Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Around the World from 80 Countries: British Pewter

The last object –the Corvallis College bell-- was made of cast steel.  This mug, also from England, is made of a different metal, pewter.  

Pewter is an alloy of mostly tin with some other metal to harden it.  Originally, producers used lead, but after becoming aware of its health dangers, they switched to an alloy of tin, antimony, and copper. This combination of metals was in use as long ago as the Bronze Age, with the earliest known piece dated at 1450 BCE. This doesn't seem to surprising as both bronze and pewter use the same two metals but in different proportions: bronze is copper with a bit of tin added while pewter is mostly tin with a bit of copper added. 

Britain's large tin deposits are in the Cornwall area. By the 1300s the English were using this tin to make pewter. To regulate the trade, a guild of pewterers was established in 1348. Production expanded and the use of pewter objects -- plates, cups, bowls, teapots, candlesticks, and spoons -- spread from the church and homes of the wealthy to middle-class families. Many taverns used mugs like this or covered tankards; merchants also used pewter measuring cups when selling bulk products. To protect consumers, in 1836, the British government required that pewterers mark the item's capacity; this mug is stamped 1 pint.  An official weights and measures inspector would check that this was correct and stamp a verification mark on the side.  The “GR 485” and “ER 485” stamps on this mug are examples of this practice and, as best as I can tell, indicate that the inspection was made in Wisbech, St. Peter Town, in the county of Cambridgeshire in 1835 or later. 

Pewter has a low melting point and is easily cast using molds.  Because the molds were expensive to make, many pewter objects featured the same basic body with other pieces such as handles or spouts soldered on later. Pewter can also be shaped by hammering. Because pewter is relatively soft metal and can be easily dented, scratched or corroded, craftsmen known as tinkers specialized in repairing or refashioning pewter ware.

As the technology for producing ceramics improved, china plates and cups gradually replaced pewter ware. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Monday, June 12, 2017

Naylor Vickers bells in Oregon

Corvallis College, which operated from 1858 to 1868, had Naylors Vicker Co. bell number 1629 that was the subject of Martha Fraundorf's blog that preceeded this one. Four 19th century church bells made by Naylor Vickers Co. of Sheffield, England, are known to be in Oregon. 

British author George A. Dawson has published a series of books about British-made church bells and he maintains informative databases which are available on his web site ( His North American spreadsheet lists four Oregon bells, all of which date to the era of 1858-1860. In addition to the Corvallis College bell (no. 1629), there is currently one in Eugene, a second at Linfield College, and a third in Jacksonville.

Naylor Vickers bell No. 995 at
Central Lutheran Church, Eugene
Bell number 995 (made in 1859) currently hangs in the courtyard of the Central Lutheran Church in Eugene, across the street from the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery and the University of Oregon campus.

Bell number 889 (also made in 1859) graces the lobby of Riley Hall at Linfield College.  Archivist Rachael Woody wrote about the bell in 2012 (, noting that for over a century “It signaled athletic victories and successful college fund drives. The sound of the bell was heard throughout all of McMinnville”. 

Naylor Vickers bell No. 889, Linfield College,
McMinnville, OR. Photo by archivist Rich Schmidt.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church,
Jacksonville, OR
The third bell has continuously served the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Jacksonville since 1858. According to Margaret LaPlante's book "Jacksonville" (Southern Oregon Historical Society (c) 2010), "St. Joseph's Catholic Church was dedicated in November 1858.  The bell that beckoned the townsfolk to Sunday mass weighed 297 pounds and was cast in Sheffield, England, and then shipped around the Horn."

Bill Fendall with Blymyer Norton & Co.
bell in Philomath College cupola, 1970's.
All of this bell research inspired me to climb the ladder in the cupola of the Philomath College building. The bell suspended there is also a steel bell but it was made by Blymyer Norton & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio.  In the archive of Benton County Historical Society we found that Lena Coiner Ringland, a student at Philomath College in 1917, wrote that the bell was purchased in 1867 for a sum of $250. The bell called students to classes and for church services. According to Ringland, the students referred to the bell as the “Liberty Bell of the West”.
Philomath College bell at Benton County Museum, Philomath, OR

By Mark Tolonen, BCHS Curator of Exhibitions

Corvallis College Bell: Around The World From 80 Countries

Corvallis College bell at
Benton County Historical Society

This bell was made in England but also has a interesting local connection because it hung in the belfry of Corvallis College the forerunner of Oregon State University.  If it hadn't been so large-- the bell itself is 22 inches in diameter, with the stand adding more-- it would have been a good object to include in the “Around the World...” exhibition.  But it would have replaced a goodly number of other objects so we used some of the collection's other 150 objects from England.

