Artifact Corner: Gavel

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a wooden gavel. We are not really sure why we have a gavel in our collections. Betsey Delord Swetland’s second husband was a prominent lawyer in Plattsburgh, and so could this somehow be related to William Swetland? That’s distinctly possible. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of gavels.

The origin of the word gavel come from the Medieval English word gafol, spelled GAFOL. The term referred to a tribute or rent payment made with something other than money. Gavel would be prefixed to any non-monetary payment given to a lord, such as gavel-wool, meaning the payment to the lord would be in wool. Another use of the word was gavelkind, which stood for inheritance in parts of the UK and Ireland, and could be used for inheritance of property or possessions.

So, how did the gavel go from being a term indicating payment or inheritance, to a small ceremonial mallet commonly made of hardwood, and typically fashioned with a handle? That’s a little less clear. We know that in the Masonic organization, a setting maul (which is a wooden hammer used to set stones into walls), was used to bring meetings to order. This might be the origins of the use of gavels in legal proceedings, but the history is quite a bit murky. The first use of a gavel recorded in the United States is when Vice President John Adams used a gavel as a call to order in the first U.S. Senate in New York in 1789. Gavels are used by judges in the United States, as well as in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House gavel is similar to the one we have, a simple wooden mallet. The Senate’s gavel is unique. It has an hourglass shape and no handle. In 1954, the gavel that had been in use since at least 1834 (and possibly since 1789) broke when Vice President Richard Nixon used it during a heated debate on nuclear energy, despite silver plates that were added to strengthen it in 1952. Currently, the senate uses a white marble gavel.

Our gavel is made from a hardwood, and definitely has signs of wear, so it was likely used for some period of time. It’s very hard to date this gavel. It’s likely Victorian, but it could be earlier than that. This design and style has been in use for hundreds of years now. It’s an interesting piece of history, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for all of your support in 2022, and we look forward to new and interesting videos in 2023! Happy New Year everyone, and thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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