Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

White Saws: Probably the Best in the World

Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

White Saws: Probably the Best in the World

Article excerpt


In their book Tools: Working Wood in 18th Century America, Jay Gaynor and Nancy Hagedorn make two significant remarks about saws of that period: that they were technically the most complex to make, and that "only a dozen or so [[documented eighteenth-century]] English examples... survive."1 Since 1993, that dozen can be expanded by a factor of perhaps eight to ten worldwide, but there are only two by the most famous maker of the time-White. The maker's surname alone has to be used for several reasons, the most obvious being that at that time a single word was the way that a tool's maker usually identified himself, the letters struck with a steel punch into the saw plate or the saw back. In the case of White, the word also conceals the fact that this was a dynasty, stretching across probably four generations until it faded from view in the 1750s.

What Gaynor and Hagedorn did not say is that information about individual eighteenth-century sawmakers varies from the exiguous to the non-existent, with most known only from their names in a single source, or perhaps a single surviving tool. The Whites figure at the informative end of that spectrum, and appropriately in view of their reputation, more about the Whites is known than about any of their contemporaries. A picture of them can be built from scattered documentary sources, and two surviving hacksaws, but even so, it will be apparent that much guesswork is necessary.

This article is divided into four parts: who the Whites were; where they worked and what they made; and their legacy of sawmaking. Research nowadays is made a great deal easier because so many documents have been digitized and indexed. Using tools such as and www.nationalarchives., which spread their digital wings so widely, I have been able to search for significant events in the life of the White family. The following are the main sources for this article:

* The translation of the excerpt from the 1749 travel diary of Samuel Schröder, a Swedish industrial investigator, who visited "Mr White" and talked to his workers.

* The records of the Sun Fire office and successor companies, which recorded the names, addresses, and occupations of policy holders, with details of what was being insured; these records are being gradually indexed and digitized, but the task is immense, as there were hundreds of thousands of policies issued from 1710 onwards.4

* The records of the Blacksmiths' Company of London, held at the Guildhall Library in London.3

* The genealogy service of, which enables searches of digitized parish registers, censuses, records of births, marriages and deaths and many other local and national registers.

* The original records of local taxation for the parish of St. Luke, Finsbury, held at Islington Local History Centre.4

* Other printed sources noted in the bibliography and items related to the Whites and their saws that friends have sent to me (see "Acknowledgements").

* Two remaining saws known to be by White; other contemporary saws for comparison are almost non-existent.

The White Family of Sawmakers

This examination of the history of the White family begins by establishing who they were and when they lived, and by setting them in the context of saw manufacture in the century after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The amount of written research into the genesis of the English saw trade is slowly increasing, and it has recently been given a welcome lift by Edward (Ted) Ingraham's important paper, ?The English Handsaw before the Industrial Revolution," which makes a clear case for the start of local manufacture in London in the seventeenth century.5 Before then, saws such as the one shown in Figure 1 were being imported from Holland in the sixteenth century, and as the population and wealth of England grew, and the knowledge and skills of metal-working spread, import substitution became economically viable, particularly when the Dutch wars of the second half of the seventeenth century made British maritime trade less easy. …

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