Everyone has seen letters stenciled on objects, artwork, even architecture. The technique has been used by almost all cultures and may have been around since the 1400s, utilizing a variety of tools to create the cut for the stencil; knives, scissors, chisels, punches, and etching. But the word “stencil” didn’t become part of the vocabulary in the United States culture until the 1800s.
Beginning in the 1400s, there were ways of creating uniform symbols, letters, numbers, etc. The tools were used to cut into various materials which created an object, then used to produce letters (or design) on an underlying surface; the paint or ink was then applied through the cutout holes in the material. But these methods required sharpness of cutting tools and precision of the person using these tools. The creation of a stencil plate allowed for a tool that could be utilized for uniformity, versatility, and ease of use.
Here’s some research I found of interest which possibly relates to why stencil techniques became popular in the United States during the mid-1800s. According to an article by Norman E. Muller published in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation in 1977 (Volume 17, Number 1, Article 7 pp. 53-69), the idea for stenciling artist canvas originated in London in the 1790s when shopkeepers wanted the trademark of their shops on the artist’s materials. By the 1830s, the idea of stenciling canvases took root in the United States, principally in New York City. By the 1840s, most of the major eastern cities, including Boston and Philadelphia, had shops issuing these trademark tools.
Map (dated 1857 – 1861) of the south end of Manhattan in New York City including Nassau Street (far left) where Eugene Tarbox’s New York Stencil Works was located. Source: New York Public Library.
More research led me to Eugene Tarbox from Brooklyn, New York, who supposedly received a degree from a New York college in stencil cutting and alphabets in 1830. The only liberal arts college in New York at that time was Columbia College, originally called King’s College (1754-1784). Eventually, Tarbox opened an establishment in 1868 located at 100 Nassau Street that he called New York Stencil Works, incorporated in 1882, which according to the Archive of Americana; American broadsides and ephemera, Series 1, No. 29080 were manufacturers of and dealers in the industry of printing supplies including stencil plates.
Now the connection to viticulture is this. From the late 1800s until the 1950s, grapes were sent to local markets mostly by wooden baskets, boxes or crates; and the fruit was primarily shipped in barrels by railroad cars to locations at a further distance. The name of the vineyard or orchard owner needed to be clearly marked on these shipping containers.
A method was needed to legibly label apple crates and barrels and guess who came up with the tool? Eugene L. Tarbox designed a revolving stencil plate. Patent 81,032 which was issued in the United States on August 11, 1868, and reissued No. 4,401 on May 30, 1871 , for this soon to be mass-produced product. It became a common tool and utilized for many different labeling needs in various industries. Not a doubt, the winemakers and vineyardists would utilize this new tool to label their products for market. Where stencil plates were becoming popular for their versatility and ease-of-use, the “stencil wheel” took this one step further. As you can see in the photograph of the stencil wheel, the moveable plate is a thin piece of metal cut into two rectangles, one larger than the other. They look much like windows and these cutouts were designed so the user could highlight and look through to the specific symbols or letters to be used in the stenciling technique.
Here is the stencil wheel from the Wine History Project’s collection. The 13-inch diameter wheel is made of thin pressed brass with a center knob wood handle which controls the slider; the slider is made of a slightly thicker brass. This slider’s outside edge which protrudes about an inch, circles the wheel in order to “land on” the proper stencil. The wheel has all letters from A-Z and numbers 0-9, along with these symbols: $, c, ’, ¼, ½, No, lbs, Yds, ., &. The size of the largest letters are 1 ¼ inches tall, and the circular wheel measures 14 inches overall including the protrusion of the slider.
Date: circa 1871-1930
Origin: United States
Materials: brass, woods
Diameter: 13 inches
Object ID: WHP-CT56
What made it different were two things. It was a perfect circle and therefore the shape of the tool allowed for all letters, numbers, and symbols on one stencil tool. Secondly, the plate attached to it with “windows” moved around the circle, which also allowed for being imprecise with a paintbrush. Prior to this, stencils were either hand made as single letters/numbers or they were custom-designed for one purpose. This wheel made it possible to choose any combination to fit the users’ requirements. Also, the wheel was mass-produced which made it “available” to various industries for labeling their products. And most importantly, any person could make use of this inexpensive tool.
The trademark on the stencil wheel is a five-point star, with the letters N Y S W overlapping each other in lettering, as shown above. NYSW stands for New York Stencil Works, Tarbox’ company. We found it in the Smithsonian Libraries Trade Literature Collections, with record id SILNMAHTL_31646, a trade catalog from the 1900s with price lists including black and white images, which contains rubber and metal stamping devices and stamping accessories.
As previously mentioned, stencil products and shops began appearing by the end of the 1800s in other eastern cities in the United States; this included Boston, Massachusetts. Why did I research this particular area? Because many of the photos of stencil wheels found in my investigation had “CornHill” imprinted on them. Between 1807 and 1828 the area was known as Market Street and was a busy part of the city, home to many publishing companies, bookstores, and stencil shops. So I found out that Cornhill was a street in Boston during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries located on the site of the current City Hall Plaza in the Government Center. And as discovered in the Boston Register and Business Directory published December 31, 1921, by Sampson & Murdock, there was listed the business of Allen Brothers at 55 Cornhill. Allen Brothers was identified in the directory under the heading of “Stencil Cutters.”
Left: Cornhill, Boston c.1897, Arcadia Publishing. Right: Cornhill, Boston c.1905, Boston Public Library.
The Wine History Project has some wood boxes in the collection that have been stenciled by this method, we believe. The boxes include a couple which have PADEREWSKI stenciled on them and then we have one box that has just the word WINE.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LOCATIONS OF IMPORTANCE MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:
Many of the buildings on Nassau Street in New York City have been designated as historic locations by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It was the center of the city’s newspaper publishing and printing industries, and the area had an early period of “tall building” brick construction which started in the 1870s, long before the steel skyscrapers began appearing.
In the mid-1900s, the Cornhill neighborhood in Boston was destroyed because of the construction of Boston’s Government Center during the 1960s Urban Renewal. Today, the area is at best described as a brick desert in the heart of what was at one time a picturesque Victorian neighborhood bustling with local businesses.