As Richard Doctorow glanced around the opening reception of “When The World Was Wood” at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum last Friday night, he noticed a familiar expression from face to face.
It was the same revelation he had felt while sorting through the museum’s extensive collection, slowly realizing a common theme.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Okay, this is wood and that is wood, and wait a minute, this is wood,’ and you begin realizing this sort of thing isn’t seen anymore,” the curator and collections manager said. “And I think people, even knowing the show that they’re coming to, were a little surprised to learn the amazing range of things that, back in the day, were made out of wood.”
Dating back to the 1800s, nearly 100 wooden objects — from housewares and farm tools to personal items and children’s toys — are now on view at the museum through Sunday, August 12, exploring a unique chapter in American history.
“When you’re looking at a wooden shovel and a wooden bicycle and a wooden washing machine, you begin to realize the world was very different back then,” Doctorow said. “There wasn’t the aluminum, there wasn’t the metal, there wasn’t the plastic. But these things were still being made. And what they were being made out of was wood.”
For the first two centuries of America’s history, wood was not only the most prevalent choice of material, it was often the only choice — so much so that historians sometimes refer to the years between 1650 and 1850 as “America’s Wood Age,” according to Doctorow.
“Even as early as the 1500s and 1600s, the forests of Europe were being depleted, and depleting very fast, particularly in England — which, of course, was building their Royal Navy for much of this time,” he said. “A single ship of the line could take hundreds of acres of timber to build, so Colonial America became England’s wood yard, and all the beautiful straight pine masts that were used on English ships was coming out of America.”
Wood, and specifically timber, was considered a “strategic vital resource,” Doctorow said. If a circa-1800s Long Island farm did not also include 20 or 30 acres of woodland, it was not considered well run, he said.
“Farmers were using all that wood for fuel, for fencing, and to build all these wonderful tools they were using,” he said. “You’d farm in the spring and the summer and fall, and in the winter you’d be repairing and making tools for the next season. You would just go down to your own patch of woods and get what you need.
“That was the way of life out here on Long Island,” he said. “These people knew their wood.”
Every type of wood had a different use, as per its unique qualities — from wooden utensils, bowls and buckets to tools and toys. Oak and cedar were terrific for boat building, as it turned out, with ash best used for oars, Doctorow said.
But perhaps more unexpected were gears for a tower clock by Ephraim Byram, a tricycle and a washing machine manufactured in Sag Harbor in the 1860s, he said.
“You can just imagine some little child of Sag Harbor in 1865 peddling furiously on this wooden tricycle, which I think is a wonderful image,” Doctorow said. “It’s hard to imagine a washing machine made out of wood, but there it is. It’s, as you might imagine, somewhat primitive. It’s a big wooden open box with a handle and you would basically move the handle back and forth, and that was the agitator. You were basically shoving the clothes about in the water, this way and that.
“It is not exactly a high-tech item,” he said, “but back in 1865, it certainly would have been considered a time saver.”
As Doctorow continues to catalogue the museum’s extensive collection — comprised of approximately 3,500 objects — he expects to come across more wooden pieces, while making notes about others and how they will fit into future exhibits.
“Like all museums, we’re hoping people come in and get a better understanding of the past,” Doctorow said. “The study of history is more than just learning how things ‘used to be.’ Understanding the who, what, why, where and when of the past helps us understand our present; and it is only by understanding the present that we can envision and create a better future.”
“When the World Was Wood,” curated by Richard Doctorow, will remain on view through Sunday, August 12, at The Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, located at 200 Main Street in Sag Harbor. A wooden boat building demonstration by the East End Classic Boat Society will be held on Saturday, August 4, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the museum grounds. For more information, call (631) 725-0770 or visit sagharborwhalingmuseum.org.