The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Why I love and hate Eric Sloane.


As much as anything else, Eric Sloane was and is one of the reasons I am a woodworker. For those of you who don’t know him, Eric Sloane was an artist and author as well as something of an expert on early American life in New England. He wrote many books detailing the day to day life in early America including the tools used for farming, blacksmithing, and woodworking. He was an avid collector of those implements and made thousands of detailed drawings of them, as well as drawings of the architecture of early America. For the most part I love his works. I own more than a dozen of his books and my daughter and I look through them all the time. They are worth owning for the artwork alone. Not only that, his books were prominent in my classrooms in grade school as well as the small library our school had. Just like now, I would page through the books during quiet time, reading them and studying the drawings. It was because of Sloane that I first learned of the ‘ship-lap’ joint in woodworking. It was because of Sloane that I knew a little about how farms operated, even though I was an inner city kid. Sloane even taught me why old doors look the way they do. You can say I owe a lot to him and his works. But there is a side of Eric Sloane that I don’t care for all that much, and to be honest it wasn’t something I picked up on until fairly recently.

After my daughter was born, my wife and I purchased many books for her. We read to her often, and now that she is learning to read on her own we encourage her to pick out books for herself at her school’s book fairs as well as when we happen to be at a book store. When we purchased books for my daughter, among them were several titles by Sloane (for the record, I picked them and not my wife). I had already owned several, and felt that adding more to the collection was a good idea, as well as allowing me to have some of his books that I had never read, or at least hadn’t seen in a long time. When reading these books to my daughter, I began to pick up on Sloane’s condescending attitude towards “modern” Americans. In many instances, he spends much of his time calling people “lazy” or “ignorant” or “Godless”. He felt that modern Americans have no respect for the land. He stated many times that the jobs that many modern people work at do little more than to make people miserable. He states several times that people do not work “hard” anymore. He blasts labor unions as corrupt entities that exist solely to allow people to do as little as possible. He laments that the average person of today has weekends off?!?

If Sloane were alive, I would point out to him that most modern Americans spend far more time at work than their ancestors did. I would also point out that most modern Americans are far more educated than those of the past, an education that allowed the population to understand the machinations of government, and also allowed people to escape the yoke of local religious zealots, who felt that a population that knew how to read, write, and add was asking for trouble. I would then point out that corruption among churches and religious organizations as well as the pilfering of the wealth of the congregation both poor and wealthy was prevalent then and continues to this day. I would also have to mention that the colonists of New England decimated the forests from Maine to Maryland as well as over farmed much of the land using poor irrigation and crop rotation techniques that poisoned well water and soured the land for decades. I would then tell Sloane that the people of yesteryear often died before they reached the age of fifty, and the quality of life is often much better now than it was “then”. After, I would let Sloane know that while labor unions were not perfect organizations, they came into existence because of the wretched working conditions that people like my ancestors were forced to endure. Labor unions kept eight year-old boys out of coal mines and factories, where unfortunately, countless thousands of children were killed or seriously injured, along with many adults, who were paid pennies for their labor. Finally, I would say to him that if he wants to work Saturday, that is his right, but I like to have it off on occasion. Because many people, myself included, still do work on Saturdays.

For the record, I really enjoy Eric Sloane’s works, both as an author and an artist. I also agree that there are parts of modern life that are not so great, and that we as a society would do well to bring back some of the old customs and traditions. If you are a woodworker and have never read any of Eric Sloane’s books I would highly recommend that you do. Sloane was Roy Underhill before Roy even existed. Sloane’s drawings of woodworking tools and joinery are as good or better than you will find anywhere. Sloane’s books also offer excellent information on trees and their identification and uses. A quick scan of an Eric Sloane book will give you information on chair making, draw-boring, and tool construction, among many other woodworking tasks. Not only that, the books are all inexpensive and easy to come by. Yet, I could do without the reproachful style of writing. I was born in the 20th century, and that is a fact that I can do nothing about.

