The problem with Eric Sloane, the godfather of American tool collecting
"There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use." — Freeman Dyson (1979)
It's difficult to overstate the role Eric Sloane played in how we appreciate American hand tools today. Sloane was a prolific author, artist, and tool collector, who in the 1950s and 1960s published books on colonial and early 19th century technologies. It was a subject few historians and antiquarians were giving attention to at the time. In the lead-up to the 1976 bicentennial, America was hungry to find meaning and purpose in its history, and it discovered it in Sloane's best-selling books — including 1964's groundbreaking "A Museum of Early American Tools."
According to collector Herb Kean, Sloane's work "started a revolution." "Today there are thousands and thousands of collectors and millions of non-collectors who have an appreciation of how important tools were to our nation's climb to 'number one'. Eric Sloane stands as one of the primary reasons for this," Kean wrote in 2002. For good reason Sloane has been called "the Norman Rockwell of things, of technology and industry." And his impact goes beyond popular culture. Academic articles in journals like Pioneer America, the Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, and American Quarterly cite Sloane as an authority on barns and early agrarian life.1
Sloan wrote nearly 40 books before his death in 1985, more than half of which dealt with colonial life. The historic tools in his books were more than just functional. Hand tools, as he presented them, were allegories for individualism and self-reliance. They were the personification of what he called "a special man with a special calling": the New England farmer. For Sloane, his farmer was the original American tool user. But in the decades since they were written, his books have not stood up to close scrutiny. Their inaccuracies, omissions and sloppy scholarship have undermined his status as the "dean of Americana." While the tools are still captivating, Sloane's history is an imperfect story of America.2
Born Everard Hinrichs to well-to-do Irish and German parents in 1905 in New York City, Sloane spent his early years as an itinerant sign painter who initially wrote about meteorology and aviation. Starting with "American Barns and Covered Bridges" in 1954, Sloane discovered a chapter of American history he felt typified the values missing from modern life. Sloane's narrative was, at its core, a story of moral failure: our failure as modern Americans to live by the ideals he identified with his romanticized farmer. It was his insistence on belaboring that narrative over his many books that was his downfall.
Sloane identified the end of the Civil War in 1865 as the date that not only his farmer lost his social status, but Americans lost their desire for individualism. Before the Civil War, we lived in a utopia where "agriculture and the preservation of tradition were a cherished part of the good life." Immediately after, the country was taken over by "countless intricate machines devised to do any job faster and poorer." But from the textile factory sweatshops of Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1840s to the significant role the American farmer played in late-19th and early 20th century national politics, his version of history is questionable.3
Some of his claims were based on careless assumptions. In several of his books, he pointed to still-standing 18th- and 19th-century farmhouses and barns as proof that his farmer's sole intention was to build things that would last generations. But that's just selection bias; the poorly constructed homes and barns farmers built have long since vanished. Historian Charles Hummel calls it a "myth" that all woodworking from the 18th and early 19th centuries was superior. He points to the numerous lawsuits filed at the time that accused craftsmen of shoddy work.4
What's more troubling is when Sloane appears to twist facts to fit his portrayal of history. I don't find fault with all the errors in his books; trailblazing research is likely to get some points wrong at first. But many of his books contain details that are so farcical as to be unbelievable or read like fabrications: the role farmers played in antebellum society, colonial mortality rates, heating in churches, apprentices's carpentry skills, outhouse design, stove usage, agricultural commerce, the claim that houses and barns built out of square and were therefore stronger.
In "American Barns and Covered Bridges," one of his most famous books, he proclaimed that the New England barn "was unlike anything built anywhere else. It was entirely American." When confronted with evidence that the barn design was in no way special to America, he backpedaled, admitting that, "I suppose I was being poetic and subtle ... The walls and roof may have looked the same [as European barns] but the aura of American thinking made the barn new, different, unique." In other words, making up facts was justifiable because it fit his mythic farmer narrative. His willingness to stretch the truth may have gone even farther. One historian thinks the diary that Sloane claims to have discovered that became the basis for his book "Diary of an Early American Boy" was forged by Sloane.5
He wanted it both ways: to be taken seriously as an ethnographic historian, the original curator of the "Museum of American Tools," but at the same time to have the freedom to reinterpret history as he saw fit. In 1973, he told tool historian Paul Kebabian that he collected "the beautiful artifacts" and "good ways of the past." "The bad things of yesterday and the useless things of the past, according to my thinking, should be forgotten instead of unearthed, researched and recorded."6
This cherry-picking lead to glaring omissions. As the writer Donovan Hohn points out, Sloane's "story of decline has no room for tenant farmers, migrant workers, sweatshops, displaced natives, slaves." In 18th century America, an estimated half of all enslaved men worked in some type of skilled labor. A single Virginian owned a representative sample: carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, and shoemakers. By my rough estimate, in 1860 about half of all Black people in New England lived outside major cities. They helped build the barns and homes Sloane illustrated. They made the tools he championed. They were masters of the skills he revered. The few traces these workers left behind is, according to Charles Hummel, "a reminder that much skilled woodwork was produced by [Black people] whose work has not been identified."7
If judging Sloane by the same standard we hold historians today comes across as unfair, then compare him to other writers of his time. As far back as the 1930s, The Chronicle — the largest and most respected publication in the United States focused on tool history — recognized Black Americans as tool makers and users. In 1970, long before before Sloane wrote some of his best-known books on colonial life, The Chronicle was the first to report on one of the 18th century's most important tool makers, the enslaved man Cesar Chelor. More significantly, Sloane wrote during a time of major upheaval in American society, when historians and researchers in many fields were discovering the roles African Americans had in shaping the United States — something you would never know reading his books.8
Is it possible to separate Sloane the careless historian from the legitimate contributions he made? He was an accomplished artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of rural New England colonial life. I attribute his omissions to intellectual laziness, not malice. I don't think ignoring or excluding Sloane from the tool collecting canon is the answer.
