As a city girl, I’m always rather astonished at farm auctions. Along with the usual estate items (old and new) and sometimes large modern farming equipment, there are usually old primitive pieces to discover.
What are primitives? The term “primitive” is a very broad term covering handmade, everyday items from the 18th through early 20th centuries. When it comes to esthetics, beauty is mainly in the eye of the beholder. Strictly speaking, primitive antiques are simply functional. They were made for the sole purpose of being used, and, unlike items from the arts and crafts movement or mid-century modern pieces, they are typically without decoration. Although some collectors prefer to adhere to such a strict definition, other collectors identify primitives by their use — collecting fancier items wealthier persons might have used for hard work, or more decorated items which remind us of living in harder times.
When most people think of primitive antiques and vintage primitives, they think of household items: simple benches, tables and chairs; braided rugs, stitched samplers, flour sack towels and dresses; and kitchenalia, such as enamelware, stoneware, and wooden-handled potato mashers. Wooden crates, wood and tin barrels, and handmade wooden toys probably come to mind too.
Yet the category of primitives also includes items not typically found in the house, such as tools from the shed, barn, and shop.
Many of these items have been made the same way for over one hundred years or more, and because so many were made or forged by hand, they bear no makers marks. This makes telling the age tricky. It really comes down to judging the patina on the metal and wooden parts. If that seems rather foreign to beginner collectors, let me tell you this: identifying what the tool is for can be even more difficult.
As a city girl who grew up in the manufacturing area of Milwaukee, most of these primitive metal pieces were recycled back in the furnaces of industry. And, sadly, a great number of primitive wooden pieces — literal broken pieces or items in the entirety — were tossed into wood burning stoves or backyard fire pits. The unfamiliarity of such items made primitives nearly a novelty to me. Even after nearly a decade of living out here in the Fargo-Moorhead area I am still learning.
I’d thought I was becoming rather savvy, maybe even sophisticated, in my ability to recognize primitive things at farm auctions, and so I confidently purchased this pair of antique hooks thinking they were hay or ice hooks…
But the old timers at the auction called them scalding hooks. Unsure what that was, I turned to Google and discovered the grim realities of butchering pigs and simultaneously discovered why these hooks are also called meat hooks.
The truth is, antique hooks like this probably performed many duties. One man’s scalding hook may have been another man’s means of moving bales of hay — and, in fact, one hook may have performed any or all of these duties. Just ask a blacksmith.
To be sure, primitives are very popular to collect right now. They are primary pieces in today’s most popular decorating themes of country, cottage, shabby chic, and even industrial. So many people love to have handmade primitive objects around to admire, no matter how gruesome the chores they once performed.
Perhaps this is because most of us are so out of touch with making things by hand — and with manual labor in general — that we have grown nostalgic for the do-it-yourself (DIY) way of life. I myself have spent countless hours on beautiful summer days, educating people about antique clothing agitators and laundry wringers or manglers while selling at flea markets.
Nothing says how free of manual labor we are today than whiling away the hours talking about the physical labor our ancestors once did. Unless, of course, it’s buying old items once used to perform such manual labor just to to hang them on our walls. It’s the ultimate, “Work fascinates me; I could watch it all day.”