Corvallis College, circa 1870, facing 5th Street
between Monroe and Madison, Corvallis
Bells have called people to church or school for centuries.  Traditionally, bells were made of a special copper-tin alloy called, not surprisingly, bell metal. This metal is like bronze but has a higher tin content (20-22% instead of 12%) to create a more rigid and resonant metal. But Sheffield, England native Tom Vickers had a different idea.

As far back as medieval times, people in the Sheffield area were using charcoal to smelt iron ore and shape it into tools.  By 1700, it had become the center for production of cutlery.  A number of innovations to the iron and steel industries originated in the area, including the use of coal-based coke as a fuel to replace wood-based charcoal, and the development of the crucible process for making steel.  By 1830, Sheffield was established as the leading “Steel City” in England.

The Vickers family and their in-laws, the Naylors, were part of this industrial core, producing crucible steel and operating a rolling mill. They sent Tom and his brother to Germany to study steel-making and there Tom learned of a process of casting steel into molds. A German acquaintance, Ewald Riepe, patented this process in England and as a result, has his name appears on the bell.  In 1855, the Naylor, Vickers company began making cast-steel bells which they sold for about a third the price of traditional bells. This bell – number 1629-- was made in 1860.  In addition to being cheaper, cast steel bells were stronger and were supposed to produce a more powerful sound that carried over longer distances. Although some people did not like the sound of the bells, the company continued to produce and sell them until the 1880s. Of the over 7,000 cast-steel bells they produced, they exported about one-quarter of the bells to the United States. Many, like this one, are still in existence.

To read more about this company and their bells, see

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sumerian cuneiform: Around the World from 80 Countries

I became interested in these two objects when I noticed that the museum's files list them as dating from over 2000 years BCE. At first, they didn't look like much more than insignificant rocks or globs of clay but when I began to research them it became clear that they tell the story of one of man's more significant accomplishments. 

The first object is an example of cuneiform writing which the Sumerians of Uruk (in southern Iraq) invented between 3500 and 3000 BCE.  The need to coordinate the development and operation of irrigation to for agriculture spurred the development of civil government and cities.  As trade and commerce increased, people needed to keep track of exchanges of goods, pay due workers, inventories, and taxes.  People began drawing in damp clay with reeds or sticks of wood symbols to represent what was exchanged or stored. But drawing takes time and is difficult in clay so they simplified the signs to use straight line and wedges which could be quickly pressed into the clay with a triangular-shaped reed stylus.  Joan Oates (page 17  in her Babylon) gives the following example of the evolution of the sign for ox from around 3100 BCE to 600 BCE.

 You can see some of the wedge-shaped indentations on the first photo.  We don't know the subject of the writing but the object has a whole through it so it's possible that it was attached to a cord closing some container.  The tablet would then list the contents or be a bill of sale.

"clay tablet"

 We don't know much about the second object -- it's just listed as “clay tablet.” You can see some marks on it but they are not the deeper wedge shapes of the later cuneiform.  I think it could have been made early on in the first stages of simplification (like the second drawing above). But that's just a guess.  If anyone reading this knows more, we hope you'll tell us.

Overall, the Sumerians developed about 600 signs with the typical sign using five to ten wedge impressions.  These could be combined to create additional meanings as when the signs for mouth and bowl were used together to mean “eat.”  Cuneiform made use of homophones, using a sign for a physical object to stand in for a similar-sounding word with a different meaning (such as using the sign for reed to stand for the “read.”) For more abstract concepts, they also used symbol for a word to represent that same sound when it occurred in a different word.  For example, we might use the symbol for an eye and that for land to make up the word island.

With these innovations, the use of cuneiform  writing expanded beyond commercial use to legal documents, literature, hymns, and astrological records. It was the first writing and was adapted for use with other languages such as Akkadian (which evolved into Babylonian and Assyrian), and Hittite. It was used continuously until the second century CE by which time it had been replaced by alphabetic systems. 


The Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois has some very clear pictures of cuneiform documents on its website.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon