Review by David F. Wood
Metalwork in Early America: Copper and Its Alloys from the Winterthur Collection

Donald L. Fennimore. Metalwork in Early America: Copper and Its Alloys from the Winterthur Collection. Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum, 1996. 472 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., glossary, bibliography, index. Distributed by Antique Collectors’ Club. $69.50.

The literature on base metals in America is, like the noblest metal, where you find it. A great deal of information on copper, brass, pewter, and pewter-like alloys, for example, can be found in the publications of the Rushlight Club, because those metals were used to fashion lighting devices; similarly, much of interest about brass is found in the bulletins of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. There are also any number of monographs on fireplace equipment, firefighting equipment, kitchenalia, bells, and so on, in many of which the interested student is compelled to reconstruct the absent source references. Conversely, the subject is sometimes organized by material, as by the Schiffers in The Brass Book (Exton, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1978) or by the engaging Henry Kauffman in American Copper and Brass (New York: Bonanza Books, 1979). Authoritative articles on the subject are distributed in the pages of Connoisseur, Apollo, and Antiques, and frequently the last word on a particular facet was written more than half a century ago.

Donald L. Fennimore has done us all a tremendous service in producing Metalwork in Early America: Copper and Its Alloys. As curator of a history museum with a varied collection, my first reaction to this handsome volume was relief at finally having a reliable crib sheet with which to write labels. It is perhaps more fitting to say that the work is a distinguished resource filling a long-vacant niche. Furniture historians and collectors will find in the “Hardware” section a most extensive and authoritative review of cabinet handles (drawer pulls) and casters, hinges, tacks, keyhole escutcheons, and finials. These items once contributed a great deal to the presentation and cost of furniture and are still acknowledged to be significant (how important are original brasses?), but they are rarely understood. Seventeen entries document cabinet handles and escutcheons found on American furniture from 1680 to 1830; in addition to presenting a chronological series of authentic examples, the entries expand on the makers, middlemen, and consumers who made use of these essential ornaments. The fireplace equipment and lighting entries will also interest furniture collectors who have encountered related examples, usually grouped under the rubric of “smalls” and accorded little attention other than as complements. In Metalwork in Early America the reader will also find lucid descriptions of technological change, shop structure, and trade practice, processes that parallel or intercept furniture manufacture in a variety of ways and are thus of great interest to the furniture scholar.

Although not, as the author points out in his introduction, a comprehensive history of the subject, Metalwork in Early America provides informed access to the encyclopedic Winterthur collection, which means it very nearly amounts to the same thing. Fennimore begins his introduction with a brief description of the nature of the collection. The truly extraordinary depth of the museum’s holdings is further suggested in the catalogue entries with references to, for example, the twenty-three examples in the collection related to the seventeenth-century European candlestick described in entry 101. The next three chapters provide some of the context within which the author has interpreted the collection. The first, “Mining and Manufacture,” describes alloying, the mining and smelting of ore, and the casting and finishing of brass and copper objects. The second, “Marketing,” describes the kind and quantity of goods (particularly English) available in America, shipping, the relationship between English manufactures and American retailers, and the use of pattern books. The third, “Marking and Metallurgy,” addresses the use of manufacturers’ marks on English and American goods and the alloys of copper.

There are 322 individual entries on objects from the Winterthur collection. In addition to the name, place of origin, date range, dimensions, and material, each header also lists the proportions of metals present in the alloy—the result of testing in the Winterthur laboratory. The entries are for the most part about three hundred words in length and are laid out with admirable clarity—one per page with accompanying illustration(s). Within this disciplined format, the author set himself the task of integrating information on “function, use, technology, economics, trade, and history,” then met this ambitious goal using to a considerable degree the words of “makers, users, and social historians first connected with the objects” (p. 10). In large part, the tasks both of description and appreciation are assumed by the photographs of George J. Fistrovich. Sumptuous, sensuous, and dignified, Fistrovich’s photographs, in addition to recording the visual “facts” about each object, capture the fashionability and smartness these objects once conveyed to their owners. The photographs are accorded ample space on the page (see, for example, the full-page illustration of a furniture hinge on page 411), and the 300-line printing yields an admirable clarity and resolution to the images. I would fault only the reversed contrast of the engraving on the tobacco boxes in entries 208 and 209 and the rotation of the images of the medals in entries 222, 224, and 225, minor quibbles that perhaps stand out only in contrast to the uniformly excellent integration of images and words on the page.

The author divided the objects into six groups according to function: food and drink, heating, lighting, measurement, personal, and hardware. Within the entries, Fennimore has included dozens of narratives on such topics as the rules of the Worshipful Company of Founders for its members, the development of burning fluids for use in lamps, and the exotic alloy paktong. The author has carefully avoided redundancy in the catalogue entries while relating these accounts, at the same time eschewing tedious cross-referencing; the entries stand alone, and they function together. On occasion the particulars of one of these narratives appear out of order (for instance, the statement on the real significance of the Argand lamp occurs in entry 167, the seventh in a series of spirit lamps), but the entries are so engaging that few readers will resist reading all that relate to a particular form anyway.

