Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


BY WAY OF CONTRAST, my recent item on additive manufacturing, ”Directions in 3D Printing,” led me to Eric Sloane, American artist and admirer of early Americana.

Eric Sloane, 1905–1985, was an American landscape painter who also composed illustrated books on the arts and crafts of Early America. His writing is erudite and elegant; his pen-and-ink illustrations are precise, yet warmly executed. Sloane’s book on Early American tools is an example.


A Museum of Early American ToolsBallantine Books, 1964.

The book begins, “I like the sound of the word museum. Perhaps because the word root refers less to an actual collection of things than to the musing, cogitating, and reflecting that one does while beholding a collection.”

I agree wholeheartedly about musing.

As an example, Sloane notes that the Dominy Shop, originally in business between 1762 and 1829 in East Hampton, New York, was characteristic of early factories. “The visitor’s first reaction,” he writes, “is usually ‘What a primitive shop!’ Yet the magnificent table standing in the center of the room was made in it.”


The Dominy Shop, reconstructed at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware, near Wilmington. This and other images are from A Museum of Early American Tools.

Sloane’s illustrations are often instructional as well as artful. An old-time carpenter bench has gizmos familiar to us, vises, for instance. Less so is the Side Rest, a raised holder that’s transformed into a sawing jig by virtue of Bench Hooks and dimensional marks on the bench. Also, I’ve seen Hold Fast clamps at old hardware jumbles without understanding how they clamped anything. Sloane’s illustration explains it.


By contrast, the Block Knife on page 9 above remained a tantalizing mystery until page 85. (Hint: Think of a levered cleaver.)


The Early American ax or axe, Sloane says either is fine, was a tool derived from the European weapon. As its name suggests, a trade axe was made for bartering. Sloane suggests that Native American tomahawks were patterned after European axe designs. (Pre-columbian axes had heads of stone, not iron and steel.)


Sloane refines the nomenclature of this type of tool: Its cutting surface is the bit; any portion opposite the bit is its poll. Sloane conjectures the reason for a poll was to add momentum to chopping, not primarily as a hammering tool. Also, he prefers poll axe to other variations.

In checking out these terms in Wikipedia, I learned that most etymological authorities believe the “poll” prefix is unrelated to any pole on which the axe head may be attached. Eric Partridge (often cited here for his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms, and Catch-Phrases, Solecisms and Catachresis, Nicknames, and Vulgarisms believes otherwise. And, 50 years later, Merriam-Webster gives the okay to poleax; also, it prefers ax to axe.


The flag of Altus, one of Lithuania’s ten counties. The knight is holding a poll axe or poleax, depending on whether you believe most etymological authorities or Partridge, Merriam-Webster and some others. I offer both.

Also, the French word for axe is hache, whence a whole bunch of related words, hash and hatchet (a little axe) among them.

Doesn’t a book on Early American tools lead us into interesting directions?

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. J. Perry Arnott
    October 14, 2016

    Thank you very much for your article about Sloan’s book – I had not previously heard of it. There was a generation of American artists and illustrators who did such fascinating and lovely detailed drawings. I still find their work fascinating.

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