Thomas Crane and N. F. Hopkins Market the Crane Knitter, 1867-1876

Thomas Crane and N. F. Hopkins Market the Crane Knitter, 1867-1876

Candee, Richard M


During the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Americans invented, improved, and patented more hand-powered knitting machines than their British, continental European, or Canadian counterparts. Domestic machine knitting boomed in the United States after the Civil War, and it reached its zenith in the 1920s, when several hundred thousand machines could be found in farm-houses, small-town and suburban homes, and city apartments. The manufacture and sale of circular sock knitters and straight machines continued to a lesser degree during the Great Depression and World War II. Facing new competition from European-and later, Asian-imports after the war, the last North American machine makers continued into the early 1960s, with a brief revival of the old Auto Knitter in the late 1970s and 1980s. In addition, the rebuilding of old machines was revived in the 1990s, with an ever-increasing sale of machines on eBay (at ever-increasing prices) for hobby and small-scale production use as well as antique machine collecting.

In my new book, The Hand-Cranked Knitter and Sock Machine: a Social History and Catalogue of 19th and 20th Century Home Knitters of American Invention I explore the invention, patenting, manufacture, and marketing of all known American knitting machines and those Canadian counterparts invented or first manufactured in the United States. Catalogued with their source materials (rather than footnotes), these chapters are organized into several knitting systems and try to follow a rougli chronological order. My goal was to publish the first comprehensive history of the American invention, manufacture, and use of domestic hand-cranked (or, occasionally, treadle-powered) knitting machines. This article, describing how one of these key early knitters was marketed, is excerpted from my forthcoming CD book.

Thomas Crane, Inventor

Thomas Crane (l822-1909) was born in Richmond, Vermont, where he was educated as a wagon maker. In 1843, he followed two of his brothers west to Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin, where he started a wagon and sleigh manufactory. He married Olive Ives, who died within a year, and six years later married Deborah Colton, with whom he had six children. His move to this frontier left Crane with interesting memories about interactions with local Native Americans, which he duly recorded in several fascinating autobiographical sketches.

A prototypical Yankee inventor in Wisconsin Territory, Crane patented more than twenty inventions-everything from a coat hanger to a mousetrap (1890). By 1866, Thomas Crane & Bros, manufactured a “Rotary Fire-Engine Pump, recently patented by Thomas Crane of Fort Atkinson” that they said was “the best pump now in use.” In April 1857, he also received a patent for a corn planter and assigned its rights to others for various states and counties over the next eight years. In January 1859, he had a patent for a flouring mill, which was immediately assigned to a man in Monroe, Wisconsin. His patent for a stump extractor (1865) was assigned to Crane, Hopkins and Co., while one for an improved washing machine (1868) he soon sold to a Carlos Curtis and N. F. Hopkins, who was Crane’s partner in several patents.

In 1877, Crane applied for a lock latch, patented an improved kerosene stove, and locking stencil plates, all of which he assigned full or half interest to Myron A. Decker of Chicago. He also invented, in 1876, a windmill he named “Constellation” and a metallic washboard. Perhaps it was to manufacture these machines that the next year he built a new building on the south side of the Rock River and hired twenty men to work there. Like many inventors of knitting machines, Crane later took patents in the 187Os for improvements to sewing machines, which in 1878 ended up in the possession of the St. John Sewing Machine Company of Springfield, Ohio.

The Crane Knitter and its Manufacture

Crane’s first of five knitting patents, a take up mechanism (January 29, IHOT) and two improved web holders (October 1.4, IKOT), were improvements on the Lamb knitting machine. A patent granted January 2H, IHOH (U.S. patent T3,09T) had a straight run of latch needles with a unique cam system that achieved even greater flexibility than the Lamb with a considerably simpler reciprocal hand motion (rather than cranking). Placing loops of the yarn on alternate needles when setting up the work, to operate the knitter, Crane’s Intructions advised:

Set in front, a little to the right side, inclined toward the machine; place the right hand one the knob with the forearm parallel with the front of the machine; move the cam forward and back across the work, allowing the arm of the cam to vibrate freely. Never move the cam backwards after starting in, until the working needles are passed-so doing would cast off the loops from the needles thrust forward under the cam carriage.

