You might be surprised at what you can find in the Winterthur Museum collection. It’s not only celebrated ceramics, rare paintings, and priceless furniture. It’s also… tools. Did I say tools? Yes, but not those kinds of tools. There aren’t any power drills in the collection. In my role as a tools cataloguer, I work primarily with historic tools, such as those used in woodworking, clockmaking, and silversmithing. I also work with smaller tools, such as the sewing and needlework tools donated by a collector named Kay Hawthorne.
Hawthorne focused her needlework tool collection on tools produced in the United Kingdom and the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It includes 30 measuring tapes designed as novelties with whimsical design elements; they are made from a wide variety of materials including brass, bone, ivory, vegetable ivory, and early celluloid thermoplastics. They were equally useful and entertaining.
Early tape measures were folded up or wrapped around a spindle inside a cylindrical case and stowed in a sewing box. These tapes, however, were wound back into the case with a small handle. As technology moved forward, cases became more decorative, and handles became design elements. The tape stored inside of this brass bird is hand wound by turning the worm in the bird’s mouth.
One of our vegetable ivory tape measures includes a Stanhope viewer at the top of the spindle. Stanhope viewers were optical novelties first produced in the 1860s that showed miniature views of famous landscapes, notable buildings, and other tourist attractions through a lens viewer. This tape measure was originally sold as a souvenir. A series of tiny views of France are visible through the lens at the top of the spindle.
By the late 1860s, tape measures were designed to retract with the help of an internal spring mechanism. With this new spring technology, the tapes could be concealed in numerous ways, and a wide variety of novelty designs followed. One of the more whimsical designs in the collection, a tin alligator, hides a measuring tape inside its mouth.
The tape on another example is retrieved by pulling on a man’s leather tongue.
These, along with a number of objects from the Winterthur collection, can be explored online on our Museum Collection Digital Database. Cataloguing of over 1,400 selected tools in Winterthur Museum’s collections has been supported by a Museums for America Program Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Rogers, Gay Ann. An Illustrated History of Needlework Tools. London: John Murray, 1983.
Post by Margaret E. Powell, IMLS Cataloguing Assistant