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.