Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Seldom Seen Survivors

From extraordinary barn finds to unexpected research discoveries, the last quarter century has brought us a world of insights into America’s early vehicle makers.  Through it all, we’ve been privileged to meet a lot of great people while helping bring more clarity to an often-misunderstood part of our past.  Even so, there are a lot of pieces from yesterday’s transportation industry that I’ve never seen.  The closest we seem to get to them might be an old drawing or printed description from a period trade publication.  At the end of the day, there are just some elements that remain elusive. Because the pieces I’m talking about are usually fairly small, they can be easily forgotten, overlooked, or tossed aside as junk.  Nonetheless, these modestly-sized artifacts can play a huge role in provenance while adding remarkable interest and value to related vehicles.  With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting this week to go over a few seldom-seen-survivors from the nineteen and early twentieth centuries... 

1.      Archibald Hub Wrench – From water and ice wagons to express, beer, fire, and ore wagons, there were numerous early vehicles that used Archibald hubs.  These metal flanges encased the spokes and were designed to deliver numerous benefits, including more secure wheels and lighter vehicle draft.  After testing the design in the 1870’s, the U.S. military ultimately adopted the Archibald hub for use in a number of transports, including the Army Escort wagon.  Centering the wheels, it’s an easy feature to recognize.  Even so, there’s one element of the Archibald hub that is rarely seen and is one of the most crucial accessories for the design – the wheel wrench.  I’m not talking about a traditional wrench of the style used on most thimble-skein farm wagons.  I’m referring to a specific design(s) created particularly for the Archibald hub.  Some time ago, I was reviewing a special collection of wagons and came across one of these ultra-rare pieces.  One end of this particular wrench is sized for the center nut on the wheel while the other end fits the smaller nuts positioned on the backside of the wheel hub.  Since stumbling across that wrench, I’ve actually located photographic evidence of yet another style the military also used on Archibald hubs.

The inclusion of raised letters on this Archibald hub wrench may be indicative of a presentation piece.

2.      Advertising Print Blocks – Computers, copiers, and digital technology have so simplified the modern-day printing process that it’s easy to overlook the challenges faced in late nineteenth and early twentieth century printing.  Instead of a direct ‘computer-to-plate’ process, many advertising messages from those days were crafted by using movable type and print blocks with raised surfaces that transferred ink when pressed against paper.  While many early print ads and literature produced in this way can still be found, image-laden print blocks generated by the major vehicle makers are much tougher to locate.  Even so, they can add even more dimension to a particular vehicle, brand, and collection.

3.      Patent Models – In the early days of patent registrations, inventors were required to submit a working miniature of their idea.  In 1790, the first Patent Act was established by then-President George Washington with functional patent models needed alongside the accompanying text descriptions and illustrations.  This prerequisite was part of the process from 1790 through 1880.  Finding these pieces of transportation history can be extremely tough in the twenty-first century.  One of the thousands of artifacts in our archives is a miniature model for a brake ratchet.  It was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office in January of 1880 by Abner Fish, one of the brothers in the legendary Fish Bros. Wagon Company in Racine, Wisconsin.  The patent was granted in March of 1880. 

This one-of-a-kind brake ratchet model for Fish Bros. wagons was submitted in 1880.  It was the last year models would be required for patent submissions.

4.      Original Stencils – Vintage wagon makers added logos, names, and numerals to a variety of locations on the vehicle.  Sometimes builders used printed transfers (decalcomines) for the brand name while, in other instances, the signage was hand painted or stencils were employed.  Even though stencils were once a common sight in wagon shops, original examples are very difficult to find today. 

This original stencil was used to paint the brand name on the side of a Lamons wagon.  The Lamons Wagon Company of Greeneville, TN was established in 1868.

5.      State Fair / Exposition Awards – Year after year, numerous fairs as well as regional, national, and international Expositions served as new vehicle competitions.  Manufacturers were judged on the merits of style, design, innovation, quality, and functional effectiveness.  Individual entries were awarded with medallions, ribbons, pins, cash, and other prizes.  Many of those awards have survived, yet, countless others are still unaccounted for.  In one case, almost three dozen medallions survived because they were embedded into a special show vehicle.  In today’s vernacular, we would call that particular set of wheels a concept vehicle.  The medallions are part of the legendary ‘Aluminum Wagon’ produced by Studebaker for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  The wagon has never been used, other than in promotions.  It's located in the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. 

