It would be impossible to overstate how much easier innovation has made life for the average American.
Hungry? All you have to do is go to the grocery store and pick out whatever it is you crave at the moment, or, better yet, find a restaurant near home and let someone else do the cooking. Heck, in modern society, you don’t even need to get out of your car in order to satiate your appetite.
Speaking of cars, today’s preferred mode of transportation is a traveling entertainment center, complete with video and audio options to make your commute to work as enjoyable as possible. And for that cross-country journey you’ve been planning for the last year, all that’s needed is some Bluetooth and a smartphone to ensure that you know exactly where you are and where you’re going at all times.
We live in a time when virtually everything is a computer-keyboard click away from being ours. We shop from our couches, communicate with relatives halfway across the globe while lying in our beds, and keep our homes cool or hot simply with the touch of a button.
It was, of course, not always so. For the majority of human existence, life was hard. Everything came at an expense — of time, of energy, even of safety. Go back to the 18th and 19th centuries and you’ll find that everyone you knew spent sun-up to sun-down making sure that survival was a possibility.
That was certainly the case in Cheshire. When the first settlers came to “Fresh Meadows” from Wallingford, they brought with them the means to work the fields, build their homes, hunt their food and defend their land. While a local blacksmith may have constructed some tools used by early Cheshire settlers, most were cobbled together by the people themselves.
In the Hitchcock-Phillips House, home to the Cheshire Historical Society, an entire room has been dedicated to the first tools the community founders used when they arrived in their new land. Lining the walls, resting on the floors, or protected under lock and key in display cases, the items tell the story of back-breaking work that helped establish homesteads and maintain a family in early America.
“They knew what it meant to work,” says Marshal Robinson, a member of the Cheshire Historical Society who at one time was an avid collector of old tools. “If they didn’t do it, (the work) wouldn’t get done.”
Some of the tools at the Historical Society are recognizable to any homeowner or DIY-er of today, albeit with noticeable differences. For instance, a large shovel hangs on the wall, looking somewhat similar to the conventional ones still found at stores throughout the nation. This one, however, is made of wood — first, because the material was readily available to settlers, and second, because, as Robinson explains, many farmers believed that metal shovels could “taint” whatever grain was being scooped up for consumption..
If you wanted butter for the home, it was made using a butter churn — an elongated wood pail topped with a lid that had a hole in the top, where one would place the plunger. Cream was poured into the churn and then the operator moved the plunger up and down until the cream was turned into butter. The entire process would take hours.
Everything from vegetables to milk and water would be transported using a yoke, commonly referred to as a milkmaid’s yoke, one of which is displayed at the Society in near-pristine condition. A wooden brace would go along the shoulders of the user with string hanging from either side. Pails were filled to equal weight of whatever was to be transported and would then be attached and carried from one part of a landowner’s parcel to another, allowing even slightly-built farmers to carry heavy items around the property.
Another must-have for any settler was an adze. A tool that dates back to the beginning of the stone age, an adze looks like an axe, but with a cutting edge perpendicular to the handle. This would allow home builders to “square up” the beams so they would connect with one another to form the frame of a home or barn.
Some of the first screwdrivers were called screw turns — crudely crafted out of metal with a flat head at the tip, connected to a wood handle. Many settlers also made their own nails.
Lighting was of course important. With no electricity, homes were illuminated with lamps that used kerosene or whale oil. Some larger antique lamps look very similar to their electrical cousins of today, but others took on rather unusual shapes and sizes. Some whale oil burners, for instance, were oval-shaped pieces of metal attached to a wood handle, with a wick located towards the tip. The lid was lifted and a small amount of oil poured in. When the wick was lit, it produced a small flame. These were commonly called “Iron Betty Lamps.”
“It didn’t throw out a lot of light at all,” explained Robinson. “These lamps weren’t illuminating the whole house. Just a little flame so you could see where you were going.”
Those who toiled in the mines as a profession also needed light to break through the blackness, but unlike the headlamps of today, the miner’s lights of the 19th century were small, less effective and dangerous. The oil lamps were worn attached to soft caps, emitting a small flame that could set certain materials afire. Later, in the early 20th century, carbide lamps were used, again worn on soft caps, where calcium carbide and water were mixed to produce and then burn acetylene, which was safer and produced a brighter light.
Bowls were shaped using a scorp — a sharp, curved metal edge attached to two handles — and drawknives, of similar shape, were handy for smoothing out flat wood surfaces when making shingles for the roof of a house.
The Society has any number of unique items, from an antique jewelers tool where the user could swap out blades depending on what kinds of materials were being handled, to the first iterations of carpet cleaners — bulky, made of wood, and rolled along the carpet to pick up dust.
Farmers were all about their crops, and they planted everything they could, explains Robinson. Corn was, of course, popular, and the Society has examples of old seed planters used to individually plant the crops out in the fields.
The smaller kind were made of wood, shaped like a V, and had a metal container attached on the side. The farmer would jab the planter down into the ground to make a hole and then release a seed from the container.
“Today, you have these big machines that just come by and plant the seeds, and do it quick,” Robinson says. “They had to go around (with the planter) and do it by themselves.”
“It’s amazing what they had to do,” he continued. “I don’t think I could have ever made it as a farmer in those days.”
In reality, few did last very long under the strain of everyday life. According to Legacy.com, the life expectancy for someone living in the 18th to early 19th centuries was around 42 years, with males averaging 38 years of age. Of course, those averages were mostly attributable to high infant mortality rates and the scourge of disease, but certainly the extreme conditions under which people lived aided in most seeing an early grave.
It might not require a trip back in time to elicit a healthy respect for the conveniences of the modern age, but if one is ever in need of a refresher, the “tool room” at the Cheshire Historical Society is a good place to start. It paints the picture of an early community built with blood, sweat and tears … and some sturdy axes.