The September Artifact of the Month is a late 19th, early 20th century hand-made foot-powered wooden jigsaw. The jigsaw originally belonged to Robert J. Hoy, a Prairie City carpenter.  In 1945, when Hoy was 86 years old, he gave the saw to Ralph “Dude” Mead, who had spent many hours visiting with the carpenter in Prairie City.   Mead owned the saw from 1945 until 1982, when Mrs. Mead donated it to the museum.

The original jigsaw owner, Hoy, was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on December 23, 1859.  He and his parents, William H. and Maria Blauvelt Hoy, moved to Prairie City in 1868.  Hoy received his early education in the public schools of Prairie City and Avon; married Nettie Bevins, a local girl, on May 23, 1883; and, after working at various jobs, established himself as a local builder and contractor in 1898.

In the years that followed, Hoy built many houses, including a home for George Mead in Prairie City in 1912.  Mrs. Mead remembers an interesting story about the carpenter’s superstition and how it caused him to rebuild part of that house.  As she remembers it, “Plans called for a back stairway from the kitchen up to a small bedroom.  When Hoy finished this, he found, to his dismay that he had built in thirteen steps.  The next day he tore out the stairway and rebuilt it with twelve steps, thus saving the Mead family from some dire tragedy.”

Other houses Hoy built include the Adam Waggoner and Vernon Skean residences in Greenbush Township, Warren County; the homes of Benjamin Welch, Frank Hughbanks, and H.C. Spurgeon in Prairie City; and the homes of Dewitt Douglass and Mrs. Homer Burch in Fulton County.

The foot-powered saw on display at the museum was made sometime around 1910 by either Hoy himself or some other local carpenter/tool maker.  After the saw was donated to the museum, Dale Havens and Dale Taflinger, both from the Bushnell area, worked on the jigsaw to put it back into working order.

Some might wonder why is a jigsaw called a jigsaw?  The name comes from the motion of the reciprocating saw blade that goes up and down like a carousel horse, or looks like someone dancing a jig.

Foot-powered saws began to appear around 1867. In fact, during the last half of the 1800s, 60 or more different variations of foot-powered saws arrived on the market.  Many models were mass-produced in factories, were heavily ornamented and made of metal.  The museum saw is 46 in. high and is plain and un-decorated.  Made out of wood, it is obviously homemade, not mass-manufactured at a factory.

All kinds of foot-powered machines were common in the days before electricity. Not only all sorts of saws, but also lathes, drills, grinders, and drill presses were powered by foot pedals.  Many people are familiar with the pre-electric Singer Sewing machines that were powered by pumping on a pedal.  The foot-powered saw works the same way as the sewing machine.  A user sits or stands at the machine and makes an up-and-down motion with their feet on the pedal.  The pumping motion provides the power to make the saw blade go up and down. The pedal is also referred to as a treadle.  The way it works is when the foot presses down on the treadle it causes a rocking movement, this movement spins a wheel on the treadle frame, which is connected by a leather belt to a smaller driving wheel on the machine, which in turn causes the blade to go up and down.

Foot-powered saws produced a much faster and cleaner cut and they were a significant improvement over making intricate cuts using a hand saw.  The very thin blade of the jigsaw allowed for cutting complicated, curved shapes into thin wood.
Foot-powered saws were enormously popular from around 1870 to about 1930, because they transformed the often tedious task of cutting decorative shapes, trims and scrollwork into an easy project. Under the operation of an experienced woodworker, the  foot-powered saw was quicker and easier to use as it left both hands free to move the wood around and this increased productivity.  A foot-powered saw was estimated to be three times more productive and efficient than working with a hand saw.

Eventually, electricity made foot-powered machinery obsolete.

Originally, when carpenter Robert Hoy owned and used the jigsaw, there was a thin, narrow, vertical reciprocating saw blade attached to the upper arm, the blade passed through a hole in the worktable and was attached to the arm underneath.  With the pedal being pumped, the blade would saw a kerf [kerf: the groove or slit created by cutting a work piece] in the wood, and the wood could be moved around in any direction on the work table. The carpenter would trace a pattern on the wood and follow along cutting out the shape. At the present time the blade for the jigsaw has been removed and the foot-operated pedal has been tied up.

Foot-powered saws with reciprocating blades can go by different names and be referred to as a fret saw, a scroll saw, or a jigsaw.  All of these saws are used for practically the same purpose – cutting decorative trim work.  Using a foot-powered saw was especially useful during Hoy’s career, as many houses had fancy trim both inside and out and this foot-powered jigsaw would have made work easier for him.  Elaborate trim work was particularly popular in Victorian style houses with lots of “gingerbread” trim.
This jigsaw, from the days before electricity, shows how one carpenter in western Illinois worked about 100 years ago, and it also serves to illustrate how much tools have changed over the last 100 years.

Additional information for this story was provided by George Wanamaker.

From and essay by Heather Munro