On a sultry day in September, 1832, thirty-three-year-old Felix Dominy was perched high above the rocks of Montauk Point, at the far eastern tip of Long Island, removing the copper dome of the Montauk Lighthouse. The son and grandson of highly skilled cabinetmakers and clock makers who ran a small shop in the nearby village of East Hampton, Felix had never done this kind of work before. He was a woodworker— not a coppersmith. Why was he now in such a precarious position?
Felix’s story is part of a remark able piece of 1960’s scholarship, With Hammer in Hand, by Charles F. Hummel, then curator of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. This 424-page book catalogs the history of four generations of the Dominy family through a firsthand look at their journals, ledgers, tools and the products of their shop. All of these were preserved by the descendants of the Dominys and are now, by a great stroke of good fortune, in Winterthur’s care.
The shop itself, basically unchanged since the death of Felix’s father in 1852, was dismantled in the late 1950s and rebuilt inside Winterthur. It’s a remarkable sight. Dominated by a lathe that was powered by a young man cranking a wheel 5′ in diameter, the shop contains three oak workbenches and dozens of metalworking and woodworking tools. Patterns that the Dominy’s used for making clocks and furniture hang from the low ceiling.
Felix “must have been desperate for work” to take on the lighthouse job, writes Hummel. As a young man, he had fully expected to carry on his family’s business. For three generations, “the Dominys could complete with skill and competence almost any task their neighbors asked them to perform.” They had functioned as “clockmakers, watch and clock repairers, cabinetmakers, house and mill carpenters, wheelwrights, turners, toolmakers, gun repairers, metalworkers, and surveyors.” But the world was changing. Fewer neighbors were ordering custom-made chairs, chests and clocks.
Hummel writes: “The people of East Hampton Township had begun to patronize shops in Sag Harbor, where manufactured goods could be bought ready-made. Steamboats now brought goods to Sag Harbor faster and more cheaply than the sailing vessels of the 18th century. Sag Harbor storekeepers accepted payment in “country produce and lumber,” thus competing with at least one of the business advantages, barter, enjoyed by the Dominys.”
As Felix riveted the copper sheets on the lighthouse dome, he must have paused now and then to watch those ominous steamboats as they entered Long Island Sound. He knew that there was no going back to the old ways of the craft taught to him by his grandfather, Nathaniel Dominy IV, and his father, Nathaniel Dominy V. His father would carry on in the little shop attached to the family’s house, but Felix had a restless spirit. He abandoned his tools, left East Hampton and became a hotel keeper on Fire Island, one of the outer barrier islands on the south shore of Long Island.
Felix’s loss was our gain. His own son, Nathaniel VII, stayed behind in East Hampton but didn’t take up the family business, using the tools and shop for odd jobs only. The 1798 Dominy house stayed intact for 100 years after the death of Nathaniel V. When it was partly demolished in 1946, its two shops—one for wood- working, the other for clockmaking—were moved to a local family’s beach property and converted into a clubhouse. The Dominy tools were later discovered in a local antique store and acquired by Winterthur, along with both of the shops.
Hummel spent almost 10 years researching this windfall — his book was first published in 1968. Reading it immerses you in a world completely different from ours, where the word “craft” simply meant a trade, learned through apprenticeship, that was primarily practiced to put food on the table. You begin to ask questions about Felix and his father, Nathaniel V, that aren’t easy to answer. Did Nathaniel also see his world slipping away? Did Felix mourn the loss of his workshop life in East Hampton? What was it like to see your craft, your art, succumbing to forces beyond your control?
The book’s title, With Hammer in Hand, refers to the motto of the New York Mechanics Society: “By Hammer & Hand, all Arts do stand.” Felix was fond of drawing small sketches of a mechanic’s hand hold- ing a hammer upright — a symbol the Society used on its membership certificates. Hummel closes his preface by writing, “It is hoped that this book can re-create the Dominy’s arts and make them stand again.” And that’s up to us.