The power drills and circular saws are kicking up dust at my house so today on Museum Bites we’re taking a closer look at a classic tool, the hammer. From the maul to the meat mallet, hammers, in one form or another, shape our everyday life. The framing hammer builds houses while a sledge hammer pulverizes walls. Gavels demand order while war hammers sow fear and chaos. Piano hammers produce concertos, while jackhammers bring on headaches. Hammers have also had an impact on our language. We’re considered hammer-headed if we don’t budge on an issue, get hammered if we drink too much, and drop the hammer when we take decisive action. This simple, multipurpose tool has been around since the Stone Age, and today the most common version is the claw hammer. Join me for a brief look at the evolution of this trusty tool.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The oldest hammer dates back approximately 2.6 million years ago, to the Pliocene Epoch. It was discovered with the Oldowan Tools, a cache of ancient stone implements excavated in the Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania. Our early ancestors used hammerstones to bash sharp flakes from other stones. These shards were then used to cut, chop, scrape and butcher their next meal. Scratches and dents on these crude blades along with microscopic analysis provide clues into the paleo diet of early humans. The crude but simple hammerstone remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
Heavy Metal: The hammerstone was tossed aside in favor of bronze and subsequently, iron hammers when humans discovered the art of smelting (i.e., extracting metal from ore). Bronze and Iron Age hammers were more durable and over time became more specialized. Sockets were added to the hammer heads so wooden or metal handles could be wedged inside. The addition of a handle enabled the user to wield more force. But buyer beware, it was not uncommon for these metal hammer heads to break off.
When in Rome: The Ancient Romans had a wide variety of hammers at their fingertips. One clever craftsman designed a dual-function hammer that could pound in and pry out nails. The addition of an extended notch on the hammer head functioned like a claw and pulled nails free. Since I’m a huge Monty Python fan, I was especially delighted to learn the Romans gave us this cutting edge technology. In addition to the claw hammer, the Romans also gave us the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, medicine, irrigation, education, wine, public baths, public order, and peace. If you have no idea what I’m talking about or just want a Monty Python fix, click on this hilarious clip from the Life of Brian to learn more about what the bloody Romans have done for us.
Flying Off the Handle: The design and use of the original Roman claw hammer remained relatively constant up until the 1840s. Laborers, however, were still plagued by hammer heads flying off their handles (origin of the saying, flying off the handle). These metal missiles inflicted harm, drove down production and rattled a user’s confidence in his tools. Fortunately, blacksmith David Maydole came to the rescue. Basing his design on the adze (axe with a curved blade), Maydole crafted a curved hammer head with an extended socket. This longer opening allowed the handle to be more tightly and securely wedged into place.
According to Maydole’s biography, a local carpenter stopped into his workshop and asked Maydole to, “Make me as good a hammer as you know how.” The carpenter was helping construct a neighborhood church and somehow left his hammer at home. Maydole sold the man his new-fangled adze-eye claw hammer. The curved design and secure handle turned out to be a big hit. The carpenter’s co-workers flocked to Maydole’s workshop and demanded their own claw hammers.
They [carpenters] did not understand all the blacksmith’s notions about tempering and mixing the metals, but they saw at a glance that the head and the handle were so united that there never was likely to be any divorce between them. To a carpenter building a wooden house, the mere removal of that one defect was a boon beyond price; he could hammer away with confidence, and without fear of seeing the head of his hammer leap into the next field unless stopped by a comrade’s head.
~A Captain of Industry: The Story of David Maydole, by James Parton
Word spread, sales increased and within a few short years, Maydole threw open the doors to his aptly named, David Maydole Hammer Company in 1845.
Today, we have a wide variety of tools at our disposal. Thanks to the ingenuity of the Ancient Romans and David Maydole the claw hammer is our trusty go-to tool of choice. Click on this David Maydole biography link if you’d like to learn more about his hammer-filled life.
Next week, we’ll be poking our heads into some of the rare and beautiful headgear I’ve come across in my travels. In the meantime, have a great week!
Dietrich, O. & Ailinc, S-C. (2012), A Group of Bronze Age Socketed Hammers: Beating Fits from the Lower Danube and Northern Black Sea Area.
Experimental Archaeology (2016)
Fell, V. (1998), Iron Age Ferrous Hammerheads from Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology
Smithsonian Institute Human Origins Project
Parton, James (1923), A Captain of Industry: The Story of David Maydole.
The Maydole Hammers, Archive.org
University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology