Medical and navigational instruments, sailmaker’s and carpenter’s tools used to maintain both ship and crew.
In the early nineteenth century, a “mechanic” was not a person who worked on automobiles, but rather anyone who worked with his hands to produce something useful. Carpenters and blacksmiths, sign painters and coach makers, coopers and gunsmiths all produced the goods that both eased the burdens of everyday life and whiled away the hours of repose. All the products of their hands – wood, metal, glass, or cloth – were made with tools. There were tools for cutting, grinding, and polishing, tools for decorating and dissecting, putting together and taking apart. Indeed, all the powers of human invention combined to make a tool for just about any job.
Just as all these craftsmen and their tools helped make cities run, so too did a ship – a floating city – need tools and skilled men to wield them. A wooden ship required a carpenter to maintain its hull, a sailmaker to repair its sails, an armorer to look after its guns. A boatswain and his mates kept their eyes on the rigging, and the sailing master and cooper peered at the barrels in the hold. The officers searched the heavens for stars and the sun to guide their way across the trackless ocean, and the surgeon prodded, probed and purged the sailors back to health. And of the able seamen themselves it was said that “every finger was a marlinspike.” All these men required tools for their trades, and their cabins and their storerooms were like floating tool chests.
The USS Constitution Museum’s tool collection includes examples of many of these items. A broad axe, a bevel, and a fid used to build and maintain Constitution speak of the skill and knowledge needed to construct a wooden ship and keep it running. A set of late 19th century surgical instruments, a ship’s medicine chest, and an 1812 surgeon’s notebooks recall the horrors that awaited the sick and the injured. A telescope and a Boston-made sextant remind us that finding one’s way in a pre-electronics age was as much an art as a science. Together, the tool collection helps us recollect just how much effort it took to build, maintain, and sail a wooden warship.