Since man first started making and using tools there has always been a wide diversification in their shape and size. Each trade or craft has unique requirements that are reflected in both the creation of their form, and the way in which they are used. Today, the redesigning of tools to incorporate new materials or manufacturing techniques maintains this level of variety. One only has to look at common tools that are in everyday use, such as hammers, saws or spanners, to see the wide range of shapes, sizes and types that can still be obtained. In the past there was an even wider range of most types of tool, and looking at manufacturer’s catalogues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries can give us some indication of how extensive this range was.


Different trades have distinct requirements, and manufacturers still need to cater for these. For example, a watchmaker’s hammer has the same shape and appearance as that of a blacksmith and comprises of the same component parts: head and handle (haft, helve or shaft), but one needs to be far smaller than the other. A hammer maker’s catalogue from the Victorian period will show many different types, often available in a range of differing sizes and weights. Many other tools used in the various trades and crafts also show similar variations in shape and size, and additionally those used in rural areas show regional differences.


From earliest times craftsmen fashioned the tools they needed, but, as the trades became more distinct, some specialised in making the tools needed by others. There is evidence that iron tools were being made in Britain before the roman occupation, and that trade between various parts of Europe was widespread. Iron and steel tools were fairly common throughout the Roman Empire, as were weapons such as swords and spears. As society became more orderly, and barter and trade became more widely established, tools made in one region would have been exchanged for goods from another. Later, in post-medieval times, villages, which were the most common centre of population of a pre-industrial, agrarian society, became more self-sufficient. Iron and steel bars, the raw materials used by the local blacksmith, were among the few materials that needed to be bought in. The smith would have forged the metal parts required by other tradesmen, and would also have made or re-furbished most of their tools. As late as the mid 19th century 90% of the population still lived in rural areas and were employed in agriculture, and few ventured further than their annual visit to the local market town.


In larger towns and cities the scene was different, and the level of specialism became much greater. The smiths’ trades separated into those of the tinsmith, coppersmith, whitesmith, silversmith, goldsmith, or brownsmith, with only the blacksmiths continuing to work in ferrous metals. The latter, however, often subdivided into the edge tool maker, the armourer, the farrier, the wheelwright, the nailer, the chain maker etc. Even edge tool makers became specialists, and makers of scythe blades or light edge tools separated from those making heavy edge tools, such as plough blades. Some became even more specialised, e.g. spade and shovel manufacturers, whilst others made a wide range of tools, catering for all the needs of a number of other trades.


Before the Industrial Revolution, town and country had followed separate paths, and they had little contact apart from the periodic markets and fairs. Most tools were made in the village in which were to be used, and often a specific shape or type of tool was developed that was only used with in a small locality. If one looks at the surviving tools that were used in these agrarian societies: hoes, axes, spades, forks, sickles, billhooks etc, it is possible to see distinct regional variations. Sometimes there was also a marked difference between similar tools from neighbouring villages within a region.


As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, manufacturing tended to become more centralised: with the making of goods becoming closer to the processing of raw materials. Individual workers often lost their independence, and became employees of those who had the capital to set up the new factories. Certain towns, such as Sheffield where the coal, iron ore and limestone needed to make iron and steel were in close proximity to millstone grit used to sharpen the tools, and the water needed to drive the mills, began to specialise in steel making and then processed it to manufacture cutlery and edge tools.


Small groups of craftsmen kept some degree of autonomy by working as out-workers, or by forming co-operatives that supplied finished goods or parts wholesale to the factory owners. The manufacturers often acted as factors, employing men to sell the goods they made or had bought in. Their salesmen had to compete with others in order to establish their market, and often in order to increase sales in rural areas they had to satisfy local demand, and to copy the shape and style of tools used there. Life for the individual craftsmen changed greatly as they had to compete with the cheaper factory made goods, and many small businesses failed to survive the competition. However, due to poor transport and communications in isolated rural areas, there often remained a degree of loyalty to locally produced goods and the people who made them. The rural craftsmen were sometimes more fortunate, and they often managed to remain independent for longer, with many family businesses surviving up to the 1914-18 war. However, this and the loss of so many young men, followed by economic depression, led to the closure of many of the remaining local manufacturers.


Although by the beginnings of the 20th century many small manufacturers in England had disappeared, in France the situation was different. In addition to causing considerable impact on the social structure of the country, the French Revolution had reduced the effect of the industrial revolution on the nation as a whole. Consequently the small independent craftsmen of France survived well into the second half of the 20th century, and despite the devastation of the First World War, they continued to thrive not only in the provinces but also in the towns and cities.


As a result in France there remains a wealth of both tools and documentary evidence as testimony to the individual craftsmen or small firms who made them. This legacy has both cultural and intrinsic value, and, in recent years, has started to acquire greater value as collectors vie for the best of what remains. However, for the true collector the history of a tool is of equal, if not greater, importance than its monetary value, as it can give us an insight into the lives of at least two craftsmen: the one who made it, and the one who used it. It may also indicate what has happened to it since it was last used for its intended purpose, as often a tool that ceases to be used for one purpose has been reused for another. A broken scythe blade may have been used to make a turnip knife, or has been used as a repair plate in the roof of a house; or an old, blunt rasp or file re-forged into a billhook or chisel. Only in recent years has society been affluent enough to buy new and throw away the old.


Post the Industrial Revolution tools were often made in a different area to that in which they were sold, and during the 20th century, as society became more mobile, people moved location, often taking the tools of their trade with them. The maker’s stamp is therefore often the only true indication of a tool’s origin. Unfortunately for the collector of tools the identification of whom made it, or where and when it was made is often difficult to discover. Tools were frequently damaged in use, or became rusty when no longer used, and the maker’s mark is now illegible. If the stamp is incomplete or poorly formed the information it gives is of limited value, unless one can relate it to another source of information. Many early makers also only used a mark, not their name.