Steam Gauge Collecting AN AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE

Case traction engine gauge

A. ''Case'' traction engine gauge.

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Gauge Collecting

C/o D. M. Goodsell, 91 E. 200 S., Newton, Utah 84327

For the lover of antique machinery, steam traction engines especially, it's easy to let yourself get discouraged as prices skyrocket. The days of discovering that old engine amid the rubbish of an abandoned farm are long gone. They've been replaced with want ads, scrap parts dealers, and antique shops.

Unfortunately, the prospects for the young steam enthusiast are less than favorable. When the engines do become available, they are usually priced so high as to dampen the thrill of discovery, even if you can afford one at all.

All hope is not lost. Every time I walk into my gauge room, I relive the excitement of over a hundred such finds. I don't have the money or the space to collect steam engines, so I enjoy the next best thing: antique steam gauges.

In the beginning

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was especially blessed to have my grandparents living on one of the oldest farms in the White River Valley. Huge, old growth stumps dotted the pastures. The strategic firing platforms, provided by the stumps, aided in maximizing the effective range of my Daisy Pump Pellet Rifle. The objective of these mock war games though, was the rickety old barn at the back of the pasture. The earthquake of 1964 had shaken loose its heavy timbers and the rough cut planks covering its walls. It now looked like swiss cheese because of all the gaps in the wood.

Inside the barn, my eyes would soon grow accustomed to the limited light provided by the rays of dust speckled pale yellow seeping through the cracks. All was a maze of debris. Floor boards twisted up from the agony left by the quake. On rusty nails, the rust stains trickling down the bleached wood, hung the iron monuments to man's illusion of conquering nature. Soon, all evidence of the century old struggle that carved these pastures from the forests will be lost. The barn will burn in some future lightening storm and the rusty old tools now lining its walls will fall into the mud and be forgotten.

In the meantime though, a young boy's imagination can be sparked with wonder at the sight of all the strange old relics from the past. The true purpose of most of them was unfamiliar. There's an old tractor seat, huge box end wrenches, a two man saw blade, and dozens of other rust stained articles of junk.

Hanging in one corner of the barn is something that caught my eye. A 6 inch (measured across the dial) steam gauge was suspended from a wire looped over a wooden peg. A few shards of glass poke out from beneath the brass bezel (ring). The pointer hand is bent and the whole gauge is covered with grease & dust. The brass is tarnished almost black and the silver coating on the brass indent dial is spotted with dried mud. But through all this, the lettering on the dial is still legible. Written above the pointer is the word 'CASE.' Just below, in smaller letters, is 'J.I.CASE T.M.CO. Racine, WIS. U.S.A.,' and below that is what I know now as the 1907 Ashcroft Mfg. Co. (gauge maker) Trademark. This gauge was all that remains of the hulk of an ancient traction engine, having fallen prey to the merciless scrappers' furnaces over 30 years before.

A Bit of History

In 1849, as the story goes, it all happened in a small machine shop outside of Paris, France. In the process of making a worm pipe for a still, a worker accidently flattened a coiled tube. In his efforts to repair the pipe, he sealed one end and applied pressure to the other. The curved tube, rather then resume its round shape, began to uncoil. The shop owner, Eugene Bourdon, observed the reaction and thus was born the principle idea behind the Bourdon-Spring steam gauge.

Since its inception, hundreds of patents have been filed on the pressure gauge. But most are simple variations on a common theme. The Bourdon-Spring gauge has changed little since the early years. What has changed, is the way it is made. The gauge still uses gears and a pointer hand to transmit the movement of the horseshoe shaped tube to a scale stamped on the dial (or face). However, the case and dial have lost the exciting appearance that was given them through the pride of the individual craftsman. Modern gauge mass production lines stamp them out at a thousand a day. These gauges have lost the individuality bestowed by the early gauge makers.

Early Gauge Makers

The Ashcroft Manufacturing Company was the first American firm to produce the Bourdon-Spring steam gauge and is still making them today. Its founder, Edward H. Ashcroft, saw a demonstration of the gauge at the World's Fair in London, England. Ashcroft, already in the steam apparatus business and a noted inventor in his own right, instantly recognized the potential of the instrument, and purchased the American rights. In fact, it is this gauge that has kept the company afloat for over 140 years while all its other early products were discontinued.

Prior to the turn of the century, only a handful of manufacturers made gauges. Early on, Ashcroft sold a franchise for the patent to the American Steam Gauge Company. In the late 1870s, as the first patents expired and the gauge became public domain, Crosby Steam Gauge and Jas. P. Marsh & Company entered the market.

The User Company

If I were forced to concede one single aspect of gauge hounding that most intrigued me, it would be the USER COMPANY (see figure A). An easy choice when you consider that it is the presence of the user company name that helps differentiate the classic from the modern. Modern mass production techniques make it impractical to individualize the gauge with the buyers name. Every so often, a generic gauge (one without a user name) can be exciting, if it's old or rare enough. However, for the vast majority of truly exciting gauges, the user name is stamped on the dial.

It's the user company name that gives the gauge its pedigree. The style of case and the type of Bourdon-Tube help to limit the possible applications, but only the user name can determine the purpose of the gauge.

The Price is Right?

Most antique dealers use the B & B Approach (big & brassy) when pricing the occasional steam gauge in their shop. The bigger and the more brass, (brass ring and case as opposed to a nickeled ring and iron case or all steel as in some traction engine gauges), the better in their eyes. So be it, I just laugh and move on.

