Build period for Robertson canoes based on SN# font/format, Decks, Plaque, Thwarts, etc.

JFDJr

New Member
Hi,
I’m looking for help in identifying the period, decade or timeframe in which a Robertson Canoe might have been built.

The canoe is a Robertson model, and has a simple thin font SN# on stems of both the bow “o2523o 17” and stern “o2523o”. Note, there is no following length number on stern SN#. Also, “o”s in SN# are really more of an ellipse shape rather than either an “o” or “0”, making me think it is only a four digit SN#. The font used is not the open or block-doubled type such as “A228 35 16”, which WCHA members seem to endorse as grade-SN#-year-length from the 30’s, but a more simple-thin Courier-esque like font. The Deck has a more W than heart shape. There is a rectangular Robertson plaque on the deck; it does not have curved/rounded one like Benson Gray found on the green painted canoe at the Old Town Canoe factory outlet store. The Robertson wave stamp is on one side of each thwart; with the wave side of stamps on the gunwale side and not towards the center of thwart. The gunwales are closed, the ribs are not tapered and the seats are caned.

I realize that Robertson factory records have been lost, but would appreciate any information members and users might have found based maybe on the purchase date or oral history of original & previous owners of Robertson canoes documented or owned by WCHA members. Many Thanks, JFDJr
 

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I don't have much better information but was hoping that someone would take this project on. The following examples of Robertson tags and serial numbers may help. Good luck and please keep me posted on what you find.

Benson


Robertson.JPG Robertson3.JPG Robertson-154-35-16.jpg Robertson-267.jpg Robertson-302-35-16.jpg Robertson-1030.jpg Robertson-1891.jpg Robertson-2639.jpg Robertson-3188.JPG Robertson-3819.jpg
 
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The "W" deck appears to have originated with the Waltham Boat and Canoe Company, which was founded by Charles Bertram Robertson and Fred Perry. Charles Robertson was J. R. Robertson's nephew.

After the Waltham Boat and Canoe Company factory burned down in 1909, Charles Robertson went to work at J. R. Robertson's factory; presumably he brought the design for the "W" deck with him at that time, as a number of Robertson canoes exhibit this deck shape, along with the heart-shaped decks.

Otherwise, as Benson suggested, there just isn't a whole lot of of information about dating Robertson canoes based on serial numbers, deck shapes, or tag styles.
 
Based on experience with my 6' J R Robertson 'dis[play sample' canoe, believed to be from 1910, my guess (speculation) is that this canoe dates to 1925, and is production number 23 for that year, with 17 being its length, in feet.
 
The invoice below from 1908 is the only known data point. This may be for a canoe with serial number 1088. It is also not clear if Robertson's serial number sequence may have been restarted at various times as Kennebec did or if he numbered each model individually as Shell Lake did. There is a Robertson with serial number 1030 which is similar to the the font used in Roger's model. This is shown at the link below and may be from the 1930s. So many questions,

Benson




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When I acquired my J R Robertson 6' display sample, purporting to be from 1910, it was accompanied by a document also purporting to be a copy of Robertson's 1910 catalogue. Although I cannot find any specific info within which would confirm a publication date of 1910, the material does state that Robertson's canoe business was founded in 1881. It goes on to refer to medals and awards given to him in 1884, 1887 and 1895. It also refers to canoe-building improvements "over the past 15 years since the advent of canvas coverings" (generally accepted as being the latter 1880's, or thereabouts). At another point, Robertson states that he has "been building the once popular all cedar open canoe for 28 years". Added to a start date of 1881, this would bring him to 1909. Seemingly, thus, a presumed catalogue date of 1910 is not unreasonable, and Robertson's involvement with canoe manufacturing under his name relates back to the early 1880's.
 

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Is there any independent method of dating this model canoe to 1910 other than previous owners' lore? So often people ascribe dates as early as possible to their things, and of course a catalog could have paired with the canoe at any time since both of them were made. Thus, the catalog, no matter what its year, may have nothing to do with when the canoe was built. Careful analysis of the catalog and cedar0canvas canoe history may provide a reasoned date for the catalog itself, but that says nothing about the canoe. I'm not trying to cast doubt; just interested in Robertson and any factual bases for dating (which to me don't include verbal family stories which seem to be almost always optimistic if not downright incorrect).
 
