The Boston Wrench Group
(Imported English coach wrenches or 18th and 19th century American copies?)


Boston wrenches..Fourth wrench

During 32 years of tool picking throughout New England, a variety of hand forged signed and unsigned tools were discovered by the buyer for the Liberty Tool Co., who is now the curator of The Davistown Museum.  A number of the most interesting tools were kept in the Geronimo Cafe Athenaeum in Hulls Cove, now the Hulls Cove office of The Davistown Museum, rather than being sold at tool stores in Jonesport, Hulls Cove, Searsport or Liberty.  These tools now form the heart of The Davistown Museum's exhibits.

Among the most interesting tools that turned up back in the 1970's was a very early-looking adjustable monkey type wrench.  When this 18th century in appearance wrench was discovered, it was set aside to later join the Cafe collection.  During the 1980's and 1990's two additional specimens of hand wrought wrenches were located, all within 25 miles of Boston.  The Davistown Museum would like to suggest that these adjustable nut wrenches (along with adjustable wedge wrenches) are among the earliest known examples of adjustable wrenches used in colonial America.  Because they were found in close proximity to Boston's city center, we have dubbed these wrenches the Boston wrench group.

The first feedback the Davistown Museum received about the possible origin of these wrenches came from Patrick Leach ( who indicated that these wrenches were probably made in London and imported to the US in the late 18th or early 19th century.  More recently, Herb Page has provided an extensive commentary on the origins of these allegedly English coach wrenches, which has been informative enough to include below in this file.  Among other points, Herb reminded the curator that these wrenches, along with a variety of similar adjustable wrenches, are illustrated in the pattern book of R. Timmins and Sons of Birmingham reprinted by Kenneth Roberts as Tools for the Trades and Crafts (see illustrations below.)  This important reference was retrieved from the museum library and low and behold exact copies of the rightmost two wrenches above (except handle design as noted below) are reproduced on Thomas Ross's engraved trade card published in the 1829 edition of the Birmingham Directory (pg. 12 in Roberts.)  Looking at this illustration as well as the others provided by Herb from the Timmins pattern book, one could quickly conclude that the Boston wrenches are early 19th century English imported coach wrenches.  Several observations prompt questioning what at first seems the obvious answer as to the age and origin of these wrenches.

Ross trade card excerpt Close up of wrench

The first question arises from the title of Robert's publication and from his comments in the text: "an eighteenth century pattern book."  Roberts makes clear that pattern books were being issued as early as 1760 (Wyke) and consisted of copperplate engravings of tools designed or manufactured by many small companies who then advertised their wares in the pattern books, which illustrated many rather than one manufacturer's products.  A similar pattern book cited in our bibliographies is Joseph Smith's 1816 Key to the Various Manufacturer's of Sheffield, which illustrates so many of the products of Peter Stubs in Lancashire.  The tools illustrate in all of these pattern books are essentially 18th century in their design, with only a few exceptions.  The essential point is that illustrations such as that in the trade card of Thomas Ross reflect tool forms and designs that in many cases remained essentially unchanged from the 18th century.  The design of the Boston wrenches matches that in the trade card and is and reflects 18th century designs, not a 19th century innovation.

The second important difference between two of the three Boston wrenches illustrated and those illustrated in the copperplate engravings of the Timmins pattern book is in the design of the handles.  All of the numerous adjustable wrenches reproduced in Robert's Tools for the Trades and Crafts have obviously chamfered handles.  This includes the illustration in the 1829 trade card.  Two of the Boston wrenches illustrated above are very different from the coach wrenches illustrated in Timmins: they have simple round handles and appear primitively hand forged -- they lack the sophisticated appearance of the coach wrenches in the pattern books.  Ironically enough, the email correspondence that Herb Page was kind enough to send us prompted a reexamination of the wrenches in our collection.  DTM expert Steve McDonnell was able to detect the faint signature of "Mathieson Glasgow" on the wrench on the left side of the picture above.  This obviously confirms the opinion that this wrench, at least, was manufactured in Britain and imported to the US.  Most interesting was the fact that this is the only wrench of the three with a chamfered handle.