Among the many narratives woven into the catalogue is the account of the trade in copper and brass by William Cooper Hunneman (1769–1856) of Boston. William Hunneman is best known for the andirons and occasional tea kettle marked with his surname, which appear occasionally on the market; his surviving account books document an extensive and varied manufactory located first in Boston’s industrial North End and later in Roxbury.[1] There were several aspects to Hunneman’s business. He advertised in 1812 that he intended to “keep on hand a general assortment of Copper and Brass articles, commonly wanted for house, ship or mechanical uses.”[2] Among the household goods noted in his account books were andirons, tea kettles, and warming pans, marked examples of which are included in the Winterthur collection.[3] Hunneman sold these goods to retail customers, to Boston hardware dealers like John Odin, and to other Boston founders, including William Holmes. To Holmes, Hunneman also sold “andiron work” (unfinished castings) by the pound. The foundry floor must have been dominated by sleigh bells during the winter months, since Hunneman was selling them, to Odin and others, by the dozen and gross. Hunneman provided goods to some of Boston’s ship chandlers and also manufactured specialized products for the Navy Yard in Charlestown and for the young American fleet, particularly during the War of 1812. He outfitted the gun decks of the legendary ships of that conflict—the Hornet, the Wasp, the Frolic, the Constitution—with tools and fasteners made necessarily of brass and copper to avoid sparks and provided them, as well, with lightning rods and fire engines. The fire engines Hunneman supplied the navy, at a cost of $500 to $700 each, he produced under a patent originally held by Jacob Perkins and Allan Pollock; Pollock’s share of the first two engines sold, Hunneman noted in 1803, was $100 each.[4] Hunneman advertised in 1812 that he had already sold twenty-five engines, mostly to Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire communities, though one went to Petersburg, Virginia.[5] By his own and other accounts, Hunneman made a superior product; when Concord, Massachusetts, bought one of his engines around 1817, its stiff action so puzzled the members of the fire company, who were used to a small and weak pump, that they asked the maker to come out and examine it. Satisfied by Hunneman’s explanation, the fire company found that, used properly, the new pump threw a stream as high as the belfry of the meetinghouse.[6]

The “articles . . . for mechanical uses” Hunneman advertised included a number of stills for Boston’s busy distillers, machine work for the Franklin Cotton Manufacturing Company, and, of special interest to readers of this journal, clock and timepiece work for the Roxbury clockmakers. Hunneman sold unfinished gear castings and plates by the pound to Simon Willard, William Cummens, Aaron Willard, Aaron Willard, Jr., Elnathan Taber, and John Willard, as well as circles (bezels for the dial cover) and side ornaments (side arms) for patent timepieces, although he did not seem to provide clock balls (finials), hinges, keyhole escutcheons, or pendulum bobs.

Before the famous textile mills in Lowell and Lawrence transformed the nature of production and labor in America, the base metal trade pioneered many of the production and marketing strategies commonly thought of as artifacts of the Industrial Revolution. Several current research projects into New England base metal workers promise to shed further light on the methods, motivations, and products of American preindustrial manufacturers and, by comparison, may shed light on the development of furniture making. John Hamilton is researching a specialized and complex manufactory that was developed by gunsmith Edwin Wesson (1811–1849) of Grafton, Massachusetts, between 1837 and 1849. Philip Zea (one of Fennimore’s students) is working on pewterer, brazier, and whitesmith Samuel Pierce of Greenfield, Massachusetts, whose evolving, contingent career denies the common notion of the life of a craftsman. Research presently being conducted by Robert Cheney on painted-iron dial clocks suggests some remarkable connections between the Roxbury clockmakers and the related trades in provincial England. Cheney and Zea have already published a fine account of the Willards’ innovations in the batch making of tall case and wall-hanging clocks in Clockmaking in New England, 1725–1825: An Interpretation of the Old Sturbridge Village Collection ([Sturbridge, Mass.: Old Sturbridge Village, 1992]; see the review by David Jaffee in Winterthur Portfolio 30, nos. 2/3 [summer/autumn 1995]: 182–84). These activities were going on at the same time and place that cabinetmakers John and Thomas Seymour of Boston were helping to change the business of furniture manufacture and the marketing of decorative arts (along with the Willards and William Hunneman, among others), a subject currently being investigated by Robert Mussey, Anne Rogers Haley, and others. All these studies promise to enhance the appreciation and understanding of the material that has been admired and collected for more than a century and continues to reward earnest connoisseurship, material exemplified by the collections at Winterthur.

Fennimore thus has accomplished a great deal with Metalwork in Early America. It is a reliable source book for collectors and an integrated assemblage of studies useful to anyone interested in preindustrial manufacture. It provides as well a model of research and presentation that will inform the “future author of a definitive history on the subject,” whose advent Fennimore predicts in his introduction.

David F. Wood
Concord Museum


American Furniture 1997

  • [1]
    The account books are in the U.S.S. Constitution Museum, Charlestown, Massachusetts, acc. no. 831.1 and 831.2.
  • [2]
    Independent Chronicle, Boston, Massachusetts, January 6, 1812.
  • [3]
    See catalogue entries 17, 68, and 95; see also entry 41, a fender footman by Hunneman, and entry 5, a posnet by Hunneman and Martin Gay.
  • [4]
    Hunneman’s ad in the Independent Chronicle, January 27, 1812, cites the inventor as James Perkins, although in his day book Hunneman records on May 26, 1802, a debit to Jacob Perkins “for publishing pumps in two papers.” Also in the day book is an entry dated March 26, 1803, noting that Pollock’s share of the first two engines sold was $100 each.
  • [5]

    Independent Chronicle, Boston, Massachusetts, January 27, 1812.

  • [6]
    Edward Jarvis, Traditions and Reminiscences of Concord, Massachusetts, 1779–1878, edited by Sarah Chapin (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), pp. 27, 135.