Cheney and Maydole ads from the January, 1936 issue of Hardware Age magazine
Almost every one of us has used a hammer (or a wrench, a pair of pliers, or even a rock in lieu of one), but who ever gave a thought to the history of the ubiquitous little tool? Not me, I know. Of course we all have vague images of crude stone hammers in our heads, but we’re accustomed to the really good ones available today. When a fellow uses a modern one all he has to worry about is hitting his thumb (I worked as a carpenter’s helper for a while as a teen-ager and one of the old-timers told me that a man couldn’t claim to be a carpenter until he’d lost his thumbnail three times) and not that the hammer head will fly off and bonk a co-worker on the noggin.
A couple of hundred years ago if you wanted a new hammer you went to the local blacksmith and had him make one for you. Depending upon his skill the hammer may or may not have been well balanced and/or tempered properly. Then it was up to you to whittle and fit a handle and secure it somehow to the hammer head, not an easy task.
It seems there are two men, both of them blacksmiths, who vie for the honor of being the first really good hammer makers in this country. One, David Maydole, was born in Scoharie County, NY in 1807 and was apprenticed to a blacksmith when fifteen. Maydole made his own hammers and while using them in his shop noticed that the heads would sometimes fly off the handles, or they would be too soft and mushroom, or else be too hard and split. He worked and experimented and finally by the early 1840s had solved these problems. He’d learned how to properly temper the heads for both strength and resilience, and after contemplating the extended eye of an adz, applied the same principle to a hammer by adding a tapered neck to the head that allowed the handle to be firmly wedged inside the head.
Now Maydole’s shop was in a small town with not much of a demand for hammers until, according to Maydole Company lore, a crew of carpenters came to town to build a new church. One of them had forgotten or lost his hammer and asked the blacksmith to make him “as good a one as you know how.” Maydole asked him if he’d be willing to pay as much as that good of a hammer would cost and the guy said he would, so Maydole made it. The carpenter paid and was thoroughly satisfied with his new tool, resulting in all the other carpenters coming to Maydole wanting similar hammers. The word got around town and before long a local shopkeeper ordered some to sell. The fame of the Maydole hammer spread, demand sky-rocketed, and by 1845, the Maydole Hammer Factory was in operation.
By the time David Maydole died in 1882 his company was said to be the largest hammer manufactory in the world and it continued to make hammers and edge tools up until 1957 when a fire put the firm out of business.
No such romantic story exists about the other hammer maker, Henry Cheney, who was born in 1821 in Otsego County, New York. He learned the blacksmith trade, developed a superior method of tempering steel and started to make handled hammers about 1845. Ten years later the factory was moved to Little Falls, NY, where it continued to make tools under the Cheney name, although under several different owners, until 1954.
Cheney’s main claim to fame was the nail-holding hammer for which he was issued a patent in 1867. The Cheney Patent Nail Holder had a small socket at the back, between the claws to hold a nail in a position to start it with a single blow. This innovation eliminated the need to hold the nail between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, thus removing the risk to that vulnerable thumbnail and preventing the air from becoming blue around the job site.
I don’t recall what brand of hammer I used during my brief stint as a carpenter’s helper; however about 1960 I bought a Stanley Steelmaster straight claw hammer that I still have, and that has never shown a sign of the head loosening. Of course on the Steelmaster the head and handle are forged from one piece of steel and then the handle is wrapped with neoprene to give a cushioned grip.
Ain’t history fascinating?