This then leads to a fundamental question pertaining to many of the tools manufactured in colonial days and the early days of the republic: why would Boston artisans import expensive English tools when similar tools could be produced at a much lower cost by the blacksmiths of the time?  It is particularly important to note, with respect to the possible longevity of the coach wrench design, that coaches themselves became popular modes of transportation for the nobility as early as 16th century Elizabethan England.  Sir Humphrey Gilbert took a coach from London to Bristol on his last fateful voyage to North America in the late 16th century.  Coaches were known and used even in earlier periods in Hungary and France and were the ubiquitous mode of transportation for all European nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This raises the question: how old is the design of a wrench such as the middle on in the photograph above, which is very close to that in the Ross trade card except for its much simpler handle?  Is there any chance that wrenches of this design would have Roman prototypes?  It should be noted the only certain way to differentiate many Birmingham or Sheffield made cast steel tools from American made ones is by the manufacturer's mark.  The only other way to differentiate American made from English made tools during the 18th and early 19th centuries is by subtle stylistic differences.  Such is the case with the simplified handle of at least two of the Boston wrenches.  When English tools were copied in America, the design was often simplified, yet retained in its basic essence.  With their simpler rounded handles there is the chance, at least, that two of the Boston wrenches were blacksmith made American copies of the ubiquitous 18th century English design.  One additional Boston-style wrench has now turned up and is awaiting cataloging and photographing.  The issue of the age and origin of this and other smith forged coach style wrenches along with akjustable wedge and other wrenches will be an ongoing museum research project.  Your comments and observations are solicited.  Further commentary on the coach wrench issue follows.

Fourth Boston wrench (English coach wrench?) discovered in December 2002

fourth wrench..close-up

The Liberty Tool Company has turned up a fourth adjustable wrench in the style of the English coach wrenches pictured above.  The wrench was located in the Hampton, NH, area in December of 2002 and has recently been added to The Davistown Museum collection of "Boston" wrenches.  As with two of the three wrenches illustrated above, this adjustable wrench lacks the beveled handle of the Glasgow specimen but rather has the more unsophisticated rounded handle.  This wrench also has very clear evidence of hand forging and is the most primitively formed of these wrenches.  It's difficult to believe that a wrench with such unsophisticated design and manufacturing characteristics would have been manufactured by one of England's sophisticated toolmakers and then imported to the United States in the early 19th century.  We would like to advocate an alternative hypothesis: this is a made in New England circa 1750 knockoff of the more sophisticated English coach wrench.  During the first six decades of the 18th century, English tool and steel making industry was in a crisis due to lack of fuel.  The colonies were exporting significant quantities of pig iron to England from American blast furnaces in Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  There is absolutely no reason why an American blacksmith would not have pounded out an unsigned copy of what was probably already a ubiquitous wrench form.  Even a mid- to late-18th century English coach wrench would have had a more sophisticated appearance and would most likely have been signed by its manufacturer as were most imported tools.

[These are in our Archaeology of Tools Maritime II section; ID TBK1001, TBK1002 and TBK1003.  Recently added is a fourth wrench, 32103T4.  The tools are listed alphabetically by category, since the wrenches are last, link to the listing, then use the navigation links to go to the last page and/or the one previous to the last page.]

These wrenches clearly pre-date the first patented wrench made in 1830 (Blake & Cushing - the first known wrench patent issued by the US Patent Office, see Cope, pg. 57).

The collection of The Davistown Museum also includes one later adjustable wrench [Archaeology of Tools under Maritime III; ID TCZ3000] marked "L. COES PATEN__" (date obscured) and on the second side "____ BOSTON & WORCESTER" , which appears to be a transitional design linking the hand forged Boston wrenches to the later proliferation of adjustable monkey wrenches that are so well documented in Kenneth L. Cope's American Wrench Makers.  The first patented monkey wrench listed in Cope that bears a resemblance to the three Boston wrenches and the later transitional Coes wrench in the Museum's collection is the E. F. Dixie (Worcester, MA) adjustable wrench illustrated on pg. 100.  The Hewet adjustable nut wrench noted by Cope is not illustrated.  The famous line of Coes adjustable monkey wrenches date slightly after the appearance of the Dixie and Hewet patents; the Loring Coes patent was issued April 16, 1841.  The Boston wrench group is clearly a colonial or early republic era predecessor to the proliferation of adjustable wrench designs in the 19th century.  We have not been able to accurately date the transitional Coes wrench noted above, but its design does not exactly correspond with any of the Coes wrenches listed in Cope's American Wrench Makers.  The notation "Boston" is also particularly puzzling as Coes did not as far as we know produce wrenches in Boston.  Additional information about both the Boston wrenches and the mysterious Coes wrench would be welcomed by The Davistown Museum.  (See new information from Herb Page below.)  For more information on Coes wrenches, see our information file on this company.

