Please note

Because of the lack of published trowel and masonry tool histories, the information here is based on other sources that may be less reliable and certainly are incomplete. These include eBay and tools that I purchase myself that are the starting points for my research. I will write what I know as I learn it. If what you read here interests you, please check back often and look for revisions and corrections. Scanned catalogs are either mine or by Rose Antique Tools and used with permission, and are on Google Docs as pdf files. A few are links to other websites. Your photos and information are welcome. Please click on any picture to enlarge it. Comments are welcome, but any with links will be deleted as possible spam.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

History of Rock Island Manufacturing Co.

Rock Island vises 1917 
Rock Island Manufacturing Co., located in Rock Island, IL, was organized in 1906 by Frank G. Young, C.J. Larkin, and Carl E. Shields. Rock Island's products included vises for machine shop and foundry use, power grinders, grist grinders, stock waterers, and cement tools. Rock Island took over the vise business of Jacobson Machine Manufacturing Co., Warren, PA, giving them a start in the business. By 1913, their principals were Carl E. Shields, President, S.E. Hamilton, Superintendent, and Oscar J. Shields, Special Representative. Rock Island's 1914 cement tools catalog and catalog with vises and other tools are available on For more information on Rock Island vises, please see

In 1918, Rock Island purchased the Arrowsmith Concrete Tool Co. of Arrowsmith, IL., and began making their walking jointer and edger in Rock Island. The swivel-jointed edger pictured below is a heavy, high quality tool. The wearing surfaces on the bottom and side are carefully ground and nickel plated. The large nut is brass, to prevent it from seizing up.

Rock Island Arrowsmith edger

Rock Island's plant was at First St. and Fifteenth Ave., near the Mississippi River. A 1907 stock offering allowed them to build a machine shop 80x150 feet, foundry 70x120 feet, fireproof pattern storage building 30x40 feet, and other buildings. They built another building in 1917. Amazingly, the buildings are still standing, with the business name still visible in faded white paint. The foundry furnace is visible just past this building and behind it.

Birtman Electric Co. of Chicago acquired Rock Island Manufacturing Co. on January 12, 1930. Birtman Electric made vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, and other household electric products until merging with Whirlpool-Seeger Corp. in 1957. The Rock Island plant continued to make vises and other tools until closing in 1959. The "Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record", Volumes 103-104, 1959 states, “Production Tool Supply Co., of Warren, Michigan, announces the purchase of the Rock Island Vise Co. The entire inventory of the Illinois firm will be moved to Warren, said D. D. Kahn, Production Tool president.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

History of Arrowsmith Concrete Tool Co.

Arrowsmith Concrete Tool Co., located in the tiny town of Arrowsmith, IL (population 366 in 1910, 294 in 2010), was one of the first companies to make walking edgers and groovers. They began making concrete tools around 1907, and were taken over in 1918 by Rock Island Manufacturing Co. of Rock Island, IL. Rock Island continued to make Arrowsmith tools with both company names. Arrowsmith's tools were sold in the 1919 Sears Roebuck Hardware Catalog.

The key to their short and long-handled cement tools was a handle attached with a simple swivel joint. The cast iron handle has stepped recess, and a large brass nut is machined to fit into it. The result is a joint that allows the handle to be secure while allowing movement, is easily removed, and is easily cleaned.  Here are 2 articles about Arrowsmith's products in Municipal Journal & Engineer, 1910.

Arrowsmith Concrete Tool Co. was represented at the 1911 Chicago Cement Show by W.A. Scott, J.H. Jacobs, George M. Slingloff (1879-1949), and Ralph L. Sohn. The 2 patents for their tools were by Mr. Sohn (10 Jan. 1879 - 19 Oct. 1956). Mr. Sohn was a blacksmith in Arrowsmith and nearby Cheney's Grove, but his position with the tool company is unknown. He assigned his 1911 patent to Henry M. Scott and Ralph A. Scott, so it's possible that they were the company owners, but I have been unable to verify that.

Concrete, June 1917
Concrete-Cement Age, June 1913 

Concrete Vol. 11, 1911

Arrowsmith edger & groover

Arrowsmith's patented joint

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Traditional White Clothing for Bricklayers, Stone Masons, and Plasterers

Universal Overall Co., Chicago
Traditional clothing for bricklayers, stone masons, and plasterers was more formal than it is today. Plasterers and some stone cutters and masons customarily wore white or cream-colored shirts, pants, and coats. In the USA today, some painters wear white work clothing, but the other trades do not. White painter’s pants, shirts, and overalls are still sold and even made in the US.

Credit for the 1913 Philadelphia photograph is here on Flickr and for the 1976-77 Brooklyn photograph is here on Flickr.

Bricklayers, Frankford Ave. El construction, Philadelphia, 1913

Goldblatt Tool Co. 1939

Goldblatt Tool Co. 1939

Italian bricklayers in Brooklyn, NY, 1976 or 1977  
Practical Bricklaying by Howard L  Briggs

Goldblatt Tool Co. 1939

Monday, July 6, 2015

Sewer Trowels

The sewer trowel is an extra-wide heel brick trowel, usually with a shorter 5-inch handle and the shape of the London pattern. W. Rose is the only company I found in the US or UK who still makes a sewer trowel. The sewer trowel has also been called the New England pattern by W. Rose and Disston (1918 catalog) and the Boston pattern by Marshalltown (catalog number 45).

Although hidden below ground, brick sewers were one of the greatest construction achievements of the industrialized nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few are open for public tours either regularly or occasionally. The sewer trowel was made for the unique needs of this construction.

W. Rose 1929 catalog
W. Rose 9½ inch sewer trowel

Additional information:
How brick sewers were built, 1908 book
Brick sewer construction, 1917 article
Paris sewer history
Paris Sewer Museum, Musée des égouts de Paris
Building London’s sewers was the biggest civil engineering project in the world at the time.
A glimpse into London's early sewers
The octagon room at Crossness Pumping Station, Belvedere, Kent, UK
History of the Newark, NJ sewer system
"Notes On Building Construction", Brick Drains and Sewers

Brick sewer
Brick sewer construction

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Full-Line Tool Store

Top quality tools are best purchased from tool dealers who carry manufacturer's full lines. Berland's House of Tools is one such dealer. They have 3 stores in the Chicago, IL area, in Lombard, Palatine, and Joliet.   

Trowel display at Berland's House Of Tools

Rubbing Bricks

John Stortz & Son rubbing brick
A concrete rubbing brick, also called a rub brick, is used by masons and stone workers for rubbing lumps and form marks from concrete. The stone is extra-coarse silicon carbide, and diagonal flutes make a shearing action and carry away debris. Smooth rubbing bricks are used by other trades to dressing grinding wheels and cleaning or scouring metal castings.

This vintage rubbing brick was made by John Stortz and Son of Philadelphia, PA. The stone is reversible, with both fluted and smooth sides, and the holder is cast iron. Modern rubbing bricks have a plastic handle fused to the brick, or no handle.