There are three known Robertson catalogs which are similar to the one shown above. These have been estimated as circa 1905, circa 1909, and circa 1910 respectively as shown below. I agree with Michael that oral history tends to be unreliable for dating purposes.

Benson



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Hi Michael:
I'm assuming your question and comments are in relation to the Robertson 'display sample' canoe that i referenced, and which accompanied the copy of the 1910 catalogue. First let me say that I do not quibble with the essence of your comments; they are all quite valid. I agree that very often many owner comments, long-held 'family lore' and alleged/cherished ancestral 'historical facts' related to antiques/collectibles (canoes included) are or can be very inaccurately based, skewed, wrongly remembered or even fictitious and imagined. One always has to take such proffered info with a heavy grain of salt. I usually disregard much of what I am first told about family heirlooms, unless it's recent reliable, first-hand, provable and/or documented. Personally, I rely much more upon what my eyes tell me, what my hands sense and what my overall experience of half-a-lifetime instinctively suggest. Part of that is through making mental comparisons to known similar items of established and unquestioned age, authenticity, etc.

When it came to visually assessing/inspecting the Robertson canoe model, it seemed fairly evident that it was likely a product of at least the first quarter of the 20th C. I believe that past experience in seeing/handling canoes, both full-size and miniature, dating from the 1860's to the present, gave me sufficient background to presume that it was not so early (i.e, pre 1900), but equally not 'modern', nor likely from the 2nd quarter 20th C. (1935) onward. One looks at oxidization, surface, patina, construction, materials. At that point, I had not even looked at the accompanying catalogue, which wasn't even shown to me or alluded to by the owner, who had no true inkling of its date in any event. I simply went by what my eyes told me and my hands felt. And while I have made my share of mistakes in past, (and am not immune from suffering a few more), my gut told me I was likely making a 'safe' purchase. Part of what I also relied upon was my sense of the age of the 4 accompanying sample paddles. I was quite prepared when purchasing this package that the pieces could possibly be from perhaps ten years later in time, possibly 1935, or so, but not likely past that. Again, I relied on past experience in handling similar artifacts known to be of that period.

There are no other known sample canoes or paddles by Robertson of which I am aware, nor could I find. No evident comparisons could be made. As to suggesting a date for the canoe, only then did I turn to the Robertson catalogue; it seems unquestionably authentic. Family lore suggested that the catalogue and the canoe had been together for as long as they had been owned; a not unreasonable claim, though a later "marriage" was always a possibility, which I did not discount. The first challenge was to try to date the catalogue. My rationale for choosing 1910 is explained above, as based on date references which appear in the text. (I should point out that my catalogue copy is the middle of the three illustrated by Benson, above - i.e., circa 1909). That the display sample canoe itself was made by Robertson is affirmed by the brand name on the thwart and its "W" deck cut-out (see Dan Miller's comment, above), unless one wishes to raise the specter of fakery; I saw no reason to doubt its claimed origin. The sample bears the serial # 1038. Here, it is true, I speculated that the "10" could be the year of manufacture, and the "38" a production sequence #. The single "6", I presumed to be in reference to its length (close enough!). Then, assuming that the catalogue date of 1910 was reasonably correct, I took notice of p. 8 wherein a number of paddle styles are shown. It just so happens that paddle items 2, 7, 8 and the long-handled sculling oar are identical to the four sample paddles which accompany the canoe (see photos below). Of course, the paddles could have been a later "marriage", but here again, ownership history suggests a very strong likelihood that they have been together all along. The paddles, at least, clearly/identically match up in shape/style with those offered in the 1910 catalogue. Then, believing that there is a strong presumptive likelihood that all three elements have been together since leaving the factory (or at least the canoe and 4 sample paddles), I'm prepared to reasonably suggest provenance that everything dates to 1910. I have looked for other explanations, but have found none that fit as well. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. BTW, I should point out that at no time did the family ever claim the canoe dated to 1910; that date attribution is entirely my own, based as explained above. All the former owner knew was that the canoe and paddles, along with an old copy of the catalogue had belonged to an aunt and uncle. His memory/knowledge of it began in the 1950's, while living with them on Cape Cod; the uncle had owned the canoe for some years, possibly dating back into the 1920's (or earlier), and once had been employed in a Massachusetts boat livery, a likely source of the canoe, paddles and catalogue. The items had not strayed far from their origin in Auburndale, MA. The timing was probable and reasonable. There was also some (albeit hazy) family lore that the uncle was an early 20th C. canoeist of some repute, and had been in line to participate in an early Olympic event, but for an unfortunate family illness which necessitated his staying at home and foregoing any competition. I tried without success to trace this story down; it may have involved a connection to Canada.

