Evolution of the Axe

Tracing the history of the axe from the Stone Age to the 19th century.

| May 2018

  • A mid-20th century, single-bitted axe.
    Photo courtesy of Greg Stephens; an axe collector from Brewster; Ohio
  • Mato-tope, or Four Bears, a Mandan chief who lived in what is now North Dakota during the early 19th century is pictured holding a ceremonial tomahawk made of iron.
    Image courtesy Sam Moore
  • This heavy iron axe head, likely from the 17th or 18th century, was probably used to fell trees and was found in East Sussex, England. The American axe evolved from this heavy, awkward design into a wider, flatter and better balanced tool that could be swung straight and that cut deeply and cleanly.
    Photos courtesy Sam Moore
  • An 1895 photo of two men chopping at a large tree to prepare it for felling with a two-man cross-cut saw.
    Photo courtesy Sam Moore
  • An 1885 drawing illustrating the different styles of axes. A through E show the stages of making an axe by the folding and welding method: A is the formed but unfolded billet; B is after heating and folding; C is after the open ends are welded together and the eye opened out; D is the steel bit insert; and E is after the bit end is split and the steel bit is inserted ready for welding into a finished tool, except for sharpening and polishing. M, N and Q illustrate a hand hatchet, a lath hatchet and a brush-hook, respectively.
    Image courtesy Sam Moore
  • A continuation of the drawing at left. F is the 3- to 7-pound Kentucky axe; G the Georgia long-bit axe, same weight; H is the New Jersey 3- to 5-1/2-pound axe; I, Michigan wide-bit axe, same weight; J, the Western 3- to 6-pound axe; K, the Yankee heavy-head axe, same weight; and L is a heavy Spanish axe with an 8-inch cut. O is a miner’s pick-axe and P is a mattock, while R represents a cooper’s axe; S, a Dutch side-axe; T, a broad-axe; and U, a coachmaker’s axe.
    Image courtesy Sam Moore

In past columns, I’ve written a little about some of the hand tools that were once essential on farms and ranches throughout the country. One of these is the axe, a tool that few folks know how to use in these days of chainsaws and central heating. I count myself among these unskilled ones as, although I’ve used an axe fairly often, I never learned to hit exactly where I wanted.

The history of the axe goes way back; the tool was, according to Greek mythology, invented by Daedalus (the father of Icarus, who famously fell to his death when he flew too close to the sun with his wax-and-feather wings). Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote in his circa A.D. 79 book, Naturalis Historia, that Daedalus had invented carpentry “and with it the saw, axe, plumb-line, drill, glue, and isinglass.”

The first axes were chipped from a chunk of hard stone that was initially held in the hand and was probably used for many purposes. Eventually someone learned to fasten the stone to a wooden handle with thongs or by drilling a hole in the stone, giving him more leverage to strike a harder blow, as well as a longer reach.

As the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze and Iron Ages, axes were made from these materials and became more useful as they could be made with a sharper edge. During these periods, the axe became a common weapon for close combat, with battleaxes being used well into the Middle Ages, when their popularity declined as better swords were developed.



The Native American version

In this country, the first explorers found that the Native Americans used a hatchet-like device made of a flint head fastened securely to a short wooden handle. It came to be known as the tomahawk and was used for a weapon, as well as all sorts of chopping and cutting tasks. The Native Americans quickly recognized the advantages of the iron axes of the settlers and so-called “trade axes” became a favorite item of barter between the two groups.

Until the 19th century, axes were mostly made by local blacksmiths and the design of them was determined by the desires of the purchaser and the skill of the smith. Different shapes were preferred in different parts of the country, based partly on the type of timber to be cut, but mostly on the user’s preference or prejudice. There were the Michigan wide-bit axe, the Kentucky axe, the Georgia long-bit axe, and the Yankee heavy-head axe, among others.



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