The existence of the Boston wrenches raise an important question for those interested in documenting the history of wrench making in America, to wit, what was the need for an adjustable wrench in 18th century colonial America?  The construction of the ironworks on the Saugus River in Lynn (Hammersmith) in the mid-17th century clearly marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in North America.  As E.N. Hartley notes in Ironworks on the Saugus, the Lynn ironworking complex was a sophisticated state-of-the-art factory as advanced as any in England.  This facility included a huge furnace, two fineries, a large trip hammer, a chafery and a rolling and slitting mill.  This industrial complex, the earliest in colonial America, is defacto evidence of a need for adjustable wrenches similar in design to the Boston wrench group on display in The Davistown Museum.  The proliferation of transportation vehicles such as carts and wagons on the waterfronts and in the industrial areas of cities along the east coast of North America from the late 17th century onward is further defacto evidence for the need of adjustable wrenches of one form or another, either with adjustable screws or adjustable wedges.  This is particularly true because, as Herb Page notes below, there was a wide variety rather than a wide uniformity in the sizes and designs of axle nuts.  Since these wrenches are unsigned and undated, we have no way of knowing whether their production coincides with an American industrial florescence that began at the Saugus ironworks or whether they are a later 18th century production.  Both English and American blacksmiths certainly had the ability to produce Boston-style wrenches at the same time the Saugus ironworks were constructed; these ironworks also illustrate that the need for adjustable wrenches dates to the construction of this industrial complex, one of the landmarks in American material cultural history.

Herb Page <> has responded to our request for more information on these wrenches.  On November 16, 2002 he stated:

I am Herb Page, a long time collector of antique adjustable wrenches and have an extensive array of old Coes wrenches, including the 6' Coes Key Wrench.  Also I specialize in collecting Coes wrenches and memorabilia. I can answer your quandary about the Boston & Worcester marking on your Coes wrench.  During the period of 1848 to 1852 the firm of L & A.G. Coes contracted with the firm of Ruggles, Nourse & Mason on a 5 year term to market the entire production of wrenches produced by this fledgeling firm.  R.N.& M. had branches in both Worcester & Boston and the wrenches produced during this time period were stamped with 1) "L. Coes Patent", 2) "Ruggles, Nourse & Mason" if space permitted, depending on size of wrench and 3) "Boston & Worcester" indicating the sales outlets of the marketing firm.  These wrenches were manufactured in Worcester at the firm of L & A. G. Coes and the particular marking referred to is indicative of early production during the above mentioned dates.  These are quite rare and have a distinctive circular insert in the working face of the lower jaw which is in line with the adjusting screw.  Coes wrenches of this era are quite rare and desirable among antique wrench collectors.  I have several examples of these and even earlier examples.

We then asked him what his opinion was about the three Boston wrenches described above.  He responded:

Page's wrenches
I have over the last 40 years or so accumulated an array of Coes wrenches from the very earliest (early 1840s) to the last ones produced by successor companies during the 1960s.  Also have researched for some time on Coes history and plan within the next year or so to issue a publication on Coes wrenches and historical background.  As you perhaps know, antique wrench collecting is becoming a very active segment of antique tool collecting in general and the prices of prime historical examples have escalated considerably within the last few years.  Therefore I believe my proposed Coes publication will be a timely reference for wrench collectors and historians.  I will be sure to send you a copy of this work once it is completed.  In the meantime, I am writing an article on wrenches for each quarterly issue of the "Fine Tool Journal" which as you perhaps know is published for the antique tool collecting fraternity in Pownal, ME.  If you would be interested in a sample copy, I would be pleased to send one to you.

You can reference me as a source of wrench historical information by means of my name and e-mail address.

I can confirm my opinion that the three wrenches pictured on your site are indeed from England, however feel that they are likely from the early 1800s. I base this upon some early historical references indicating when adjustable wrenches were first imported into New England.  This type of wrench was made in several versions throughout the 19th century and these were referred to as English Coach Wrenches.  As far as I know, no american manufacturer produced this type of wrench commercially.  I attach an image of several examples from my collection which likely span the time period from the early to late 19th century.  Unfortunately very few of these English wrenches are ever marked with a makers name which makes for sketchy dating and assignment of provenience.  I hope you find my comments and image of interest.  I applaud your efforts to preserve early hand tool history.