Our research of an intriguing wagon shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition (First World’s Fair) turned up another medallion awarded in 1875 to the maker of that wagon, Jacob Becker, Jr.  We came across an additional medallion from a smaller maker in Peoria, Illinois a few years ago.  Awarded to Geo. Pfieffer & Company, the honor was bestowed upon the firm for having the Best Spring Wagon judged by the Illinois State Board of Agriculture in 1882.  Mr. Pfieffer was also recognized in 1874 for having the Best 2-horse wagon as judged by the Iowa State Agricultural Society.  Like many local builders, it’s difficult to find a great deal of information on the Pfieffer firm.  We did uncover an 1880 historical account of Peoria where Mr. Pfieffer is credited with being the largest manufacturer of wagons and buggies in the city.  While his business began in 1868, we haven’t found any trace of it surviving past the mid-1880’s.

This legendary Studebaker ‘aluminum’ wagon is embedded with 35 medals awarded to the company in its first 40 years of business.

These images were graciously provided by Brian Howard & Associates who did exceptional conservation work on this one-of-a-kind ‘aluminum’ wagon from 1893.

6.      Early Warranties - Similar to vehicle promotions today, early wagon makers often used warranties to help seal the deal with buyers.  The most common length of these pledges was for a period of one year although some can be found for a little longer.  The contracts were tied by serial number to specific wagons, dates, buyers, and sellers.  While some of the art-embellished warranties can still occasionally be found, typically, the wagons they refer to are long gone. 

7.      Salesman Samples – The ‘salesman’s sample’ term gets thrown around a lot these days but, finding an actual promotional sample from America’s earliest vehicles can be tough.  Like virtually all marketing-purposed mock-ups from the era, the pieces were built for a single function – to sell the product and/or feature of a set of wheels.  Once the usefulness of a particular ‘sample’ was over, it tended to be tossed away.  The farther we travel from the time when they were used, the fewer pieces remain to be found.

This original sales model was used by agents of the Milburn Wagon Company to promote the added strength of a steel truss embedded into wooden axles.

8.      Factory-related trinkets – Manufacturers within America’s first transportation industry were savvy marketers.  Beyond the more involved details of event marketing, outdoor signage, competitor challenges, and print ad campaigns, there were many other tools in our ancestors’ advertising arsenal.  Among those were a host of promotional trinkets.  Things like buttons, pins, paper weights, rulers, cups, match strikers, puzzles, cards, tokens, watch fobs, fans, mirrors, whetstones, and many other items that would attract attention were distributed.  One of the rarest and most creative ideas that I’ve come across is a factory tour “Pass” for prospective dealers.  It was issued by Studebaker somewhere around 1877 or ’78 to help grow their distribution network while reinforcing their vehicles as a preeminent and affordable brand.  Not only did the two-sided card grant a free tour of the South Bend facilities but, it included a promise that if the bearer did not feel Studebaker’s prices were lower than anyone else’s for the same quality of work, the company would pay the pass-holder’s way to and from South Bend.  That’s real confidence.  It also shows how astute the company was in their efforts to build a strong sales network while reinforcing impressive brand loyalty.  

This ‘pass’ for a factory tour is an extremely scarce survivor from Studebaker’s early wagon manufacturing days.

9.      Original Decalcomines – These pre-printed transfers were used by both small and large horse-drawn vehicle makers.  The technology was useful in many ways including the ability to keep all logos/brands consistent with high quality, cost-effective results.  Even so, the purpose-driven designs weren’t meant to last forever.  So, finding unused, new old stock examples of these pieces is always a surprise.  Years ago, we were fortunate to run across a few for the Swab wagon brand.  These particular transfers were used on the box sides and rear end gates.  The Swab Wagon Company is one of the few firms with nineteenth-century transportation roots that are still in existence today.  Located in Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, the brand is a well-known producer of police, fire, rescue, and animal transports.  The company will celebrate its 150th Anniversary in 2018. 

10.   Original Blueprints / Technical Drawings – These are virtually non-existent parts of America’s past.  While most builders tended to use hard-copy patterns for their established and successful designs, there are some surviving examples of blueprints being used.  Our persistent digging has managed to locate a few sets of blueprints along with some technical drawings for U.S. military vehicles like escorts, tool wagons, and water wagons.

Week in and week out, it’s a pleasure to share bits and pieces from our research, collection, and travels.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if we’re covering all the subjects you’d like to know more about?  To that point, if you have a specific brand, topic, or question related to America’s early wagons and western vehicles, drop us a line.  We’d enjoy hearing from you and look forward to helping highlight even more history in the coming months.  

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