J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

“The Norman Rockwell of Things”

The summer installment of Common-place included Abigail Walthausen’s article “An Americana of Tools and Manners: Eric Sloane’s Nostalgia.”

I enjoyed finding several of Eric Sloane’s books as a teenager and bought reprints later. I became a little wary of their claims of authority without clear citations, but nonetheless they’ve definitely shaped my thinking about early rural America.

Walthausen’s article starts with a surprise: Sloane was born in New York City as Everard Hinrichs. He derived the new surname Sloane from an art-school acquaintance, the first name Eric from the middle of “America.”

Walthausen goes on to consider Sloane’s influence on how we Americans perceived our past, especially during the Bicentennial (which coincided with my boyhood):
Following an early series of books that focused on depicting weather, with Our Vanishing Landscape, published in 1955, Sloane embarked on a career rooted in a full embrace of early American (and primarily New England) history and material culture. These publications helped set the stage for many of the celebrations of the U.S. bicentennial in 1976—celebrations that were full of reenactments, historical restorations, and nostalgia (whereas the centennial celebrations a century earlier had been primarily focused on progress). . . .

Unlike the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the bicentennial had no central fair. Instead, the country exploded with local festivals, many of them emphasizing an antic or “old timey” quaintness. Much of the material culture that accompanied the bicentennial focused on artifacts of the colonial period, stripped of their classical symbolism and replaced with more ephemeral signifiers. The founding fathers were far less likely to be represented as marble busts, as they were on the centennial stock certificate; instead, the visual emphasis of bicentennial depictions often fell on the novelty of their breeches and buckles, and the ruffled cap of Betsy Ross. . . .

While Sloane did not approve of the vast commercial opportunism of the bicentennial, as he complained in his 1973 text The Spirits of ’76, he had already spent decades publishing books that claimed that there was greatness to be found in the lost artifacts and attitudes of America’s past.
Walthausen calls Sloane “the Norman Rockwell of things, of technology and industry.” And, though it’s not emphasized in the article, that was really the agricultural technology of the Northeast. Old-fashioned fishing and ships’ gear, the tools for farming rice and cotton, the equipment of the western cattle rancher—those American artifacts Sloane left to other artists.

The Eric Sloane Museum in Kent, Connecticut, preserves some of Sloane’s art and antique tools, and a building (described variously as a cabin or a barn) that he built to match the one in his Diary of an Early American Boy. It’s open Thursdays to Sundays through 27 October.

(Back in 2008 I reported seeing a footnote in a scholarly book stating that the manuscript on which Sloane based Diary of an Early American Boy was at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield. I haven’t gone there to confirm that, nor can I find any confirmation online.)


twfmd@hotmail.com said...

I would like to send you a pdf of some correspondence I had with the Eric Sloane Museum about the Noah Blake diary in 2009. As much as I enjoyed the diary, I strongly suspect it may have been one of Mr. Sloane's fabrications. Where can I send the pdf of my correspondence? I think you'll find it interesting.

I really enjoy your blog by the way.
Best regards,
Tom Frank

J. L. Bell said...

I would indeed be interested. You can find my email in this post. Thank you!