We then responded:
There is something about the wrenches I have though that raises my suspicion that they may not have been made in England: these wrenches are much more primitive than the sophisticated and finely cast(?) and forged wrenches in your photos.  The one in the middle of your group, with the 18 on it, is the one wrench that is similar to those that I have collected in the Boston area.  I am curious why the wrenches that I find in the Boston area, if they were imported from England, would be of such obviously inferior quality?  Also, since there are no signatures on any of these, [note later correction above] I would like to raise the possibility that these 3 wrenches were in fact American made copies of the English coach wrench.  I would raise the question: isn't there a possibility that the wrench marked 18 is an American copy of the more sophisticated coach wrenches that you show in your photograph?

I'd also put this in the form of another question: during the early years of the republic there were increasing numbers of blacksmiths and small companies producing tools in America, many using designs of English prototypes.  Why wouldn't, therefore, Boston area blacksmiths produce their own coach wrenches, the English style again being the prototype for the more primitive Boston wrenches?

I also have another question: I've always heard or seen comments that infer that all forms of monkey wrenches were produced after 1800 - at least with respect to American monkey wrenches.  I would like to raise the question that with respect to the function of the monkey wrench as coach wrenches and for other uses, why wouldn't have these wrenches been produced in the 18th century in some form?  We regularly salvage hundreds of 18th century tools every year -- I remain highly skeptical that all the wrenches that I recover that are hand forged date after 1800 when so many other tools in New England cellars and shop lots date from before 1800.  Obviously the wrenches we have in our collection could have been made in 1810 or 1820, but my intuition tells me they are probably older.  This raises the question, if these are, in fact, 19th century wrenches, what form of wrenches were used on American coaches circa 1750?  Why wouldn't some of the English coach wrenches be 18th century rather than 19th century?

Also, please advise us of any historical references that help help us document when adjustable wrenches were first imported into New England.  Almost all tools utilized by the New England colonists of the 17th century and most tools in use during the 18th century were imported from England or elsewhere -- only a small percentage of edge tools, for example, were made in New England by smiths like Faxon at Braintree, MA.  Obviously we continued to rely on imported English tools until the 19th century, yet we still have extensive evidence of robust tool making enterprises by various New England blacksmiths in the 18th century.  We'd therefore like to leave open the question of whether these are English coach wrenches or 18th century or early 19th century New England made knock-offs.

I think it would be interesting to post our correspondence on this and see if we get any other opinions.  As a New Englander I intuit that 18th century New England blacksmiths would be ready, willing and able to produce copies of the more sophisticated English coach wrenches to save a shilling or two. 

Herb Page's response:
I have no problem with your utilizing our correspondence for any purpose you find appropriate.

I found your latest response interesting and it is apparent to me that you have given the matter of origin of your three wrenches some thought.  I try to keep an open mind about these things and especially tools that are not marked are always subject to debate.  Perhaps we will never conclude positively on this matter, however I bring to your attention the following insights,

Timmins catalog pages1) I attach an image showing the wrench section of the early 1840s catalogue of Richard Timmins & Son of Birmingham, England.  This is one of the earliest hardware catalogues depicting tools known to exist.  You will note that at this time they were still offering wrenches almost identical to your three and my #18 along with fancier, more sophisticated and expensive pieces.  Since we do not have a time capsule at our disposal we may never know exactly when the production of this model of wrench actually started.  I would agree with you that we can not assume that adjustable wrenches of this and perhaps other types were not made prior to 1800.  However, if you look closely at your wrenches and overlook the obvious heavy wear, corrosion and springing of the jaws you will perhaps perceive that these are, if not robust, but well made tools with the typically English manner of forming the end loop which embraces the rotating handle.  If you have a copy of Schulz's "Antique & Unusual Wrenches' handy, go to page 38 and note the two wrenches illustrated as item #434.  The upper wrench is of the English pattern however has a far less refined construction and details such as the end loop is not as well done.  For this wrench I would make the case that this could be an early U.S. blacksmith copy of the English article. In any case, even in England, the development of tools of any kind started crude and continual refinement of design and function progressed from there.  You can see that as late as 1840, wrenches almost identical to yours were still in production and very likely exported to many areas of the world, including America.  The only thing we can safely assume is that your wrenches could have been made from sometime prior to 1800 to whenever they became unsaleable due to obsolescence which no doubt occurred sometime during mid century.  My intuition tells me that your examples hale from about 1830 and were perhaps imported at that time because this was the start of general mechanization when wrenches became necessary and useful. Also this was the time prior to the availability of better domestically made wrenches.   For earlier carriages and machinery it is likely that crude open end and pothook type wrenches were used and these do show up once in a while at tool shows.  These consisted of blacksmith formed "U" shaped metal sections with forge welded on handles which embraced the wheel fellow nuts.  Simple forged open end and box wrenches had to suffice for smaller nuts where the wrench did not have to reach into a recess.

