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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
*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?