The Largest Frame the Schwamb Mill Ever Turned

Fourth in an occasional series of “Schwamb Shares.”

In Jacob’s Bitzer’s “History of the Mills along Sucker Brook,” read at a meeting of the Arlington Historical Society in 1924, he says that the Schwamb factory’s business gradually shrank through the later nineteenth century. He adds that Clinton and Louis Schwamb, grandsons of the founder Charles Schwamb, rebuilt the business after taking over in November 1904. Bitzer’s version of events is borne out by the account books, now in the Mill’s archives. These show a steady increase in frame and moulding orders, employees, and investment in the plant and its equipment from 1904 to 1929. In 1908, Charles Schwamb and Son was incorporated as the Clinton W. Schwamb Company, and the name was added to the office safe.

Given these positive changes, it is not surprising that the following item – a demonstration of the Mill’s new vigor — appears in a trade publication of the day, The Wood-worker.

Largest Circular Picture Frame Ever Made by Hand.

What is claimed to be the largest circular picture frame ever made by hand, was turned out recently at the Schwamb factory, Arlington, Mass. The big circle measures 83-in. diameter and was made on a special order. The frame took 39-ft. of lumber to make it. Other frames have been manufactured as large as this one, but they have been molded.

The frame is for a well-known Boston firm, and was taken to Boston via automobile to be hand-carved. The big circle is a fine sample of the wood-turner’s art, and the outside is half-rounded to a bead on the inside and to a concaved bead on the back.

The Wood-worker, Volume 36 (S.H. Smith Co., 1917), page 47

Finding this article online via Google Books, we at the Mill asked ourselves: Who was this frame for and does it still exist?

We hope to find this frame for several reasons. A hand-carved round frame of this size and shape seems more likely to be a fixed architectural feature than a moveable picture frame. Whether the “well known Boston firm” was the customer or one of the many frame shops that ordered from the Schwambs, we suspect that the frame found its home in the Boston area. Plus…don’t we have the order books in the archives?

We do – and have not yet found our answer. Two volunteers have read and re-read the orders from September 1916 to November 1917 without finding the frame. It should stand out: it was a circle, a distinct size, and a special order. We estimate the 1917 wholesale price to be between $7.00 and $9.00 — possibly more since it was a special order that would take a workman off the usual production.

Might there be other clues in the account books? Unlike the chronological entries in the order books, cash books, and transaction journals, the ledger shows transactions under their accounts (customer and supplier names, but also categories such as shipping and delivery). Thanks to a volunteer’s indexing of the ledgers some years ago, we were able to quickly look up any categories that might have involved the giant frame’s special transport by automobile described in the article. But nothing stands out under these accounts.

OK – could such a frame even be turned on the Mill’s basement lathe? Our current turner David Graf has produced 6 foot by 4 foot black walnut ovals on the downstairs lathe. But this circle was larger, nearly 7 feet in diameter. By our measurements, the basement lathe has enough clearance for a frame this size – have a look at the picture below.

The Mill’s basement lathe, showing the diameter needed for what was claimed to be the “largest circular picture frame ever made by hand”

Nevertheless, at this point our search was at a standstill – until we remembered an item of graffiti near the lathes on the first floor.

Graffiti on the first floor of the Mill

Our best reading of this is

The largest frame turned here to date June 12. 1917.
(81 1/2 outside 3 1/2 wide 2″ thick by J. M. Sousa.)

This seems a very close match to the frame described in the article, despite a slight disagreement over its diameter (if we are reading the damaged message correctly). The June 1917 date leaves time for the news item to have been written and mailed (perhaps by a pleased Clinton or Louis Schwamb, likely readers of The Wood-Worker). However, even with that specific date as a point of reference, no account book entries near that date reveal the frame or activity that might relate to its manufacture or transport. (A rare COD delivery via Adams Express, a few days later in June, to frame shop owner who was also a wood carver appeared promising – but he was based in Providence, RI, and his purchases were consistently for mouldings and ovals).

We remain puzzled by our failure to find the order for this frame in the records – but we are eager to try other resources. The Arlington Advocate might have published a similar article, perhaps with more detail (we await the reopening of Robbins Library to have a look at the Advocate on microfilm). Electronic searches in the historic Boston Globe through the Boston Public Library have not yielded any news of the tremendous circle.

We still hope that the frame exists and look forward to finding it and sharing the news with the Mill’s supporters.

A few words about the man who turned the frame, Joe Sousa.

Joseph Marier Sousa worked at the Schwamb mill from 1910 to 1918 (his tenure is also written on the wall of the Mill, above his turning accomplishment). He started at 17-1/2 cents an hour but was soon raised to 21 cents an hour, bringing home $10 to $12 dollars on a typical week, working Monday to Saturday, 9-1/2 hours a day. This was the middle range of pay for Schwamb workers in the 1910s; less than the moulder operator, more than basic workmen hauling and stacking boards. A note in the time books says he lived at #43 Calvin St. Somerville, a triple decker which still stands. Like other employees at the time, Sousa was sometimes reimbursed for expenses in addition to his weekly pay, though we do not know what the expenses were – possibly deliveries, tools, or work supplies that he bought himself.

Sousa’s 1917-era draft records show that he was born in Terceira, the Azores, on June 3, 1891, making him 26 when he left the Schwambs. With black hair and hazel eyes, he was of medium build and height. Though married and listed as a citizen of Portugal, he may still have chosen to serve in the Great War. Like the giant frame that he turned, his story is to be continued!

Special thanks are due to archives volunteer Rupert Davis for his careful reading of 1917 account book handwriting and to Vivian Kalber, whose past indexing work has made quick searches of the Mill’s ledgers possible.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!

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