2)  Over the years at the M-W.T.C.A. and E.A.I.A. meetings that I have attended there always have been as least 2 English dealers in attendance and they offer their homeland tools such as braces, planes, plumb bobs and even wrenches.  Quite often they have brought wrenches of various types and among them examples of wrenches similar if not exactly like yours and my #18.  They tell me that these are very old but quite common in England to the extent that they command but a very low price among Brit collectors.  So they bring them here where for at least a time until they saturated the immediate market they could get a better price.  My #18 was purchased from Reg Eaton some years ago and I have seen many further examples since.

3)  With regard to historical references, I have several "Iron Age" and other articles given to me by the Coes family detailing conversations with Loring Coes and Lauren Trask in which references were made regarding the availability of adjustable wrenches prior to Merrick's patents of 1834 & 1835.  Also I have gleaned comments from such well known early publications such as "America's Great Industries" published in 1872, "Asher & Adams, American Industry",  "History of Worcester County" published in 1889, Loring & Aury Coes' long and detailed obituaries, Ken Cope's wrench research and other sources.  I also have an original copy of the court proceedings of the 1870s litigation of Collins vs. Coes which is a gold mine of information on wrench history and early wrench makers in the depositions of wrench pioneers such as Taft & Wakefield.  After I finish my Coes publication I will be more willing to share my research material.

The following short article by Herb Page on these wrenches appeared in the Fine Tool Journal fall 2002 issue: Reach for the wrench, pg. 17-18.

The origin of the curious appellation "monkey" as applied to adjustable wrenches of the side opening (Coes) type has been a subject of conjecture and debate for well over a century. Although perhaps less so lately, as younger generations unfamiliar with old-style wrenches have less exposure to the term. In any case, this quaint colloquialism for a very long time was widely used and a "monkey wrench thrown into the works" meant that things were really fouled up. Also, it is amusing to note that the Omaha Mechanics Band in 1926 saw fit to issue and be identified with "The Song of the Monkey Wrench."

Of course, over the years, some speculation indicated that the original inventor, a man named Monk or Monck was responsible for the name. However, this has been refuted by diligent historical and patent research. New England industrial pioneers, Loring Coes and Laurin Trask, around the end of the 19th century related the more plausible account. They indicated that the term "monkey wrench" was already in use prior to Goes' early patent (1841) and referred at that time to the earlier English type of adjustable wrench where you turned the handle to adjust the jaws.

I now provide some further evidence to back up Coes and Trask's allegation, in that a wrench labeled "Monkey Wrench" was depicted in the English tool catalogue issued by Timmins & Sons, which hails from the early to mid-1840s. Also, I show a very early English wrench from my collection that I reckon to be from about the same or an even earlier era. This item, with its rounded head and "twist the tail" (handle) to adjust the mouth feature, could easily inspire the image of a monkey. I conclude that the name came along with these early wrenches when they were shipped to America. This particular wrench is marked "5. Johnson Sheffield" with an "S.J." in a flag logo and exhibits the very fine detailed workmanship characteristic of early Sheffield tools.

Now perhaps I can quit monkeying around and finally put this matter to rest.

This picture is of a wrench in the Winterthur collection; it was made sometime between 1790 and 1812.  It is made of iron and measures 21.37" long and 3.87" wide.  It illustrates the type of adjustable wrench used prior to the development of the carriage wrenches in the discussion above.  The lower jaw is moveable and held in position by adjusting the slim wedge piece. Winterthur wrench
Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Museum purchase with funds provided by Henry Belin du Pont.