America’s First Level Maker

The Pennsylvania Gazette
Sunday, September 17, 1741

Who was America’s first level maker?  Specifically, who was the first to make a level as we generally think of them today: a glass spirit vial in a wooden stock?  Many regard John Pool and his brother Horace (J. & H.M. Pool) of Easton, Mass. as the grandfathers of American level making.  While the Pools were certainly the first to manufacture levels on a large scale (possibly as early as 1825), there were others who made wooden levels before them.  

In volume 1 of American Levels and their Makers, Don Rosebrook mentions two Boston instrument makers who advertised “spirit levels” in the 1740’s. The 1741 advertisement shown above for John Dabney is the earliest American mention of “spirit levels” I have found. Presumably, the spirit levels they referenced in their ads were the small brass levels used on scientific instruments of the time.  Of course, these men would have possessed the know-how and ability to make spirit levels for carpenters or other trades.  However, to my knowledge, no levels (wooden or metal) have been found marked by either man.  So, who made the earliest known levels in America? 

For many years, a very few levels marked by J. Allen were thought to be the earliest known wooden levels by an American maker.  Allen was a Connecticut born plane maker noted in AWP5 with an appearance of c. 1790-1810.  While his planes are rare, his mark is known on just 3-4 levels, one of which has a plumb vial with the very early “church window” style porthole.  All known examples have large inset brass top plates with tombstone arched ends.  The 22-inch example shown here has small strips of boxwood inset at the ends that function as sights.  Because the J. Allen thought to have made these tools was born in 1776, I am doubtful he was making and marking his own tools earlier than the late 1790’s.  In my opinion, it is more likely that his levels were made during the first decade or so of the 1800’s. 

1793 Pennsylvania Septennial Census.

In the last few years, two examples have been found that I consider to be the oldest known American levels to use a glass spirit vial in a wooden stock.  These levels are identical to each other and are marked by Martin Fisher of Philadelphia.  I have little information about Fisher except that he advertised himself in Dunlap’s American Daily Advisor on Dec. 16, 1791 at 118 Race Street making and selling “a great variety of curious Glasses…”  He is also found in the 1793 Pennsylvania septennial census with an occupation of “instrumentmaker”.  In 1795, he is noted at No. 5 Apple Tree Alley making Thermometers and Hydrometers.  It is incredible to me to think that the 11-inch level shown above was made during the time George Washington was serving as our first president. 

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