The reason I wrote this particular post is two-fold. Firstly, when I was sick I read through most of my Sloane books and it brought it back to mind. Secondly, there is still a lot of “modern bashing” in the world of woodworking. I for one like progress, and a little change can sometimes be a very good thing. Modern is a relative term. “Traditional” tools such as hand planes were once very modern, and at the height of current technology. Had the people of yesteryear behaved like many woodworkers do today (or at least pretend to), those tools may have been ignored and faded into obscurity. The woodworkers of the day were smart enough to realize that those tools worked, and made their jobs easier and their work better, so they embraced them. I am glad that they did, and I will forever be on the lookout for the next tool or device that makes my life easier and my work better. Life is hard enough, I don’t need to make it any harder in order to prove a point, or worse, impress a person or persons whom I’ve never met and never will. I don’t know about everybody else, but I have better things to do.

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4 Comments

  1. Jonas Jensen says:

    I just checked reverence for wood on Amazon.com, I like the drawings, but I can see your point regarding the writing even though it was just a couple of pages.
    Nevertheless, I might be tempted to buy a couple of those books and read them.
    Buying books for your daughter is a great thing to do. I am a firm believer in that you get smarter by reading any book than you do by watching most of the entertainment for children on TV. Good God, there is so much junk in the television for children these days, and small children can’t see for themselves if it is good or bad. So encouraging them to read is great.
    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      I would definitely recommend Sloane’s books for the drawings alone. And for the most part, his writing is informative and unbiased. But every now and again he adds some snide comments that I, and apparently a lot of other people don’t care for all that much.
      For me, the worst part are his “people don’t work hard anymore” comments. In a broad sense that is certainly true, and the average person doesn’t work as hard physically as he used to. In my own personal experience, after I left the military, I worked in a printing/paper factory for almost 11 years which was a very physical job, and after I worked in electrical and construction. By the time I was 35, my lower back was damaged, and I can imagine it was the same for many of our ancestors, who in many cases were fortunate to even live to the age of 40.
      Another issue I have with that comment is Sloane himself. Sloane worked as an artist for his entire life, and later wrote books on subjects like colonial America, woodworking, and barn construction. From what research I’ve done on his life, I can’t find anywhere a history of Sloane working at physical jobs such as farming or construction, yet he seems at ease telling everybody else that they don’t work hard enough. While art work and writing are certainly worth jobs, they are hardly physical labor.
      Perhaps the main issue I have with Sloane is his assertion that modern people are “Godless”. Surely the people of today lead lives that don’t revolve around the Church like it did in Colonial America. But this is coming from a guy who was married SEVEN times! Maybe I don’t go to Church like I used to, but I take very seriously my marriage vows, and a guy who was married seven times in Colonial America would have been looked at in a very unfavorable light both by the Church and the community.
      All that being said, I do enjoy his books, and his drawings are second to none. If you were thinking about getting a few of his books, I would recommend doing it. Off the top of my head: “A Museum of Early American Tools” and “An Age of Barns” come to mind right away. Just try to ignore the “modern bashing”
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. John Vernier says:

    Good work unpacking Eric Sloane. I read several of his books as a kid in the ’70s, and they really started something for me (I remember being a horrible little woodworking geek at 6th grade camp). I think they have sold so well for so long precisely because they are targeted to a “nostalgia” audience as much as the craft preservation audience – and all of his pious grumbling is a heavy component of that nostalgia. As I have worked to develop as a woodworker I find that nostalgia is something to avoid at all cost. It is definitely not something to be confused with an understanding of past work or life, but something which gets in the way of understanding!

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks. I enjoy Sloane’s books but like you I don’t look at them as guide to life or even woodworking. Like all history books, they are nice to look at and study, and even learn from. At the same time, just because something is old or “traditional” it doesn’t make it automatically correct or better than other methods just by its virtue of being “traditional”. There were many parts of colonial life that were far from perfect and were necessarily culled from society.
      Like you said, as nostalgic looks at the past they work; but as history books they may be a bit too biased. I would even go as far to say that as books on wood and woodworking they work, at least on some level. But in my opinion Eric Sloane’s opinions concerning colonial vs modern life should not be presented as facts. Unfortunately many of his diehard fans read them that way, and in that the books lose a lot of credibility.
      Bill

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