This is the very first Gearhart Knitting Machine. It was made by Joseph Gearhart in 1887 while living on his farm in West Decatur, Pennsylvania. He saved this machine, and I think he must have known that it would be a source of reference for his upcoming Knitting Machine patent, should this new invention eventually become successful. This machine was passed down to his youngest son, Emory, who in turn passed it down to my father, James. My father in turn passed it down to me a few months before he died in 2005 after I expressed my interest in organizing some information about the Gearhart Knitting Machine Company.
It was quite interesting when I opened the dusty old box one evening, to find this machine covered in a light dusting of mold, and possibly untouched for over 80 years. I’m sure my father opened the box once, in 1969. My grandfather, being so close to the company for so long, probably put this and the other machines in boxes around 1928, when Joseph died. I assume he then put the boxes up on the shelf and didn’t look back, since the US was in the midst of the Great Depression and he had five kids to feed on a diminishing savings.
I took a toothbrush and some warm water, and brushed the mold off the machine. The wood was dark brown, but to my surprise it turned light brown and brand new after some scrubbing. Wow, this was very nice hardwood. It looked like maple or holly. The toothbrush had some oil residue, so the machine must have either been used or oiled before being packed away. Some of the tin needles were missing, but it was very apparent that Joseph made the needles by hand from some type of jig. There were no chips at all in the wood, so it appears to have been formed precisely in a lathe, and the grooves for the needles look to have been formed in some type of routing machine. Joseph’s father-in-law was a gunsmith, so Joseph may have had immediate access to the equipment for making rifle bores and barrels and metal parts. I believe this could have been a stroke of luck for him, since it made construction of the machine almost an afterthought and allowed him to spend his time concentrating on design, operation, and marketing. I think this is evident based on the rapid advancement of patents and design changes, not to mention the very early presence of thorough instruction manuals. He was essentially a one-man company in the early days, but I do believe the old stories may have some truth in their assertion that his father-in-law had a hand in loaning or selling him some machine-making tools. He was 40 years old at the time, middle-aged but probably still able to gain bits of wisdom from several of the older family members, especially since the average Gearhart lived well into his 80’s and 90’s going far back to pre-revolutionary times.
It has been four years now since I cleaned the machine and put it into my display case. The wood has returned to its darkish color, but it will probably be decades before a speck of mold returns. Of course, I will probably never let the mold return as long as it is the centerpiece of the Gearhart Knitting Machine collection.