His invention was soon improved by various refinements in two patents to him, both granted on June 15, 1869. These represent Crane’s effort to invent and improve a wholly new machine that he could manufacture with the help of local investors.

The inventor assigned a 25 percent interest in each of these new patents to three Ft. Atkinson store keepers and merchants: George R Marston, N. F. Hopkins, and J. Z. Merriam, with whom, as early as January 10, IHOO, he had a partnership to fund the development of this machine. By July IHOT, the mercantile agent for Dun’s credit agency called this group “Gco. P. Marston & Co . . . Mfrs. [ofj Knitting Machines.” Marston’s worth was estimated at $30,000 but the other partners, he wrote, “are not so well known but it is understood a firm has been formed under the above style.” Hy September 186T, the firm had been renamed the Crane Knitting Machine Company and in December was considered “[g]rowing into a l[ar]g[c] Institution,” with its own capital of $!20,000.

The Crane Knitter came in two models: a plain model that attached to a common table sold for $60 and one with iron legs and a fancy black-walnut case into which the machine could be folded cost $65. While a handful of the ornamental table models have survived, the less expensive model has not yet been found. Indeed, it seems that perhaps the great majority of the 6,33 Crane Knitters ever built by this company (from 1867 to early 1874) were housed in their sewing-machine-like eases.

On January 31, 1871, the company was said to have a capital of “$,’30,000 all paid up” and was “manufacturing a splendid machine & doing a most excellent business].” Then in mid-July 1871, the four partners formed a stock company and transferred their individual patent rights to the newly incorporated Crane Knitting Machine Company The company printed a thirty-seven-page instruction manual (Figure l) and began a new set of business accounts that show that 1,99 of Crane’s flat knitters had been built before July 1 87 1 (when the new corporate ledger begins). Between July 1871 and 1873, this new firm, which eventually became known as the Fbundry & Machine Co., paid royalties on 336 more machines running as high as serial number 633 before production ended.

Company ledgers also record thirty-nine names of those agents and others who bought machines before July 22, 1871, ranging from an outstanding balance of $859 with F. F. Hilder in Chicago; $786 with Sheldon & Griffith of Lafayette, Indiana; $441 with sewing machine agents J. Q. & G. W Adams in Boston; $208 in account with A. C. Van Epps in Binghamton, New York; $176 with A. B. Felt & Company in Philadelphia; and even a $343 balance with one M. C. Ellis in Marysville, California. The ledgers also show smaller purchases in the upper Midwest, presumably machines sold to single individuals rather than dealers. But the total sales recorded in the later volumes confirm the company’s general practice of selling through sewing machine agents and local shopkeepers throughout the upper Midwest and beyond (Figure 2).

N. F. Hopkins, Agents, and Printed Advertising

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the company records for 1871-73, however, is what they tell of Mr. N. F. Hopkins. One of the three patent assignees-and listed with Geo. P. Marston & Company (perhaps as manager) as early as 1867-Hopkins emerges in the records as the company’s traveling salesman, selling and perhaps actually delivering Crane knitting machines. Given the date, name, and buyer’s location recorded for each entry, it is clear that Hopkins sent most of the Crane Knitters to agents and dealers whom he met or returned to on a series of long sales trips. In 1871-72 alone, he took four separate journeys by rail (given the distances between recorded orders), a pattern that continued through 1873 (Figure 3).