Periodically, my collection will truly profit from this ignorance. On more than one occasion, a dealer displayed several gauges for sale. Invariably, the presence of a big shiny newer gauge was priced out of this world leaving an old rare gauge priced for my picking. Case in point, at an antique store near my home, I came across two gauges (side by side). The one, a 6 inch (across dial), all brass, generic (no user) 1940 Ashcroft was priced at 3 times its little companion. The other gauge was 3? inch, iron case, with a nickeled brass ring. The exciting point was the user company, a locomotive brake company (see picture 2) and the gauge maker mark (used between 1907 and 1929). The price on the 6 inch was $65.00 and the small one was $18.95. I was very happy to own the smaller one.

Antique dealers aren't your only source of affordable gauges. The first gauge in my collection, I bought at a yard sale. The prices of gauges at yard sales are almost always dirt cheap. One important gauge in my collection was purchased at a garage sale less than a mile from my home on June 12, 1993. I remember the date so easily because it was the day before our wedding anniversary. My wife discovered the gauge (see picture 6) and brought it to me with a 'Happy Anniversary'. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I think she was just pleased to give me something I wanted (I guess I'm hard to shop for). Even so, I still had to pay the lady for my anniversary present and an inexpensive one at that, $6.00 (I was pleased).

All this talk of where to find affordable gauges reminds me of the craziest place a gauge turned up. My friend, Lin Chapman, Whistle Editor of Horn & Whistle, had purchased a very old launch whistle (see picture 4) and set about to disassemble and clean it. The pump plunger, approximately 4 inches in diameter, used a series of flat round metal disks separated by leather pads to compress the air necessary to fire the whistle. He told me that the plates and leather were covered with green slime, so he cleaned them. Lo and behold, one of the plates turned out to be a gauge dial (see picture 3). Long ago, a mechanic maintaining the pump must have felt the round dial with its hole in the center (to accommodate the pump push rod) was tailor made for the purpose. Lin instantly recognized it and sent it to me as a gift. Even without its incredible history, the dial would be a rare find with its fun user company and the rare trade mark (only used between 1904 and 1911). Because a gauge dial has a hole in the center for the pinion (no need to drill) and because of the soft leather pads of the plunger, the dial is in excellent shape.

What to look for?

If you're a collector who's just in it for the show, B & B is your best bet. But don't be surprised if you pay through the nose for your gauges. Of course, you'll tire quickly of them and soon run out of room for display.

If you're into collecting for the nostalgia of a bygone era? Or if you feel immensely drawn to the artful craftsmanship of the previous century? Or if you spark to the thrill of discovery long after the initial purchase, and that purchase is inexpensive enough to allow you multiple buys in the same month or year (unlike the purchase of an entire traction engine), than gauge hounding is right for you!

The first thing to determine on a gauge is the type of dial. For the collector, the dial is everything and a shiny case is just window dressing. In the 1885 American Steam Gauge Company catalog, the company makes this statement, 'All dials used on our gauges are of brass, engraved and silvered, and figures filled with black wax. We do not use painted or enameled dials'. Painted and enameled dials became popular only in the early 1900s when the individual craftsman began to be replaced by mass production.

After the type of dial, the second thing to look for is what's on the dial. The gauge maker trademark (or company name) will give you the best line on age. However, as discussed earlier, the User Company Name is where the excitement is. It's easy to see how the presence of a famous traction engine company name (i.e., Minneapolis) can provide the greatest thrill.

In addition, the presence of patent or trademark registration dates or even the makers date are all exciting finds. But remember, the purchase is just the start. Many hours of research at your local library will pass before you can determine the history behind the user company on the dial. Most of these companies don't exist anymore under the old name or even at all. So be prepared to spend many enjoyable hours pouring over old records in order to solve these mysteries.

Steam Junkies

The greatest side benefit to gauge collecting are the wonderful people who enjoy steam. In a world that has grown obsessed with the cutthroat tactics of modem business, it's nice to know there are still kind and generous people willing to help.

Being on the young end (31 years old) of the age spectrum for the usual steam collector, I've often felt like a green kid. When looking back, I can remember some of my early questions that seem pretty silly now. Fortunately though, I was never treated as such. If I had been, I may have become discouraged long ago. I feel like I've been taken under the wing of some of the really great veteran collectors and allowed to carve out my own little niche with gauge collecting.

Many times, these experienced steam enthusiasts have given me a leg up, so to speak. A couple years ago, a retired steam fitter saw my letter to the editor of IMA requesting information on old gauge catalogs and sent me 5 old gauges he had lying around his workshop. Bruce Cynar, Publisher of The Plumb Line, introduced himself to me by sending me a wonderful old gauge off a Buffalo-Springfield Road Roller (see picture 5). Old gauges are often very geographical in nature. A traction engine gauge may be much more common in the Plains States than it is in the Pacific Northwest where I live. It made a superb addition to my collection.

The Buffalo-Springfield Gauge also helped to fill a special position in my collection. The gauge proved to be a prime example of period identification using patent dating. Usually, patent dates are helpful, but serve only to identify a starting date for the period a gauge could have been made. Actually, the gauge may have been made 20 to 30 years after the patent date. In the case of the Buffalo-Springfield, instead of patent dates, 'PATENT APPLD FOR' appears at the bottom of the dial. This allows us to date the gauge very well. The gauge must have been made within about a year of the patent filing date. I wrote to the Patent Office in Washington D.C. and determined that the correct patent was filed on March 7, 1923 and issued May 20, 1924. Now that we have the year of manufacture, we can match the gauge up with a Road Roller made in 1923/24 that had a normal working pressure of approximately 150 lbs.* (midway on the dial is the correct fitting of a gauge to its application).

In conclusion, I just want to remind your readers that being an antique traction engine enthusiast doesn't mean you have to own one of the wonderful monsters. Like me, you can find delight in a much more affordable alternative, Antique Steam Gauge Collecting.

*Maybe the readers of IMA can look through their old catalogs for a Buffalo-Springfield Road Roller made in 1923/24 that operated at 150 lbs?