is Part 2: Part 1 is here)

Trees.   Logs.   Boards.   Wood.  

For most of the early 19th century, the family of Levi Chapin of Walpole, New Hampshire and wood, in all its various manifestations, were largely inseparable.

In the earliest days, it began with the trees themselves on Levi’s 800-acre farm.  The trees were harvested, hauled and trimmed by the Chapins, sawn in the Chapin's sawmill, turned into lumber and then sent down the river to Springfield, Massachusetts to be re-formed into the rapidly growing community’s houses, stores, offices, and furniture.

If you had an ancestor living in 19th century Springfield, her kitchen table or cellar door may have been made with wood from Levi Chapin’s farm. The planks that floored her bedroom may have been smoothed by one of Levi’s sons. Her parlor fireplace mantel may have started as a thousand pound piece of a hundred-year-old tree hauled off a hill by a Chapin horse.

Levi’s five sons grew up surrounded by the work wood makes, in all its manifestations.  There were trees to be cut.  Bark to be removed. Sawdust to be swept up.  Firewood to be sawn and split.  Logs to be transformed into boards by those unforgiving mill saw blades.

Their lives were circumscribed by the sound and smell of wood:  trees falling, axes and saws pounding and ripping, fires of waste wood crackling, and the dull thud of a never-ending supply of boards being stacked in higher and higher piles for shipment elsewhere.

With sawdust in their lungs and tree sap in their blood, the Chapin boys were almost made of wood, and wood was made for these Chapins.

It’s no surprise that three of Levi’s sons chose careers that were dependent upon wood.  Eldest son Nathaniel (1792 – 1876) joined his brothers Hermon (1799 – 1866) and Philip (1805 -1887) in a place called Pine Meadow (part of the town of New Hartford), Connecticut in a moulding-plane making venture for a few years.  In time, both Nathaniel (the grandkids’ ancestor) and Philip moved away to run their own factories, leaving Hermon to become the Connecticut “King of Moulding Planes and Ruler of Rules.”

Moulding planes tend not to be on most genealogists’ radar.  Say “wood planes”, and the average genealogist thinks of something that you buy at a hardware store to take the rough parts or high parts off a piece of wood.

But moulding planes are something entirely different; in fact, in order to understand moulding planes, you need to learn a new vocabulary, with words like “astragal”, “ogee”, and “cavetta”.  These are words that describe the shapes – the moulding profiles - that are made by hand tools known as moulding planes. 

So, what exactly are “moulding profiles”, you might ask?  After all, in all your years of doing family history, nobody has ever asked you to know what an “ogee moulding” is.

The best way to explain this is to suggest you tour a 19th century house with all its original mouldings.  Crown mouldings where walls and ceilings meet, chair rails set partway up the walls, and fireplaces where stylized mouldings abound. If you can, actually run your fingers across the moulding and feel the smooth curves, sharp angles and the grain of the wood.

All those fine mouldings that you see in 19th century historic houses in Connecticut and Massachusetts were likely made on the spot when the house was built.  There were no lumber stores or Home Depots where those fancy mouldings were sold by the linear foot; housewrights and carpenters used moulding planes – often from one of the Chapin plane factories – to make their own interior mouldings by hand.

The patterns of the moulding – the curves and thrusts and angles – are called the moulding profiles. And an “ovolo moulding” looks like this:

This shape is made by craftsmen using a wood plane that looks something like this one:

For years, New England craftsmen sought out the Chapin brothers’ planes for their quality and cutting edge. Some Chapin planes bear the mark of Nathaniel, the brother who set up shop in Westfield, Massachusetts: they’re stamped “N. Chapin & Co. Eagle Factory Westfield”.  Others bear Hermon’s mark: “H. Chapin Union Factory   Warranted”. 

Hermon’s plane and rule making enterprise in New Hartford was very successful. When his son Philip (named after his father’s youngest brother) inherited it in 1866, he took himself a wife and built himself a house to reflect the Chapins’ success story.  The house, I’ve learned, is currently for sale.  If you have $785,000, you too can live like young Philip Chapin. 

Here’s the link that underscores the fact that in the age before power tools and mass marketing, the manufacture of high-quality planes and carpenters’ rules could make you wealthy. 

Nathaniel and Hermon’s youngest brother Philip’s planes were not much used in New England; after he learned plane-making in New Hartford with his brother Hermon, he set off south to Baltimore, Maryland where, in time, he became a prosperous and prolific plane maker. Planes stamped “P. Chapin. Balto.” are heavier and bulkier than the New England planes.

Chapin planes are now museum pieces and collector’s items.  The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has both a large collection of Chapin planes and lots of archival material from the Chapin factory in Pine Meadow.You can search for it in the CHS online catalog.