The longest sales trip began July 25, 1871, right after the company was incorporated and the Instructions printed in Chicago. His first sales were in Bay City and Port Huron, both in Michigan, then in towns along the southern Michigan border and into Ohio and Indiana. He then went east as far as Burlington, Vermont, back to Detroit and Kalamazoo, Michigan, before returning to Ft. Atkinson in September. There Hopkins may have picked up more “improved” machines and gone straight to Courtland, New York (October 13), and then back by rail to Cleveland, Ohio (October 16), ending in Lincoln, Indiana (November 7), before returning home.

A complete set of Instructions is associated with a machine at the Henry Ford. Two copies are known of a small folded advertisement published by Crane is overprinted with the names John T. Barnes and J. A. Graham, the company’s general agents for New York and New Jersey (Figure 4). In 1871 alone, these two men took a dozen machines for resale. One machine (whose knitter plate is marked “J. P. Lord”) is now at the Wade House (Grecnbush, Wisconsin) in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society (Figure 5).

Two similar month-long trips by rail took Hopkins to Ohio towns in late November-December and again from late January to February 12, 1872. It was in the latter trip to Marietta, Ohio, that N. F. Hopkins sold J. P. Hopkins three Crane machines complete with their handsome wooden case. One of these survives in a private collection complete with an identical advertising brochure overprinted with the name of the general agent for southern Ohio, J. N. Hanson of Marietta, also a dealer in Singer sewing machines. All these machines have “The Crane Knitter” cast in the iron legs that support the carriage and wooden case (Figure 6).

Little more is known of Hopkins than the extensive travel documented in these volumes. He is said to have taken a now-lost model of the Crane Knitter to London for exhibition at an unidentified “Worlds Fair.” By December 1874, he had settled down in Ft. Atkinson, where he kept a dry goods and grocery store with a stock of $1000 and lived in a home worth $15,000. As R. G. Dun & Company’s agent reported in April the next year, Hopkins’s total worth was “not a great deal but [he] stands well here, was formerly in trade but lost much of his p[ro]p[er]ty though Patient] Rights enterprises.”

Selling the Patent Rights

On April 15, 1876, Crane and Hopkins sold Ohio knitting machine manufacturers Franz & Pope all the rights to four of Crane’s patents. Then to clarify the sale, on July 28 H. B. Willard, president of the “[l]ate Crane Knitting Machine Co.” provided an affidavit “to certify the Said Company holds no claim under said patents.” The Foundry Machine Co., “successor to Crane Knitting Machine Co.,” did likewise the very same day.

Then in September 1876, Thomas Crane also signed an application for patent reissue that was then granted in his name to Franz & Pope (assignees) on October 31, 1876. Reissues were a method to make clear that specific aspects of the original invention might have more general significance. Thus, in Franz and Pope’s reissue of the 1868 Crane patent 73,687, new language was added that illustrated its novelty: First, the new patent describes the problems of throwing latch needles out of use in all earlier knitting machines. To drop stitches, for example, in widening or narrowing the fabric, the user would cither have to remove some needles or “press them so far into the grooves” that the cam could no longer act on their heel or shank. Remaining temporarily inactive, the “stitches had to I)C placed upon them” again when they were once more brought into action. Crane added:

There are many objections to that method. . . and to remedy this defect, among others, I made this invention, . . . providing the machine with unobstructed space between the cams and the work-support. . . into which space the shanks of the needles can lie moved without taking off their respective stitches, the result being that while in this position the cams pass the needles without activating them.

Moreover, his invention had “vibrating, oscillating, or pivoted cams” that let the needles again be placed in action, unlike machines that had the cam rigidly attached to its carrier. It also had an improved set-tip to start the yarn or thread, an adjustable jack-frame for knitting loose or tight, and Crane’s take-up device.

According to the small advertising piece for “The Crane Knitter,” this oscillating cam was a “peculiarity of the construction of this machine … possessed by no other.”

It allows the machine . . .to knit a perfect ‘gore’ or wedge in any part of the fabric when desired. By its use the operator is enabled to knit a stocking-heel, either long or short, narrow or broad. Can also knit a perfectly round web, from one inch in diameter to twice the width of the machine; or a square web of any desired size up to twice the width of the machine, with selvedge on all sides…. for knit tides, lamp mats, stand, table or bed spreads, etc.

