The tools and objects reproduced in this book illustrate what archaeologists might call an "accident of survival." Perhaps because our country's history is comparatively recent and is well documented by written records, archaeologists have not been called upon by American historians to make the contributions their discipline might produce. Instead, discovery and preservation of tangible evidence documenting our American cultures have been left to antiquarians, collectors of antiques, and museum personnel. Objects that these people have preserved provide flesh for the dry bones of history by adding dimension to the written word.
This book should further that function. It is concerned with a large group of tools, together with accounts, letters, weather books, and examples of objects produced by one family of American craftsmen from about 1760 to 1840. The story of how these tools survived and were preserved by the Dominy family is as fascinating as the objects themselves.
In 1940 the imminent destruction of the old Dominy family house and clock shop at East Hampton, New York, came to the attention of an architect, Daniel Hopping, who hurried to the village to make measured drawings of the buildings and arrange for photographs of significant elements for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Because the Dominy craftsmen were known primarily for their clocks, Hopping made several drawings and photographs of the clock shop and forge, but limited his survey of the woodworking shop to one drawing and a single photograph. Nevertheless, his meticulous documentation produced a fine record that has proved invaluable in the reconstruction of the shops.
Oscar Brill, who owned property adjacent to the Dominy house and shops on North Main Street, had purchased the Dominy land; plans for improvement called for the destruction of buildings on it. The village, which had recently restored the Hook Mill, a grain windmill built in 1806 by Nathaniel Dominy V, made an effort to save the Dominy house and shops. A letter addressed "To the Lovers of Old East Hampton," signed by Mayor Judson Banister, appealed for funds through the columns of the East Hampton Star. Mr. Banister noted that the house contained "many patterns of machinery now used in the Hook Mill" and that "many of the watchmaker's tools…are still there." Mr. Brill was willing to sell the property for $6,000 if purchased for a museum. Unfortunately, the date of the appeal was December 17, 1941, and public attention was focused on war.
By 1946 the house and shops were in extremely dangerous condition, and demolition of the house was begun. The two shops, however, were purchased by Dudley Roberts, a resident of the village. He had them moved to his beach property and converted them into a clubhouse. Before the buildings were moved, Charles M. Dominy (the last member of the family to live [p. VI] in the house) and his children lent many of the clockmaking and woodworking tools to Clinton Academy, the museum of the East Hampton Historical Society. Some account books and other records dated as early as 1762 were kept by the Dominys; other similar documents were lent to the East Hampton Free Library. Most of the heavy shop equipment, including benches, lathes, vises, and clamps, was stored in the barn of Mrs. Ethel Marsden, Windmill Antiques, Southampton, New York. Conflicting rumors hinted that Henry Ford might purchase these tools for use at Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, or that East Hampton Village would find a means to restore the Dominy shops.
Nothing happened, however, for eleven years. In late February, 1957, a knowledgeable antiques dealer, Rockwell Gardiner, found the Dominy family tools while making the rounds of antique shops. He specializes in old tools, and the scope and importance of the find were apparent to him at once. Mr. Gardiner immediately apprised Charles F. Montgomery, then director of The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, of this important discovery. Mr. Montgomery quickly arranged for Anthony N. B. Garvan, who was director of the Index of American Cultures at Winterthur, and himself to inspect the tool collection at Mrs. Marsden's shop. They agreed that the collection was remarkable and must be obtained, but Mr. Montgomery was able to get only a one-week option for its purchase.
Now began a rapid exchange of telephone calls, letters, and telegrams between Mr. Montgomery and Henry Francis du Pont, who was at his winter home in Florida. Charles Montgomery knew that Mr. du Pont was heavily committed to the construction of a new wing to the existing Museum building. He also recognized that the acquisition of the Dominy tools would be a radical departure from existing installations and those planned for the new south wing. Any fear that Mr. du Pont might consider the Dominy collection inappropriate at Winterthur was dispelled with the first of the telegrams from Florida on March 1, 1957: "This unique collection of tools with a place in the new wing for its display will not only have a great educational value for school tours but enhance the Museum prestige in showing how a cabinetmaker worked." When informed of tentative plans for the installation of the tools, Mr. du Pont replied: "Twenty foot square seems inadequate. Ask Homsey why this room could not extend twenty feet more under the ground so as to display artistically workbenches, early lathes, wooden racks, etc., with plenty of space for circulation showing template design for laying out table legs, etc. It is [should be] in a different section from the watchmakers, etc. This collection is a must."
Obviously, Henry Francis du Pont was excited by the possibility of demonstrating equipment and techniques similar to those which produced much of the furniture exhibited in the Museum. His endorsement of the project was most enthusiastic. The tools still had to be purchased, however, and it was here that Henry Belin du Pont's foresight and generosity contributed to the success of the project. An active collector of marine prints and a trustee of the Museum, he not only agreed to provide funds for the purchase of the tools but later bought a smaller collection from Mrs. Marsden when it became available. He has also been most generous both in financial support and in encouraging the publication of this book.[p. VII]
Many present members of the Dominy family, realizing that the work of their ancestors would be important to future generations of Americans, offered assistance to the Museum. In particular, Nathaniel M. Dominy, Rockland, Massachusetts; Robert M. Dominy, Atlanta, Georgia; and Mrs. Carl Mason (Phoebe Dominy), River Edge, New Jersey, were of great help. As children they had lived in the old Dominy house and had played in the shops, surrounded by the old tools. Their recollections were especially useful in achieving accurate reconstruction of the shops. They were also active in arranging for the sale or gift to the Museum of dated woodworking planes, account books, and the clockmaking and woodworking tools which had been on loan at the Clinton Academy for safekeeping.
All this resulted in the Museum's acquiring almost two hundred manuscript items, including accounts from the 1760's through the 1840's, and more than one thousand tools used by members of the Dominy family in their work as cabinetmakers, carpenters (both house and mill), clockmakers, watch repairers, wheelwrights, gun repairers, and metalworkers. Products of their shops, also acquired, included a clock made by Nathaniel Dominy in 1799, two slat-back armchairs, and a mahogany tilt-top tea table. As a result of research for this book, forty-five clocks and fifty-three pieces of furniture made by the Dominys have been located. These varied articles present a rare opportunity to relate the unique story of three generations of rural craftsmen—Nathaniel Dominy IV, Nathaniel Dominy V, and Felix Dominy (father, son, and grandson)—through their written words, the hand tools they used in practicing their crafts, and the products of their labor.
Felix Dominy, the last of the craftsmen, was fond of making small sketches of a mechanic's arm holding a hammer upright. This was the symbol of the New York Mechanics Society (Illus. I), of which Felix probably was a member. The society's motto, "By Hammer & Hand,
Motto of the New York Mechanick Society, shown in a detail of a membership certificate of 1791. (Winterthur Museum)
Copyright © 1968 by The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.
Additions and corrections copyright 2017 by Charles F. Hummel
Markup copyright 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin