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Excerpts from a 1982 Appraisal

Much of an appraiser’s work is quite routine. In fact one could even say humdrum, for the majority of the objects that come up for examination and appraisal are artifacts or documents that appraisers have seen before, not once but many times. However the appraiser's life is on occasion brightened by the opportunity to appraise something really unique and quite interesting; and in this latter category we consider the marvelous little steam-driven spit-jack of ?Bailey’s patent? (possibly actually manufactured by Brown and Pearsall, of Queen Street, New York City.)

This appraiser has spent many hours pouring over books, catalogues, and sales lists dealing with the general subject of early American and European kitchens and their complement of equipment, and has encountered photographs from notable private and museum collections of early jacks; photographs of objects that rarely if ever reach the market and that the collector (even one who aggressively pursues the subject) is not likely to encounter.

Mechanisms for driving jacks are rare enough on the antique market, and the majority of those that one does see are either weight-drive or clockwork-drive jacks from the 18th and 19th centuries. Smoke-jacks do exist and can date back to the 17th century; jacks powered by animals running in cages or on sweeps are described and illustrated in period texts, but we know of no surviving examples. The same can be said for jacks powered by water wheels and windmills, while the era of the small water motor does not coincide with the era of roasting of meat by jacks in front of fireplace fires. In some notable French hotel kitchens there were even multiple jacks driven by small stationary steam engines, as late as the latter part of the 19th century. But the Bailey’s steam “turbine”-driven jack certainly closes the circle as it were. Jacks can be said to have been driven by virtually every form of prime mover known prior to the 20th century, with the possible exception of the caloric engine; and the smoke-jack could be called a “hot-air-engine” of a type!

The steam jack, patented in 1792 and built about 1793-4 is unique in this appraiser’s experience, and as stated I have dealt with jacks, as early mechanical objects possessing a certain fascination, as frequently over the past 24 years as their scarcity would allow. Documentation exists on the jack. So there can be little question of its authenticity. The marvelous aspect is that it not only survived but survived in very fine condition. It is an elegantly designed machine: simple, making use of few parts, of very pleasing proportions, and though doubtless these were once made in some quantity (relative to the populace of the times) the conditions for regular usage coupled with their small size and the subsequent change in cooking technology would, one would think, preclude the survival of any, certainly in this remarkably fine condition; one wonders if the photographs sent could only mean that it reposed happily on a hearth for many years. In practice it may have proved to be a rather impractical machine inasmuch as uniform cooking requires constant rotation. Therefore interruptions for refilling the “boiler” with water and the pause while it generates more steam would doubtless frustrate the housewife and scorch the supper in preparation. One can only wish one could have eavesdropped on the flow of customers to Browne and Pearsall, and one wonders how many were actually manufactured and sold.

The jack may be described briefly as a three-legged ornate stand supporting a casing that forms the side plates for, and houses, a train of clockwork. The largest gear in the train, the slow-speed shaft, protrudes through the housing and terminates in a coupling to drive a standard rotating hearth spit. In music-box fashion, the high-speed end of the gear train consists of a vertical shaft with worm gear, terminating above the housing in a brass bucket-wheel or runner, which is driven by a steam jet, and surmounted by a protective plate with carrying handle. The runner is driven by steam generated in a cast-iron teakettle-shaped boiler with top closed save for a fill-plug; the boiler is attached to the frame by a projecting tab and pin at its base, and the “spout” extends upward to a brass nozzle that directs the steam onto the runner buckets. The gears, runner, nozzle, and screws are brass; the rest is cast iron. The boiler or vessel plainly exhibits the original molding marks showing that it was made as a two-piece-pattern foundry casting. The whole unit is small, the runner 7-3/4” diameter, the external dimensions 15-3/4” x 9-1/2” x 17” and as stated, the condition excellent, especially considering the age of the machine, which approaches two centuries.

The spit-jack comes close to falling into the category we called “national treasures.” The point is not that it was the property of a famous individual or associated with some national event; the point is that it is doubtless unique, in near-mint condition, and may well be the oldest extant example of a type of steam turbine, especially of American manufacture. It is a technological artifact as well as a domestic one. As such one would hate to see it in any private hands when one considers the care it will receive being at the Smithsonian. The preparation of foodstuffs touches all of our lives and the variety of equipment that has been fashioned over the centuries to facilitate some aspect of that is immense and bewildering; and the steam spit-jack, as we discussed earlier completes the series of prime movers harnessed to roasting spits.


Advertisements for American Patent Steam Jacks

"The Diary" or "Evening Register" New York, April 16, 1794
Baileys New Invented American Patent Steam Jacks, for sale by Browne and Pearsall no 248 Queen Street.

"Weekly Museum" New York, December 21, 1793
MUSEUM AND WAX WORK in the Exchange New York
N.B. The American Patent steam jacks may be had of Joseph Pearsall, No. 36 Queen Street.


Related Images

Side view of Bailey's patent steam jack
Side view of Bailey's patent steam jack
Bailey's patent steam jack, close-up of gearing with side cover removed
Bailey's patent steam jack, close-up of gearing with side cover removed

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