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JOEL Joel's Blog

Norris and the Great Depression


Norris models 70 (8
Norris models 70 (8" smoother) and 72 (22" jointer)

During the Great Depression, maximum US unemployment reached 24.9%. What this means is the three quarters of the workforce still had jobs. What's hidden in this aggregate number is more specific information about particular industries -- for example, the craft industries. My grandfather, Samuel Moskowitz, was a master ironworker who immigrated to the US in 1922. From the time he landed in NYC until the crash in 1929, his skill was in demand for all sorts of ironwork. One project that family lore has remembered is that he was part of the crew that did the iron grillwork at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. When the Depression hit and the project was stopped, he first used the shop's tools to make some iron window grills, which he peddled, unsuccessfully, door to door in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, the neighborhood where he lived. Failing that, he spent his days helping his landlords, an aging couple, run the small grocery that was in the building. They retired and gave him the shop, so by 1936, when he sent for his wife and younger kids, my grandfather was established as a grocer, not a blacksmith.

He was not alone.

The Depression, followed by World War II, had a dramatic effect on the craft industries. And these changes affected the tool world as well. The austerity of the Depression killed the decorative styles of carving, marquetry, and fancy brick and glasswork once and for all. I don't think it is fair to say that the Great Depression killed off traditional crafts, but I think it is fair to say that the Great Depression was a huge catalyst in shaping the ways people lived and the products they desired and bought.

Another way of saying this: people still needed tools, but they didn't need the same tools. This brings me to one of my favorite toolmaking company of all time, Thomas Norris & Sons.

In 1913, Norris, the great London infill plane maker, introduced an adjuster to their planes. The company also made a critical marketing decision. After some fits and starts ending the the early 1920's, and after a foray into lower-end models, Norris decided to stick with the high-end. This was a good decision, as even their lowest-end models could not really compete with Stanley. The Roaring Twenties roared, and Norris, along with a lot of other tool makers did pretty well. But then came the Great Depression.

One of the hallmarks of economic downturns is new projects get cancelled. The cabinet makers and other skilled tradespeople sitting around wondering about their future don't buy tools. But as companies finish up, lots and lots of tools enter the used markets. This of course kills whatever's left of the new tool market. The 1930's was consequently a time of crisis for all the makers. Spiers, the great Scottish plane maker mostly known from their work in the 19th century, was a ghost of itself by the 1930's. The company ceased trading in 1938. Lots of the smaller companies also closed up in. Norris planes are still listed in retail catalogs of the time, and this actually was a time of great innovations for them. They added their adjuster to their shoulder and rebate plane lines and introduced a budget line of wooden planes. In the case of the shoulder planes, they are rare today and most people I know - myself included - don't really see the point of the adjuster on a shoulder plane. It works great and is a triumph of engineering, but was it really worth the extra dosh? Users voted with their wallets and and very few of these planes were actually sold.

The wooden planes are another innovation. I guess the thought was that there was a market, especially among amateurs, who at this point didn't have much mechanization in a home shop. But these planes are rarer still. The wooden Norris planes I have seen seem to have been made by taking a fairly bog-standard wooden body and shoe horning an adjuster into it. The mechanism works, although I think the Nurse adjuster (long gone by the 1930's) is a better gadget. Unfortunately, the lever cap pivots on a rod stuck in bushings that are on each side of the plane, and I have seen more than one sample where the wood just can't take the force and cracks. In the detail from the C. 1930 S. Tyzak catalog below, Tyyzak is offering the planes in 5 sizes. The Buck and Ryan Catalog circa 1938 only lists 3 sizes. I cannot recall ever seeing the two missing sizes, both with 2" irons, so the obvious conclusion is that they REALLY didn't sell.

Norris was sold and did war-time manufacture during WWII. But the history of post-war Norris was characterized by a consolidation and lack of a market. All the old line tool companies had trouble. England was a deeply impoverished country after the war and there was simply no money for fancy crafts and their supporting toolmakers. The post-war United States experienced a huge building boom but not of traditional high skill craft work. A new vocabulary of construction churned out millions of inexpensive houses for the new suburbs and hand saws were replaced with power tools for the first time.

After writing the above I did have a thought: a 22" Norris jointer plane is really too heavy to use easily. The Norris model 72 joiner shown above is light and far more usable in a practical way.

S. Tyzak & Son Catalog c. 1930
S. Tyzak & Son Catalog c. 1930

Norris A7 1-1/4
Norris A7 1-1/4" Shoulder Plane

Join the conversation
04/01/2020 Daniel Burgoyne
You have so well described the current situation where small businesses and some trades are having terrible economic losses and might not survive this. Hopefully, the governments will have some measure of support for the small guys.
To bounce off your final statement, I've always been intrigued by the fact that while transitional planes tend to be derided by most, Studley has a long one just as you mention prominently featured in his cabinet.
04/01/2020 Eric Weissman

I've reached the point where I realize more tools won't make a better woodworker of me, but that doesn't keep me from worrying about what the current crisis is going to do to crafts people and the businesses that supply them. Your blog is so to the point and timely.
04/01/2020 Paul Baker
Great article, Joel. And love the pictures, especially the last one of the shoulder plane: the worn and pitted steel (plus your flawless upkeep of it) really make it loaded with history and character. Clearly this is not some museum piece..altho it could's a loved and still-used tool in an active shop. Can't beat that for history!
04/01/2020 Vernon Wiering
Good and timely post. Thanks.
04/02/2020 Chris Muuray
Joel, What a treat in this crazy time to read your fine writing as well as the on-point responses. I have also been thinking about how our current world event, like the Depression and WWII will be transformative. I am confident we have little idea how great the impact will be.
04/05/2020 Michael DeWald
I understand your point on the shoulder plane completely, but it sure did make for a very pretty and interesting tool.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.