Questions on Wagon Skeins

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Because of our constant research and extensiveprimary source files, we often receive questions on a wide variety of topicsrelated to early horse drawn vehicles.  Someof the more frequent inquiries have dealt with how wheels were attached toaxles.  A couple of questions that seemto pop up with regularity are… When was the thimble skein first used and who initiatedthis design?

Looking as far back as the 1700’s, many of theearliest American wagons employed wooden axles with tapered ends that werefitted with a pair of iron strips called clouts.  The bottom clout would understandably wearfaster than the top clout.  Developing asystem that would increase the durability and reduce maintenance in this areabecame a priority for many builders.  Ultimately,the cast thimble skein (a hollow metal cone tightly fitted over the axle end) replacedclouts and became the system used by virtually all makers using wooden axles.
As recent as a decade or so ago, some sources felt thatthe use of thimble skeins on wagons would likely date to a time during or immediatelyprior to America’s Civil War in 1861.  Evenso, one of the first solid contradictions to that timeframe occurred after thediscovery of a wagon gear on board the buried remains of the Steamboat Arabia.  Since the boat was well documented as sinkingon the Missouri river in 1856, its contents provide indisputable and historicallyaccurate insights into what existed at that time.  Several years ago, I wrote a feature articlepublished in the Carriage Journal magazine identifying the gear as one built byPeter Schuttler in Chicago. (Read more in our first-to-report story on thisremarkable find)
Beyond being the oldest known Schuttler survivor, this1856 workhorse was factory-equipped with threaded thimble skeins a full 5-yearsbefore the war.  Incredibly, we’ve since uncoveredpatents for these types of skeins that were granted as early as the mid-1840’s.  With the admission in some patent files thathollow cone skeins were commonplace before the 1850’s, it’s clear that thetechnology was in use far in advance of the War-Between-The-States.
So, who was it that came up with the invention?  It’s a good question and one that seems a bitclouded by the passage of time.  In 1882,a period account clearly gives Louis Espenschied of St. Louis, Missouri(Espenschied Wagon Company) kudos for the innovation during his early days ofblacksmithing and wagon making.  Another reportdating to 1975 seems to propose Ed Bain (Bain Wagon Company) as the champion ofthe design.  Unfortunately, we’ve beenunable to locate a 19th century account that would corroborate that claim for Bain.  Since Mr. Bain did not enter the wagonbusiness until 1852, and earlier patent records do exist for thimble-type skeins,it seems questionable that he could have been responsible for this innovation.  Conversely, knowing that period historicalcredits were given to Espenschied and finding no 19th century challenges to thosecredits, it’s difficult to avoid acknowledging Mr. Espenschied as theinventor.  Certainly, he was deeply involvedin the trade – in the ‘Gateway to the West’ no less – prior to the earliestpatents appearing.  His later 1878 patenton a self-lubricating skein also shows a continued focus related to thisinnovation. 
Similar to other historical curiosities, there mayalways be questions related to the invention of the thimble skein.  What is consistently reinforced through thisand other research is just how competitive the early wagon and carriage industrywas.  There are thousands upon thousandsof old patents for vehicles and vehicle parts in the forgotten files of theU.S. Patent and Trademark office.  Eachis yet another reminder that time marches on and definitive history ispreserved only when we ask questions, seek proven answers, and record theresults.  Feel free to drop us a line at anytime you have questions or materials you’d like to share.  We’d enjoy hearing from you.
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