Antique Catalogs Capture the Art and Heritage of Metalworking

Editor Emeritus Mark Albert considers his antique cutter and machine tool catalogs a “personal art collection.” These publications represent the heritage of metalworking and manufacturing.


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Over the years, I have acquired a small but diverse assortment of antique sales catalogs and product handbooks for metalworking equipment. These publications from cutting tool and machine tool manufacturers are 80 to 125 years old. The oldest ones are especially remarkable for the illustrations—exquisite images reproduced from hand-engraved plates prepared by highly skilled artisans. In these engravings, the rendering of detail and shading is strikingly realistic. Although these engravings were created as strictly technical drawings to reveal the fine quality of the products and thus persuade the buyer, their aesthetic qualities are timeless. Like signatures of the artist on a watercolor or oil painting, the name of the responsible engraving firm usually appears in a corner or shaded portion of the illustration.

For example, the 1885 catalog of Lodge, Barker & Co., showcases its line of lathes, shapers and drill presses. The engraved illustrations inside perfectly capture the shapes of well-proportioned bases, beds, columns and tables. More remarkable is how the levers, gears, handles, even company name plates, appear in sharp, crisp clarity.

Likewise, for the upright drill presses in the 1888 catalog of the Bickford Drill Co. The individual links in every chain, the teeth on every gear and the steps of every pulley cone are distinct and unmistakable. In fact, the mechanical workings of these machines seem more apparent and intuitive than in some of the photos we are used to seeing today.

Another one of my favorites is a circular that was printed by the J. M. Robinson Co. in 1891 to promote its machines for producing curved sheet metal moldings with profiled dies. Examples of these moldings, intended as components for architectural embellishments such as cornice brackets, roof finials and pillar bases, are shown in the engravings of the machines that produce them. These sample pieces convey the decorative appeal they gave to late 19th century houses and commercial buildings, many of which still grace old neighborhoods around the country.

Adding to my personal interest in these early publications is the fact that Lodge, Bickford and Robinson were all companies located in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. These catalogs date from a time when the city was establishing itself as the so-called machine tool capital of the country. All of these companies have long vanished from the local scene.

In the newer catalogs, halftone images started replacing engravings as illustrations. Halftones were a late 19th century innovation created by placing a fine, mesh-like screen in front of a camera lens before exposing an image on a light-sensitive plate. When the plate was chemically etched, the effect produced a microscopic array of various sized dots that, when printed, creates an optical illusion of photographic realism. When viewed at a normal reading distance, the different sized dots mimic the subtle gradations of light and dark apparent in a fully tonal image. Halftones enabled printers to feature detailed pictures of the manufacturer's factory or office buildings, in addition to products. For example, the L. S. Starrett Co.issued a 50th anniversary catalog in 1930 that shows three views of the company’s original buildings, followed by a bird’s eye view of its current sprawling facilities in Athol, Massachusetts.

Other favorites in my collection include catalogs from the Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Co. Several editions from the 1930s include a panoramic view of its 33-acre, 14-building plant in Providence, Rhode Island. The 1938 edition of its small tool offerings has 480 pages, many of which have three or four illustrations. The company’s machine tool catalog from that year is nearly as large. The huge array of tools, instruments and machines from one company is truly amazing.

Along with my enjoyment of these “works of art,” I like to look at these old publications because they are a fascinating insight into metalworking technology as it developed and advanced. Today’s computerized machine tools are hardly recognizable as evolutionary descendants of the simple-looking, bare-bones configuration of their primitive forerunners. After more than a century of progress, the tremendous leap in power, speed and capability between then and now is astounding, almost incomprehensible. In contrast, many types of cutters and hand tools seem little changed in appearance. The flutes of a twist drill or end mill, for example, bear the same elegant spiral 100 years ago as they do today—at least to the casual eye. Of course, the benefits of modern alloys, coatings and subtle advances in geometry are not easy to discern at a glance when the old and new are compared.

I find the historical information about the companies enlightening, too. Although machine tools are still the core of modern manufacturing, machine tool building in this country surely lacks the preeminence and wide public esteem it must have had 100, 60 or even 40 years ago. For certain, today’s machine tool building plants are giants of productivity compared to the smoke-stacked, sawtooth-roofed factories in which basic metalworking processes were pioneered in their heyday. What has changed is how the general regard for this technical prowess has drastically dwindled in today’s social awareness. It should be a source of pride now as it once was. It is our heritage.

I consider my small collection complete. To me, each catalog is rare and precious. The same illustrations and corresponding descriptions can be enjoyed over and over again. Looking at the picture of an old-time lathe, I can readily imagine how turning the cranks or hand wheels would change the relative position of the workpiece and cutting tool. In my mind, the machine is at work and it is fascinating to watch.