We are excited to share this guest post by Todd Farrell. Todd’s interest in walking wheels and their creators led him to contact CFHA, where he graciously accepted the invitation to share his Walking Wheel Discovery Program research with us on the blog.

Having obtained a walking wheel in 2020, I wanted to determine the maker. This was a seemingly easy question, but not one with an easy answer. I dove into research and found information from various sources about makers including Quakers and their history.

Figure 1 – The wheel that began the Walking Wheel Discovery Project

Walking wheels were a staple of the pioneer household in the late 1700s and 1800s. Often referred to as wool, or great wheels, they were used to spin wool. The spinner stepped back and forth as they were spinning the wool, which gave the wheels their name. Historical references note spinners that worked in the English textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week[1]. Walking wheels vary in diameter, turnings, styles and tension type, and number of legs.

Relatively little has been written on the Canadian makers and the various wheels they made. In the United States, Shakers were known for their high-quality wheels, which were generally stamped with the name of the maker[2]. Makers marks (name and/or location) are not very common in Ontario or Canada. Markers marks can be found in various forms including paper, stencil, stamping, etching or carving on parts of the wheel housing.

Inventions or patents were also created. These inventions are unique designs or mechanisms which were submitted to regulatory bodies. Some of these patents, with patent claim, description and drawings, can be found online for Canada[3] and the United States[4]. In Ontario, some patent wheels look like walking wheels, with an added treadle and moving arm with spindle. This removed the need for the spinner to walk. Pivot location varied, from the bottom (lever action), the top (pendulum), and side (horizontal). Not all inventions connected to spinning developed from the walking wheel. Hand crank and other varieties of spinning wheels also were patented.

One of the first patent wheels I read about was made by Thomas Wright, a Norwich Quaker. He was a machinist who patented a lever action spinning wheel that he called the New Dominion Spinning wheel (Fig 2).

Figure 2 – Patent 3276, June 16, 1869, the New Dominion Spinning Wheel, Thomas Wright, Milldale, Oxford County, South Norwich Township.                                              

Spinning wheel makers are sometimes noted as such, but they can also be noted as sash maker, grain cradle maker, chair maker, cabinet maker, mechanic, turner, carpenter, farmer, coffin maker, carriage or wagon maker, wheel wright and more.

Other Quaker makers have also documented before. Donald G. Anger wrote about Daniel Abell, a cabinet maker affiliated with the Pelham, Norwich, and Yarmouth sites[5]. Another Quaker maker, Michael McKay, was affiliated with Norwich and Yarmouth Quakers[6]. He was a cabinet maker as well, but marked his name and location and on the bench of his wheels.

I document Canadian wheel styles, collecting online photos from sales (Facebook, Kijiji, Maxsold, and past and present auctions) combined with researching collections in museums and online portals like Ravelry. This information is cross referenced with census and gazetteer information and township histories, identifying known makers and locations.

Finding many wheels for sale, all in the same style as a known 1800’s maker, increases the chances that it was made by that maker. Some of the wheels sold in Ontario were made in the United States or other provinces and have travelled. With time and research, the Canadian wheels will be determined.

To date, I have found over 85 Ontario makers, 40 Canadian patent spinning wheel makers, and evaluated 1,000 wheels. My work has focused on Ontario makers, but I also collect photos and information on other Canadian makers and wheels, with research continuing.

As for the first wheel I purchased that started my quest, the same wheel has been sold across Ontario with a large cluster sold in Grey County which has many makers.

I may never know who made my wheel or some of the other wheels found in Ontario. Documenting walking wheel makers and their styles are important to raise awareness of the wheels, the makers, and this key part of our history.

If you have a walking wheel, please share a photo to [email protected]. I would love to hear about it.

[1] Patricia Baines, Spinning Wheels: Spinners and Spinning (London: Batsford, 1977), 252.

[2] D. Pennington and M. Taylor, Pictorial Guide to American Spinning Wheels. (Sabbathday Lake, Maine: Shaker Press, 1975), 100.

Judith Buxton-Keenlyside, Selected Canadian Spinning Wheels in Perspective: An Analytical Approach (Ottawa: National Museum of Man, National Museums of Canada, 1980), 336.

[3] Library and Archives Canada. https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/patents-1869-1919/Pages/search.aspx

[4] United States Patent and Trademark Office. www.uspto.gov/patents/search

[5] Donald G. Anger, Daniel Abell of Malahide (1784-1868): Quaker Cabinet-Maker on the Talbot Road (Toronto, 2014). A section of Anger’s book was published under the same title in The Canadian Quaker History Journal 80 (2015): 1-26, available at https://www.cfha.info/journal80p1.pdf

[6] Canada, Quaker Meeting Records, 1786-1988  https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/60521/


Categories: Guest Post


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