PS: It appears that photos of my Robertson sample canoe were attached to another Forum discussion post also dealing with Robertson, but may not have been seen by others following herein; thus, I am posting again.

Challenge if you like. I've never claimed great expertise in these matters, only 'hands on' experience. Prove me wrong; show me where my logic is faulty, so that I may correct my surmise and learn from my mistakes. Just do me the courtesy of explaining how and why you reach other conclusions.
 

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With respect to the comments by Benson, above, relating to the 1908 Robertson invoice, I suggest it is quite relevant to note that the bill refers to a canoe with the apparent serial # 1088; compare this to the # on my display model, 1038. One could reasonably conclude the two pieces were made close in time, and that, perhaps, my display model is earlier than 1910, as claimed. I note also that the buyer of that 1908 17' canoe, 1088, paid to have a painted "edge stripe". I believe this would have looked similar to the border stripe below the gunnels on my sample, and reflects a typical decorative style of the period. (It has been my experience that paint coloration or design on canoes from the early 1900's and 19-teens was often plain, or of a 'limited' variation of added stripe, whereas in the 1920's there was far greater variation/complexity of design - e.g., borders with 'Greek key' or 'turned down' ends, and complicated, multi-color geometric patterns, etc. Also, this particular sample seems of rather 'robust' shape and construction; it is deep and 'bulky' for its length. In that regard, it is similar to Kennebec samples of 1916, as compared to those Kennebec samples attributed to the 1922-26 period. What I am suggesting here is that those 1920's samples are far more refined and/or curvaceous while also appearing to be of lesser depth. Such background experience 'spoke' to me instinctively and prompted me to feel the bulky/robust Robertson sample pre-dated the 1920's. Couple that with a view of its surface, inside and out, and I concluded that "circa 1910" was not an inappropriate estimate).

I don't believe that similarity of the font used in the stamping of serial #'s, as between the 'presumed' 1910 usage and the 'possible' 1930's usage, gives rise to any conclusions whatsoever, other than that the punches used could have been factory equipment which existed/continued over an extended period of time. One could turn the statement around and say that the 1930's canoe has font similar to one from 1910, and yet be no further ahead. One thing is certain though, when comparing the two sets of numbers: - the purported 1910 stamping lacks any "JRR Co" impression, whereas this is clearly part of the 1930's version. Why is it missing from one, yet part of the other, if it is suggested they could be from the same time period?

Overall, I believe the sample canoe bears more obvious and relevant comparison to elements of the 1908 invoice. Try as I might when searching through my 1909/1910(?) Robertson catalogue to find an illustration of a canoe of similar shape/attributes, I could not, though a couple are close. Shortly after acquiring it, I did show the sample canoe to Dick Persson, of Buckhorn Canoe Co., the one guy I know who has actual documentary material relating to J R Robertson, dating back even to his early days in the 1880's. Dick also owns an early Robertson full-size, long-deck model which he hopes shortly to restore; he previously worked on the restoration of my own ca. 1915 Robertson courting canoe. Dick's knowledge of Robertson's life and activities is extensive and we would all benefit from its publication. I know that he had hopes in past of doing so, but life's events have a way of overtaking/delaying such plans. He recently told me he hopes to make a video while restoring his Robertson canoe, and will attempt to work into that project references and historical materials from his trove of Robertson documentation.

All in all, it was a number of months of investigation and research following my acquisition of the Robertson 'display sample' before I offered the opinion that it dated to 1910. I accept full responsibility for that. Previous owners believed, with good reason, that they possessed an "early" piece, possibly going back that far. I have to take personal responsibility for suggesting a more definitive date. I did so after much thought and a fairly extensive enquiry, not simply in reliance upon proffered 'family lore'. Perhaps this helps to answer Michael's question: "Is (was) there any independent method of dating this model canoe to 1910 other than previous owners' lore?"
 
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