I'm lucky to own my great-great-grandfather, John Dexter Templeton's Disston D-8 handsaw, made between 1878 and 1888. He stamped it with his initials. His son scratched his own initials on it. It's a tool I use regularly. And when my eight-year-old son was recently learning how to saw, it's what I put in his hands first. When Sloane writes of the connection shared by a tool's users over generations, it resonates: "When you close your hand over the worn wooden handle, you know exactly how it felt to the craftsman whose hand had smoothed it to its rich patina. In that instant you are as close to that craftsman as you can be — even closer than if you live in the house that he built or sit in the chair that he made."9
Sloane understood that technology is not neutral. Tools carry the visible and invisible imprint of the culture they are a part of. Technologies "are the result of choices, of social processes, and consequently they embody interests, positions, and attitudes," explains historian Bruce Sinclair. Sloane saw this, but he wanted American hand tools to only embody the attitude he saw fit: the individualism of a New England farmer.10
"My axe is much more than an ornament with pleasing lines," he wrote. "It is a symbol." Sloane's myopic vision of history warped what that symbol should be. As a result, some of the foundational works that shaped how we research and write about historic tools are incomplete. As modern readers of his work, we're forced to disentangle the facts from the bullshit. History is not just made up of the "good ways." It is far richer and more interesting than Sloane would have us believe.11
Along with his books about tools, Sloane wrote nearly 40 books about meteorology, aviation, early New England, bells, folklore and his own life. The books I focused on here are: American Barns and Covered Bridges (1954), Our Vanishing Landscape (1955), The Seasons of America Past (1958), American Yesterday (1956), A Museum of Early American Tools (1964), A Reverence for Wood (1965), Spirits of '76 (1973), and Legacy (1979).
Sloane's work: Herb Kean. "President's Corner." The Tool Shed, no. 124, 2002. the Norman Rockwell: Abby Walthausen. "An Americana Of Tools And Manners - Eric Sloane’s Nostalgia." Commonplace, vol. 13, no. 4, 2013.
a special man: Eric Sloane. The Spirits of '76. Walker and Co. 1973. dean of Americana: Ian Adams. A Photographer’s Guide to Ohio. Ohio University Press. 2011.
before the Civil War: Eric Sloane. A Reverence for Wood. Wilfred Funk, 1965.
described the "myth": Charles Hummel. "The Business of Woodworking: 1700 to 1840." Tools and Technologies: America’s Wooden Age, edited by Paul B. Kebabian and William C. Lipke, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 1979.
he backpedaled: Sloane, Spirits of '76, 1973. One historian: Brandon Lisi. How Eric Sloane Retold American History. 2020. Western Connecticut State University. Masters thesis.
told tool historian: Paul B. Kebabian. "Reminiscenses, Some Thoughts On Tool Collecting, And A Few Favorite Tools." The Tool Shed, no. 100, 1998.
as the writer: Donovan Hohn. "Lost Tools." Lapham's Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 2, 2011. half of all enslaved men: Bruce Sinclair. "Integrating the Histories of Race and Technology." Technology and the African-American Experience, edited by Bruce Sinclair, MIT Press, 2004. a single Virginian: Edmund S. Morgan. Virginians at Home: Family Life in the Eighteenth Century. 1963. as quoted in The Black Worker: From Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, Temple University Press, 1978. in 1860: estimates based on city demographic data from "Population of Cities and Towns." Population of The United States in 1860, Government Printing Office, 1864. a reminder that: Hummel, 1979.
as far back as the 1930s: For more examples in The Chronicle see: Joseph Nathan Kane, "Famous First Facts Pertaining to American Industries," vol 1, no. 10, 1935; C. Malcom Watkins, "Notes on the Turpentine Industry," vol. 5, no. 3, 1952; Edwin C. Whittemore, "Ship Building in Early New England," vol. 8, no. 1. 1955.
it resonates: Eric Sloane. A Museum of Early American Tools. Wilfred Funk. 1964.
Technologies are the result: Sinclair, Integrating, 2004.
my axe: Sloane, Museum, 1964.