Ames Shovel Works and the Construction of America

Ames Shovel Works once supplied a massive need in the U.S.


| November 2014



Cleaning a shovel

Cleaning a shovel.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Farm Collector is usually filled with stories about early farm implements and tractors and the men who invented and manufactured them. Less attention is given to the mundane hand tools that once were the primary means of tillage and, in many cases, are still in use today. Take the humble shovel, with which I’d guess most readers are familiar and from which many have probably gotten blisters at some time or another.

No one knows who first had the idea to use the wide, flat shoulder blade of a large animal as a crude shovel. Later someone thought to whittle a wide, thin blade of wood and attach a wooden handle. Then an inventive soul tipped the wooden blade with bronze or iron and finally hammered the entire blade from the same metals.

During the 16th and 17th century, when the process for making blister steel had been perfected, European blacksmiths began to hand-forge all sorts of tools from that material, which was tougher than wrought iron, held an edge better and could be polished.

In about 1833 in Hancock, Vermont, John Deere was said to be making shovels and hoes that were polished, “like no others that could be bought [and that] scoured themselves of the soil by reason of their smooth, satiny surface.”

Illicit manufacturing of farm implements

For all of the nearly two and a half centuries that the United States of America has existed, one of the premier names found on shovels made here has been Ames. Prior to the American Revolution most good tools were imported from England. The British government tried to suppress manufacturing in the Colonies to prevent competition to their home island industries. As might be expected, colonial blacksmiths made tools in spite of the restrictions, obtaining iron and steel wherever they could.

According to company history, Bridgewater, Massachusetts blacksmith John Ames began to make iron-bladed shovels in about 1774, shortly before the Declaration of Independence was written. John died in 1805 and his 27-year-old son, Oliver, who lived in Easton, Massachusetts, inherited the blacksmith shop. He established Ames Shovel Works in Easton, where, according to one source, he became known as the “King of Spades.”