The man who manufactured the first globe in the United States was a farmer and part time blacksmith, James Wilson. He was born in New Hampshire 1763, but moved to Bradford, Vt. in 1796. While on a brief visit to nearby Dartmouth College he saw a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes and resolved to try and duplicate the effect. Family documents indicate that Wilson’s meager knowledge of geography and astronomy made it necessary for him to purchase a voluminous and well-illustrated encyclopedia, using money from sale of farm stock. He also visited Amos Doolittle, New Haven, for some instruction on engraving (Doolittle’s engravings had been included in Jedediah Morse’s “Geography Made Easy” (1784), the first geography published in the U.S.)
Wilson experimented with various methods to construct the globe and engrave on a curved surface. After many attempts he had a globe he felt he could sell. The earliest sale identified dates to 1810, but more work was required. Family tradition has it that Wilson published his “first edition” of perfected globes in 1814, and exhibited them in Boston. He manufactured both terrestrial and celestial globes. “The small unpainted black smith shop had become a globe factory which was throwing off its products as far as Amherst and paralyzing the heart of the English globe trade in America.”
Wilson realized he needed to move his operation to an urban area, but didn’t want to leave the farm, so he sent 2 of his sons to start the business in Albany. The date the Wilson Globe manufactory started in Albany is not clear, although it was about 1815 and most certainly not later than 1817. The location was Washington Ave., but there are various addresses within a 5 year period – 110, 133 and 166 – all in the block between Swan and Dove. The globes were sold directly by the Wilsons and by commission agents in places like New Haven, New York City and Boston, as well as the western parts of New York State.
Initially, the oldest Wilson son Samuel seems to have been in charge of the Albany shop, but a year later, another son, John is running the Albany business in 1818. David, Wilson’s third son, joined his older brothers at Albany, and did the engraving on a forthcoming new edition of three-inch terrestrial and celestial globes. (He left the business in the early 1820s to become a painter of miniatures.)
The celestial globes made at that time “had the Greek letters affixed to the groups of stars, and were furnished with a new horizon,” as one observer states. “The frames of the sets were of ash and each globe was furnished with a brass quadrant and the screw at the bottom could be easily turned with the fingers without a screw driver. Each globe was packed in a pine box of material half an inch in thickness, planed, and dovetailed, with hinges and clasp.”
The high point of the company came in 1826, when they brought out an entirely new set of plates for all three sizes of globes. It was’ after this new edition that James Wilson withdrew from the ·direct involvement the business side of the company, and he introduced Cyrus Lancaster, a young man who had studied at Philips Academy into the firm. He was doubtless expected to speed up sales to the educational institutions.
The new edition of the globes, complete in every way, their appearance quite equal to the London make, and their engraving of the North American continent more accurate, the Wilsons told their story to the nation’s capital. In December, 1827 members of Congress were presented with a notices which touted the American manufactured globes by James Wilson & Sons, Albany NY, “exhibiting now for public inspection at the United States Library of Congress” a pair of thirteen-inch globes, and claimed he was “the original manufacturer of Globes in this country, and has brought the art to such a degree of perfection, as to supersede altogether the necessity of importation of that article from abroad.”
All was going well until about 1830 when both of James’ sons, John and Samuel, die in quick succession. Cyrus Lancaster, the employee brought in by Wilson in the 1820s now ran the business, while James remained in Vt. In 1835, Cyrus marries Samuel’s widow Rebecca, raises the Wilson children and has several more with Rebecca.
The business continued, but now there was competition and cheaper globes wee being manufactured in a much less labor intensive process, producing an adequate product for the growing masses eager to learn about the world However Cyrus Lancaster continued to manufacturer globes in Albany with superior quality. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s and until at least 1851, his globes win prizes because they were works not only of science and geography, but art as well. He continues to acknowledge James Wilson (and probably pay some sort of fee to him), but they are manufactured under his own name.
During the 1840s and early 1850s there are addresses for the business on Westerlo St., probably near Green, 144 Hamilton and 230 Dallius St. But there are no references to Cyrus after 1851 in Albany, and in 1854 we find him in Brooklyn as an inventor of a self-adjusting railroad switch and an improved ventilator for railroad cars.
James Wilson died in 1855 in Bradford Vt, up on the farm he loved. Cyrus Lancaster died 8 years later in Brooklyn.
While James gets the credit for the invention of the globe, to this day globes with the gorgeous wooden frames you often see in libraries are still generally referred to as “Lancaster” models. Wilson and Wilson/Lancaster globes are on exhibit in museums all over the world, and when they do come up for sale they can fetch as much as $50,000. And if you want to buy a “Lancaster” globe from Walmart, it will cost you about $250.
(Parts of this post excerpted from Leroy Kimball, “James Wilson of Vermont, America’s First Globe Maker”, April, 1938 “Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society”)
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor