Cranking Out The Bread

One of our board members spotted an item on eBay recently and was considerate enough to put in a bid and donate his prize to us. It is an unusual item that led to the discovery of one more of the many small manufacturing ventures that sparkled along the trail of Jamestown history.

Bread is life in the imagery of countless metaphors and parables in both the Old and New Testaments. This is only a reflection of the fact that our dominant religions, like so much else in our lives, very much including diet, trace back to the earliest civilizations in the Middle East. Somehow those early peoples were able to put together the concepts of growing and milling wheat with the discoveries of the fermentation of dough and the baking of bread to produce one of the most stupendous revolutions in pre-history. Compared to the previous herding and gathering modes of life, people could settle in villages with permanent, vastly more effective shelters where they could accumulate possessions and occasionally enjoy some leisure time. To us their lives would seem horribly precarious, toilsome, dirty, brutish, and unjust, but to them fate had turned gratifyingly more merciful and benevolent and life more secure and easy. Human numbers grew markedly, and human influence came to dominate nature in ever more numerous ways.

By the turn of the 20th century, many thousands of years later, commercial bakeries flourished in Jamestown and other cities, but many wives still baked their own bread at home. There was no national brand distribution of bread as yet, and there was no such thing as commercially sliced bread. In the original kitchen at the Fenton Mansion is an original brick bake oven. These were standard in the early 19th and previous centuries, but by the 1860s, cook stoves were the modern, far more convenient and efficient way to bake bread.

No matter how bread is baked, the dough has to be mixed and kneaded first. This week’s item was patented in 1908 as a means of doing that more easily and better. The device is little more than an 8 or 10 quart sheet steel pail with a sinusoidally curved square steel rod near the bottom supported on one side and protruding through the other where it extends and bends 90 degrees to become a crank with a wooden handle. Turning the crank, and thus the curved internal bar, mixes the bread from the bottom.

The device was patented by John B. Collins and made by the Circle Manufacturing Company of Jamestown, which Collins headed for a short time. For whatever reason, Collins assigned his patent to Frank A. Smiley and Charles M. Purdy. Purdy was vice president of the Jamestown Electric Mills, which he and two of his brothers had organized. The Purdy brothers were also officers of the short-lived Circle Manufacturing that produced the bread makers.

Collins was a Canadian born and very colorful Irishman boy railroad fireman, Civil War drummer boy and thrice captured and escaped spy, miner, western traveler, and president of the Jamestown Common Council; local organizer for the Johnstown flood relief and of the Jamestown (race horse) Driving Park. He was active in business, civic, church, fraternal, and sports affairs. His nephew was Louis Collins of local sports fame. He came to Jamestown in 1888 when in partnership with John W. Fedder. This pair set up stores each known as The Fair, one in Jamestown and one in Corning. Collins operated The Fair until about 1908 and died in 1914.

Collins, so far as the evidence suggests, never invented anything else in his life. Strangely, however, another Jamestowner, Goste Friedman, invented an almost identical bread mixer at almost the same time. Friedman however, patented a number of other devices. We have two of the Collins mixers in our collection but there is no evidence any were ever manufactured on the Friedman patent.