Saturday, May 12, 2012

America: The Home of the Tree and the Land of the Nailed

My brother tells me he is reading a new book about trees, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow.  He is reading it on his Ipad, which I guess saves a few trees.  I doubt if I will ever read this particular book, though it does look interesting.  One of the nice things about being a historian is the incredible number of great books that are given to you.  Students, friends, and publishers (hoping you will require their book in a class of 100 students)—everybody gives me books.  And while I love it, I freely admit that I am slightly behind in my reading.  Say… about eight decades.

I’m not reading about trees right now, but I have been thinking about them since my brother told me about that book.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about trees and American history.  As Americans, we have always been influenced by our trees; trees made Americans different from the very start.

First, we had an abundance of wood.  By the time the first colonists came to North America, Europe was running low on trees, and had been for centuries.  European houses used masonry, cut stone, and large timbers.  Construction with these materials required huge amounts of skilled labor.  The way the timbers were used required precision cuts, with pieces fitting together with complex dovetailed joints that needed skilled carpenters.

The first colonists didn’t have enough skilled craftsmen and labor was precious.  Food production was far more important than construction.  A successful pioneer was a jack-of-all-trades, and while he might have lacked skills, he had abundant wood to use.  At first, some pioneers tried to copy stone construction using wood, sometimes even cutting chunks of wood to resemple large stones.  Look at some of the drawings of those early houses.  You find what should be stone tops of columns, cornices, and mantels all imitated in wood.  You'd even find some chimneys made from wood daubed with clay.

As Americans, we used wood at a rate that would've been impossible in deforested Europe. That meant we also needed nails.  These were still the rough cut square nails that man had been using for roughly 3000 years.  We made them in impossible quantities even though they were difficult to make, and so valuable that they could be used as a primitive form of money.  Thomas Jefferson used to make nails for profit when his soil was too depleted to plant crops; he even bought a nail cutting machine from France to help him make nails more efficiently.

Nails were so valuable that when early colonialists moved westward, they used to burn their houses to recover the nails in them.  They were sure to find more wood wherever they moved.  Have you ever heard the expression, “Dead as a door nail?”  Door frames took such a physical pounding every time the door was opened or closed that these rough pioneers would bend the nail over after they drove them through the frame.  This bending made the nails useless for any future use.

And we made more and more nails.  From 1776 to 1851, we cut the cost of nails again and again.  Eventually, America could make a nail for less than the tax alone on European nails.  Then the United States started producing wire nails, and the world changed again:  it was the “nail revolution”.  Today, we make about 2 billion pounds of nails a year.

About the time we started making wire nails, Chicago sprouted as our new gateway to the west. In 1833, Augustine Taylor built St. Mary's church in nearby Fort Dearborn. He managed to put up a 36’ by 24’ church for the incredibly low price of $400, using only unskilled carpenters.

What Taylor did was to eliminate the old mortised beams and fittings. He replaced them with light 2x4s and 2x6s set close together. He used studs and cross-members. He held the whole thing together with nails -- no joints. Regular carpenters swore it would blow away in a high wind.  They were wrong.

Old-timers called this "balloon construction" because the finished building seemed as light and insubstantial as a balloon.  Experienced carpenters spoke of these new buildings with contempt, but the term stuck. These buildings were like balloons, or maybe more like woven baskets. They were light, flexible, and tough. Structural stresses were spread throughout the structure.

So the first baptism at the new St. Mary's church was disturbed by the sound of hammering next door: Taylor's idea had caught on.  And Americans began cutting up trees in record numbers.  Living in your own home became a cornerstone (wood carved of course) of the American Dream.

Ever-ready with a new product, Chicago supplied western settlers with pre-fabricated balloon-frame structures. The Lyman Bridges Company of Chicago, with three warehouses in the heart of the lumber district, sold buildings of "any style, size, or number" on "short notice" to western settlers. Shipped by rail, the building kits contained milled lumber, building plans, roofing shingles, window frames, doors, hardware, and chimneys. The smallest, one-room house measured ten by twelve feet, while the largest home had two stories with eight rooms, pantry, china closet, hall, bathroom, and four closets. Prices ranged from $175 for the one-room house to $3,500 for the eight-room model.

Yes, I remembered of all this during the last week.  I also remembered as a child a baffling mystery I had about trees.  And now, we are back to books.  When I was in the third grade, my mother gave me a copy of Captains Courageous.  I read that book in a fevered rush.  I am still reading about tall ships and the men who sailed on the oceans. 

I can remember reading about those tall, tall masts.  Then I would go outside and stare at the twisted gnarly live oak trees of Texas.  Why didn’t the books explain what kind of machine they used to straighten those trees?

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