Gresham’s Law and Windsor Chairmaking, Part I

            Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 – 1579) was an English financier who while working for Queen Elizabeth I, described to her the problems created by the Great Debasement.  Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had adulterated the money by minting silver coins that were partially copper.  Gresham’s explanation is usually abbreviated as “bad money drives out good money” and the expression is called Gresham’s Law.

              This is how it works and why Elizabeth was in financial trouble.   Imagine that a government mandates that all coins of a certain denomination must be accepted as legal tender and at the face value.  However, some of the coins in circulation are pure silver, while some are adulterated by mixing the silver with a base metal.  If a customer has one of each coin, he will naturally pay for his purchase with the debased coin, saving the pure silver coin for himself.  Eventually, all the pure silver coins will be pulled out of circulation and hoarded.  Only debased coins will circulate. The bad coins have driven out the good.

               I had this experience during the late 1960s when I was in college and worked weekends as a bartender.  Only a matter of years earlier the federal government had replaced silver coinage with clad coins, a step that amounted to adulterating the currency in the same manner Henry VIII had done. Every day before work, I would open all the rolls of coins in my bank and examine the edges, looking for a solid line of silver.  I culled out the silver coins I found, replacing them with a clad coin from my pocket. I hoarded the silver coins and saved them for a rainy day.  The bad clad coins drove out the good silver coins.

             Variations on Gresham’s Law occur in lots of areas of human activity.  A bad circumstance or a bad product will push out a good circumstance or a good product.  Here, we are concerned with Windsor chairmaking.  I am concerned, as you too should be, with the effect of the bad pushing out the good.  It is happening in a couple of ways that will negatively affect our craft.

               It happened once before to Windsor chairmaking in its earlier history. As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, chairmaking was one the first furniture making trades to succumb to industrialization.  It was a natural activity to be overtaken by industrialization, as chairs are made in multiples;   they rely on interchangeable parts; and take advantage of a division of labor.  In fact, in the 18th century before the Industrial Revolution, Windsor chairmaking had been a laboratory where these concepts had been tested and proved. 

                Lambert Hitchcock is credited with building the first chair factory in 1818.  However, this time period is known as the Industrial Revolution for a reason, and one guy opening a factory does not a revolution make.  Hitchcock had plenty of help.  It was only a matter of time before Hitchcock was advertising in local newspapers that he had work available for young country folk.  He was trying to entice cheap labor to leave the farms and work for him.  It did not matter that these young men and women were not trained chairmakers. What Hitchcock wanted was inexpensive unskilled labor, as he was only going to teach each worker one task in the production line.

                      By using unskilled labor to make chairs, Hitchcock was able to produce chairs less expensively.  He was also able to sell them at lower prices than the higher quality chairs still being produced by trained chairmakers.  Consumers acted in a predictable manner.  They purchased Hitchcock’s chairs because they were cheaper; ignoring the fact they were also lower quality.  Within two generations the forces that Hitchcock (who was himself a trained chairmaker) had set in motion, had killed off the craft of the chairmaker.  Hand Windsor chairmaking would remain dead until 1971 when I revived it.

              The forces described by Gresham’s Law had destroyed Windsor chairmaking.  Lesser quality factory chairs (bad) drove out handmade (good) chairs.  The process didn’t stop in the early 19th century.  It continued right up to today.  Chair quality has continued to decline for almost 190 years, until we have reached the level I described in this blog in the September 12 posting about J. C. Penny’s chair recall.  If it is possible for chair quality to get any worse than those recalled chairs, the forces described by Gresham’s Law will make it happen.

              Bad driving out good also occurred in hand tools through much of the last century.  For example, consider the bit brace.  At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century high quality bit braces were being produced by numerous makers.  Except for the wood caps and handles, these sturdy tools were all steel.  They had ball bearing caps, and their precisely machined chucks would grip a bit securely without slipping or loosening.

              For many years I and my students used spoon bits driven with a hand brace.  During that time I watched brace-quality in its death throes and witnessed it reach its final, ignominious form.  When we stopped using braces there were only two brands available. Both were so bad our students could not use them.  They had reached the level where they were no longer tools, but only objects that resembled tools.  Remember, part of the definition of a tool is it will do its intended job. 

             The Miller Falls brace and was made in China.  Most of these were eccentric.  In other words, the cap and the chuck were not in line.  Using the brace meant that the hand on the cap was going in a small circle at the same time the other hand was turning the crank. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to drill an accurate hole.   The chuck machining was so sloppy most could not be tightened and so, the bit was always loose and rattling in the chuck.

               The second brand was Stanley. I still see this pitiful brace offered for sale in some woodworking catalogs.  It is usually found on a page with tools designated for chairmaking.  These braces are so chintzy they look like toys.  They are so flimsy they could never withstand the force needed to turn a bit.  Next to an older, high quality brace, one of these  looks like something purchased at a joke or novelty shop.

              The forces described by Gresham’s Law have eliminated all good bit braces, so that all that is left for sale is junk.  The same has happened with many other types of tools.  Try to find a good hand saw of the quality Disston was making even 50 years ago.

                The same problem plagued me when I started to teach.  I described my experiences in the December 6 posting about spoke shaves, another tool that was destroyed by the bad driving out the good.  For me to reestablish Windsor chairmaking by teaching others, I needed to reverse Gresham’s Law and develop a source of quality tools.  In that same posting I described how I went about finding suppliers and bringing high quality chairmaking tools back into production.        

                                                                                     Continued Next Week.

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