THE THINGS WE DISCOVER in basements we’d usually rather not. But the rusty old tools left behind by previous owners in the cabinets downstairs seemed like they might have a purpose. When my son got interested in carpentry, I decided to clean them up and give them to him.
For a few weeks, my hobby became scouring the Internet for tips on how to restore old tools. I acquired brass brushes, steel wool, sandpaper, the fixings for vinegar baths. As the rust came off, words appeared — “Walworth,” “Trimont,” “Coes” — companies I’d never heard of, though they were based in Boston, Roxbury, and Worcester. Little did I know I was uncovering Boston’s essential role in bringing us that great, if underappreciated, pillar of modern life: indoor plumbing.
A couple of the tools were labelled “Stillson.” “What’s a Stillson?” I asked myself. A little digging revealed not a what but a who — Daniel Stillson was an engineer at J.J. Walworth & Co., the Boston company that brought steam heating systems to the world in the 1840s. It had to create much of what it needed to build these systems, such as valves and fittings and radiators and, 150 years ago, Stillson’s pipe wrench.
DANIEL STILLSON WAS BORN in Durham, New Hampshire, in 1826. He went to work in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and was pressed into service as a ship’s mechanic during the Civil War, serving briefly on the ship of David Farragut, the US Navy’s first admiral. After the war, he moved back to Charlestown and went to work at Walworth’s factory in Cambridge.
In the mid-19th century, there was no more exciting place to work in the plumbing industry than Boston. Historically, most municipal water supplies in the United States were limited and private, says Carl Smith, historian and author of the 2013 book City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Yet as America’s towns were growing into cities, they began outstripping and sometimes building over their water supplies. Cities scrambled to get the water they needed, waterworks were their answer. But who should provide these and pay the substantial development cost? Private interests or the government?
The debate over who should pay raged hottest here “because it’s Boston!” Smith says, because the citizenry of the day took seriously questions of how society should work. “They cared about this stuff. They cared a lot about principle, and the meaning of what they were doing.”
The debate started during Mayor Josiah Quincy III’s term in 1823, and was finally resolved in 1848 when his son Josiah Quincy IV was mayor, when citizens voted to bring water from Framingham’s Long Pond (now Lake Cochituate) to Boston. This would require an entirely new — and uncommonly sturdy — infrastructure. As for paying for it, Boston became an early adopter of the newly developed municipal bond, Smith says.
Massachusetts became the most industrialized state in the country, Smith says, driven in part by the installation, maintenance, and repair of the water infrastructure. Wooden pipes were being replaced by longer-lasting metal pipes. As pipe standards emerged, there was a need for new sorts of tools.
Springfield was an early center of wrench innovation — in 1835, Solyman Merrick patents the first wrench, with jaws that can be adjusted by turning a screw. In 1841, Loring Coes, another Springfield resident, improves on Merrick’s wrench by making it possible to adjust the jaws with one hand. But these stiff tools with their smooth jaws could slip on circular metal pipes. Enter Daniel Stillson.
Stillson “had unusual mechanical ability,” wrote Orra L. Stone in his 1930 History of Massachusetts Industries. He envisioned a tool made expressly for round metal pipe. Its jaws would have angled teeth facing opposite directions, allowing them to grip more effectively than its predecessors. The head would be loose, which would help it clamp down ever more tightly on a pipe when a worker turned its handle, but also easily release.
Stillson whittled the first prototype of his new pipe wrench out of wood, and brought it into work. His bosses were intrigued, and had him get the company’s workshop to make a steel version of it, then prove it was strong enough to tear a 1 ¼-inch pipe. As the story goes, Stillson, who had a sailor’s penchant for profanity, swore roundly before going off to test the wrench. He came back with the broken pipe and the wrench intact. It worked.
It might stun modern capitalists to know that Walworth’s management made Stillson patent the device, and refused to buy the patent from him even for the rock bottom price of $1,500. Instead, C.C. Walworth, brother of Walworth manufacturing’s founder, who had invented a number of advances in indoor heating, including the Walworth radiator, insisted that Stillson own the wrench and merely license it to the company. Eventually, Stillson acquiesced. Walworth’s benevolent capitalism would be fruitful for Stillson, who would make at least $67,000 from his license, about $1.9 million in today’s dollars.
The Stillson wrench emerged at a time when pipes and other industrial equipment were proliferating into daily life, and “you need tools,” says Marc Greuther, chief curator at The Henry Ford, a Dearborn, Michigan-based collection of museums and historical parks. The Stillson wrench’s adjustable jaws can grip pipes and fasteners, combining both accuracy and flexibility. Greuther says its value stems from its versatility: It allowed plumbers to use a single tool to “tackle things that are already worn or abused, as opposed to having to carry around many, many individually dimensioned wrenches.” By way of illustration, he adds, “I’ve used Stillsons to work on locomotives.”
The Stillson wrench was so popular that its name became synonymous with the tool, the way Kleenex or Google are now. As Stone wrote, it became “America’s Most Famous Tool.”
EVERY HUMAN SOCIETY makes tools and is remade by them, says Matilda McQuaid, the co-curator of a 2015 exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Tools are functional, yet also transcend mere usefulness.
The Stillson wrench remained fundamentally unchanged, but innovation proceeded. In October 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was in Walworth’s offices at 69 Kilby Street in Boston when he made the first long-distance “acoustic telegraph” call outside of a laboratory. He spoke to his associate for some three hours using the telegraph wire between the office and Walworth’s factory, 2 miles away in Cambridge.
When the Walworth patent expired other toolmakers sought to take advantage of its popularity, copying its features and sometimes even its name. One of the wrenches I cleaned up looked like a Stillson, but turned out to be a Roxbury-made “Trimo” wrench from Trimont. Another, from the Oswego Tool Company, had the name Stillson on its wrench. Both of those companies are long out of business, which was no surprise to me. As a native of the industrial Midwest, New England’s 19th century mills, massive for their day, look quaint compared to U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, which stretches for 5 miles along Lake Michigan. Ford’s River Rouge plant, dubbed “the most famous factory in the world,” sits on land 1.5 miles by 1 mile. I once was in a steel mill in South Chicago that was part of 6 square miles of steel plant — imagine if all of Dorchester were a factory.
It’s hard to imagine what might replace these behemoths if they die, but history in Boston accumulates in layers. Walworth’s factory in Cambridge was originally a horse-drawn carriage producer. Walworth moved its factory from Cambridge to Boston in 1910. In 1937, Edwin Land took over the Cambridge space and began making the world’s first instant camera. Similarly, the Trimont factory in Roxbury now has two health care companies in it, plus some space for lease.
Walworth itself left Boston in the 1950s for Texas, conceivably because manufacturing costs were cheaper. In the early 1970s, a group of investors bought it and relocated it to Mexico.
After his license deal, Stillson moved to Somerville, near the top of Winter Hill. He kept working for Walworth. By the time of his death in 1899, he had earned licensing fees of as much as $100,000, equal to about $3 million today. His widow razed their house to build another one—teardowns are not just a thing of our times.
But Stillson’s wrench has endured for 150 years. Wrench makers don’t put the name Stillson on their tools anymore, but search for “Stillson wrench” online and you’ll get new pipe wrenches that look very similar to the Stillsons I cleaned up in my basement.
It turns out, though, that carpenters don’t make furniture with pipe wrenches. So my son won’t need it in his intended craft. Unless maybe he can use it as a hammer.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed research to this story.
This story has been updated to reflect that The Plumbing Museum is in Watertown.