This is also the only knitting machine that will produce a fabric like the old and familiar style of striped mitten . . . .yet so simple that a child of six to ten years of age can operate it easily and readily.

This oscillating cam also made Crane’s patent a desirable, valuable commodity for other knitting machine makers. The fact that Franz and Pope, makers of circular machines, purchased the rights to two of Crane’s straight machine in 1876 suggests as much. That they also had Crane seek reissue soon thereafter was an attempt to defend against a challenge by New York City inventor Dana Bickfbrd. Bickfbrd’s lawyers claimed in October 1870 that when Marston, Hopkins & Crane granted Crane Knitting Machine Company patents73,697and91,214backinJuly 1871 there were several conditions and that “Crane Knitting Machine Company failed to fulfill each and all of the conditions agreed upon . . . whereupon the aforesaid license became null and void.”

Whether it was the sale of the patents or the uncertainty of the conflict over whether Bickfbrd or Crane had priority of invention or whether the assignments had accidentally become null and void, Crane’s company closed up shop. It would not be until 1879 that Bickfbrd finally lost his challenge to Franz & Pope over the priority of Crane’s reissue of the January 28, 1868, patent (as well as Franz & Pope’s own improvement on it by patent 99,426 of February 1, 1870). On October 31, 1879, a court master was appointed to compute the profits and gains that Dana Bickfbrd had made on his infringement and what damages were therefore due to Franz & Pope. Almost immediately, Franz and Pope sued the Lamb Knitting Machine Manufacturing Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, over its production of the Tuttlc machine. As had happened in the Bickford case, the court upheld their suit on March 15, 1881. Indeed, the same master who valued Bickfbrd’s illegal profit was assigned to compute what Lamb owed Franz & Pope for its infringements on S Crane’s and their own patents. While this bolstered Franz & Pope’s business a while longer, it came far too late for N. F Hopkins and the other Crane Knitter investors. In June 1877, the Foundry Machine Company was described as “hard up,” and by September 4, 1877, it, too, had “Closed up & quit business].”

Other Straight Flat Knitters

While many foreign-made flat, straight, hand-operated knitters flooded the American market since World War II (Brother and Knit-King machines for example), there seem to have been no other nineteenth-century domestic knitters to employ this simple design. Walter Aiken made a cam for a simple flat run of needles as a model, as a drawing attests, and on March 10, 1808 Henry Bogel of Watertown, Wisconsin, received a patent for an improvement on this type of knitter for which his miniature patent model exists in the collections of the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum in Cazenovia, New York. Both of these, however, like all the other nineteenth-century patents of this type, were intended for industrial use. Thomas Crane’s hand pushed version remains the only known American knitting machine of this sort intended for domestic use.


Biographical Sources

T. Crane, “My Early Days in Wisconsin” from Kloshkonong Country Revisited 1:76-77.

“Thomas Crane” (by himself) newspaper clipping copied in Picturesque, 1: 5-6.

“T. Crane & Bros.,” advertisement, Cayuga Chief, November 19. 1856 and March 4, 1857.

” Thomas Crane Tells of his Early Life in Wisconsin,” type-script from undated clipping, Mrs. E. Rankin Scrapbook (Hoard Museum, Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin), M-24.

“Knitting Machine-Thomas Crane, Ft. Atkinson, Wisc.” Scientific American (November 2, 1867):283

Obituary, Thomas Crane, Jefferson County Union, February 26. 1909.

[The Crane Knitter] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1871): 235

Knitting Machine Patents and Model

U.S. Patent 61608, January 29, 1867, Thomas Crane Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin.

Partial U.S. Patent model 61,608 (1869) National Museum of American History, Textile Division, Washington, D. C.

U.S. Patent 6977.9 1867 October 15, 1867, Thomas Crane Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin.