Interestingly, Philip, Levi’s youngest son, was living in Baltimore at the time that it is said that Levi made his trip south to eastern Virginia, ostensibly to “…dispose of his patents.”  And Baltimore is close to Washington D.C.  And eastern Virginia.

Keep that thought in mind for a bit while we talk about patents.

In 1793, the U.S. Congress passed the Patent Act, placing the issuance of patents under the Secretary of State’s office.  There was little in the way of stringent review like there is today:  if you were a citizen, your payment of $30.00 and the submission of a drawing, a description, and a working miniature model of your invention, usually got you a United States patent.

In 1810, the federal government purchased a building in Washington known locally as “Blodgett’s Hotel” and began renovations to use it as the headquarters for both the Post Office and the Patent Office. 

Things were simpler then.

Fast forward to the present. 

Several years ago, the folks at Google announced a new free tool:  Google Patents, direct from the USPTO (the official United States Patent and Trademark Office).  It’s described on the Google website as follows: Google Patents covers the entire collection of issued patents and millions of patent applications made available by the USPTO, from patents issued in the 1790s through the present.

If you have an inventor-ancestor, you can play with Google Patents here. One thing to bear in mind, though: the character recognition technology that Google Patents uses leaves a lot to be desired.  For example the name “Robert Amory” – pretty clear on his printed 1924 patent for manufacturing blankets – is rendered by the search function as “BOBEPT AMOBY

 Quirky search function notwithstanding, Google Patents sounds great, right? If there’s a “Levi Chapin” patent for some kind of an improvement to water wheels, it should appear on Google Patents.

Problem is, when you use Google Patents, no “Levi Chapin” patents appear.

That’s because there’s one little event that the Google Patents FAQ blurb completely glosses over: the “Great Patent Office Fire” of 15 December 1836. The fire totally destroyed Blodgett’s Hotel and virtually all of the early patents burned up.  Estimates are that nearly 10,000 patents were destroyed in the fire, with only a very small number escaping destruction.  Congress later permitted the “restoration” of 2,845 patents, using the information from private files. So, while it’s correct to say that the Google Patents records go back to the 1790s, it would be more correct to point out that most of the earliest records no longer exist.

What now?

Fortunately, the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia began publishing a periodical journal in 1826, making it the second oldest continuously published scientific journal in the country.  In the early days, one of their regular features in each issue was a large section called “American Patents” in which they reported on and described the latest patents issued by the Patent Office.  

Currently the journal concentrates on engineering and applied mathematics, and should you feel compelled to subscribe, all 10 issues a year can be yours for one low yearly subscription payment of $2,633.00.

It was much less expensive in Levi Chapin’s day.

On page 30 of Volume 5, issued in 1830, the Journal of the Franklin Institute reported that a patent (number 5676) for “an improvement in the mode of Hanging and Straining Saws” had been issued to Levi Chapin of Walpole, New Hampshire on 13 October 1829. A few years later (January 1833), a notice appeared describing another patent (number 7099) for “an improvement in the Saw Mill” issued to Levi Chapin, Walpole, Chester County [sic], New Hampshire on 1 June 1832.  Each issue described Levi Chapin’s invention in detail, so that by referencing the Journal, interested descendants can read what the inventions were actually supposed to do.

So, Levi Chapin actually had patents, even though you can’t find them using Google Patents, since they’re from the “burned” period. 

Note, however, neither patent described in the Journal of the Franklin Institute “improves water wheels” in any way, as the Walpole New Hampshire history suggests.  They’re all about saws and cutting wood. Remember, these Connecticut River Valley Chapins were all about wood, in all its manifestations.

Also remember Levi’s youngest son Philip.  Philip, still unmarried, lived in Baltimore and made planes at the time his father Levi is reported to have died in eastern Virginia of yellow fever. Eastern Virginia is close to Baltimore.

Philip appears in Matchett’s Baltimore Directory in the edition of 1835 – 1836 at 36 Light Street:

So, overall, the information that appears in printed sources is close to accurate, but not truly on the mark.   It wasn’t his brother in Washington; it was his nephew.  His patents were not to improve water wheels; they were all about sawing wood. In my former career, we used to describe this kind of thing as “good enough for government work”, however, it’s not quite good enough for family history.

Therefore, the question arises: did he intend to “sell” his patents, as the Walpole history relates, or did he plan to license them to mill operators?  And since his son Philip lived in Baltimore and his nephew Stephen in Washington, was his visit south actually a family visit/ business trip or something else altogether?

And, of equal interest, what about his contracting yellow fever and dying in September of 1833?  What can we learn about that, if anything?

Stay tuned! There's more to come!


  1. I am loving this series and can hardly wait to find out what happens next!

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