Grant Hamilton, Publisher

Sometimes searching books, visiting museums, or talking with other collectors answers the “what is it” question. Other times the mystery may remain unsolved for years. A one-of-a-kind perhaps, created by a farmer or tradesman. I’ve pondered the unidentified in my collection from time-to-time and then put them away for another day.

Tools are often in the “what was that for” category. Fortunately, tool collecting became popular a number of years ago, so there is a lot more research material available. Still, for the casual antique buyer, there are many specialized tools that can be a puzzle. The late Roger Henshaw, antique dealer and “moderator” of many Sunday morning antiques discussions, often enlightened his “regulars” with his knowledge of early tools.

I often get a little smile when I see “artifacts” from the letterpress printing days misidentified or marked with a ??? by the seller. Of course, I have an unfair advantage in that regard as my publishing life began toward the end of the letterpress days, and much of what supported the function hadn’t changed for decades.

I’m prone to go off on a tangent when I’m looking for answers about a “what is it” or something that I’ve recently learned about from a collector or dealer. I recall a discussion of whether something was a “spill jar” or a “spooner.” Somewhere along the way I knew about the use of curls of wood shaved to serve like a modern day match. They were called spills, I was told. Just how were those neat curls of wood created? A “spill plane” of course. So I had to buy one and try my hand at creating spills for the spill jar on the mantel. No luck. Fortunately, a Collector reader pointed me to someone who showed me how use the tool correctly. 

As time marches on, some “things” are bound to become “what is it” discussions. That “acoustic coupler” in our office basement or the roll of thermal fax paper may just be the curiosity someone is pondering a few decades from now. That look back at a “what is it” is part of the fun of antiquing – at least for me.