U.S. Patent 69776, October 15, 1867,Thomas Crane, Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin.

U.S. Patent 7:5(597, January 28, 18(58, Thomas Crane, Ft. Atk in son, Wisconsin.

U.S. latent 91214, July (5, 1809, Thomas Crane, Kt. Atkinson, Wisconsin.

U.S. Patent 912 15,.JuIy (5, 1869 Thomas Crane, Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin.

Known Machines

1. John and Judy Daviclson Collection, Klyria Ohio, serial no. -Mil, with advertising brochure of J. II. 11 an son, Marietta, Ohio, 187Os. “Improved” model with black walnut case on curved iron stand w/ arch on each end marked “The Crane Knitter” and marked “Crane Knitting Machine Co., Ft. Atkinson, Wis., Pat. Jan. 29, 1867, Jan. ’28, isfiH, June IS, 18(59” [U.S. patents 61,609 73,697, and 91,214].

‘2. The Henry Ford Museum, accession no. 40.1001, gift of Grand Rapids Public Museum 191-0.

3. Wisconsin Historical Society, Wade 1 louse Collection, accession no. 1981.4.45. Eighty percent complete (knot) and register missing), with iron plate marked “J. P. Lord.”

4. Hoard Historical Museum and Dairy Shrine, 407 Merchants Ave., Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin , is said to have had a “model” taken to a London “World’s Fair” that the museum cannot now locate.


Directions for working the Crane Knitter and rules for making tlijjerenl fabrics. Manufactured by the Crane. Knitting Machine Company, Fort Atkinson … Chicago: J. W. Dean job printer, [JuIy] I “I 1871. :17 pp.; 15 cm. The Henry Ford.

“The Crane Knitter advertising brochure, overprinted “Barnes & Graham, General Agents in New York & New Jersey . . . Cortland, N.Y.” American Textile History Museum, Lovvell.

“The Crane Knitter [another] Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

“The Crane Knitter” [another] overprinted “J. H. Hanson, General Agent for South Fastern Ohio, Also Dealer in Singer Sew ing Machines, and Findings, Marietta, Ohio.” Davidson collection.


Crane Knitting Machine Company accounts (4 vols.) 1871-1873 Hoard Museum.

Crane Knitting Machine Company vs. C.P. Waterbury & M. Washburn of Palmyra, Wisconsin [1872-73 agreement to become agent, buys machine no. 174 dated July 22, 1873] from WlI. Rogers, Justice of the Peace, Mss. Record Rook, pp. lllR, Hoard Museum.

Crane Knitting Machine Company and Foundry & Machine Co., Wisconsin, Vol. 20, p. 112, R. G. Dun Collection, Raker Library, Harvard Rusiness School.

Franz & Pope Knitting Machine Company vs Dana Rickfbrd, RG 21, U.S. Circuit Court, Eastern District, Pennsylvania Rquity case file no. 40:, October Term 1870. [Federal case (1880) Number 5,001] National Archives & Records Administration, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Franz, & Pope Knitting Machine Company vs Lamb Knitting Machine Manufacturing Company. RG 21, U.S. Circuit Court, Kastern District, Pennsylvania Equity case tile #24: April Term 1879, National Archives & Records Administration, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

N. F. Hopkin.s, Wisconsin, Vol. 20, pp. 20, 112, R. G. Dun & Company Collection, Raker Library, 1 larvard Rusiness School.

G. P. Marston, Wisconsin, Vol. 20, p. 90, R. G. Dun & Company Collection, Raker Library, Harvard Rusiness School.


Richard Candee, recently retired as Professor of American and New England Studies, Boston University. EAIA awarded him the ‘2003 Winthrop Carter Research Grant to assist in research for his book The Hand-Cranked Knitter and Sock Machine: a Social History and Catalogue of 19th and 20th Century Home knitters of American Invention. The CD book is available through the EAIA Booklist.

Copyright Early American Industries Association Sep 2004

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