Old timey

A couple of weeks ago I spent my first day volunteering as a costumed museum interpreter, which is not something I ever saw myself doing. I’d worked with the site director and staff before, and figured that, as an out-of-work historian, I’d see if I could help them out in any way — doing a little research or leading a few tours, I thought, but when they found out that I build furniture with hand tools, the next thing I knew I was being fitted for 1870s clothes. And so there I was on a ninety-degree North Carolina June Saturday outside a nineteenth-century farmhouse demonstrating “traditional” woodworking.

the author at the shaving horse

I put “traditional” in scare quotes because I didn’t get into woodworking out of historical interest; I got into it because it was the only way I could afford to furnish my house decently when I was in graduate school. I still build furniture, and I work almost exclusively with hand tools. I was therefore doing what I might well have been doing on a Saturday anyway, but in public, and wearing old-timey clothes, and making old-timey sorts of things.

A number of visitors commented that this looked like “such hard work!” Really? I thought. Hard work? I’m sitting at a shaving horse in the shade of a maple tree, there’s a little breeze blowing, there’s ice cream for lunch, and I’m paring down dogwood branches to make a stool. It’s maybe a step up from whittling. As I pointed out, I could be out in the field walking behind a mule, or up on the roof fixing shingles, or sawing logs, or doing any number of other things that would be hard work. As work goes, this was pretty easy.

This “hard work” business came up a couple of times during the day, actually — even with something as simple as carrying my tools. Because I had to look the part, I’d built myself an old-fashioned wooden tool carrier for the occasion:

This was more complicated than I expected it to be — you just have to see the geometry as you go, and without a model to work from I made some mistakes, but I got it done the night before the gig (whew), it looks pretty good, it goes with the costume, and, as this old textbook points out, it’s built low enough to fit under the seat of a buggy. You never know when that’s going to come in handy. Most important, it’s comfortable to carry a fair distance, even loaded with tools. I followed some suggestions Roy Underhill offered in one of his books: Make one side straight to fit against your side as you walk, and make the slot for the handle long enough that you can shift your hand to balance the weight. (And, as I said before, keep it light.) The result is that it’s really not so hard to carry.

Still — the very idea of carrying my tools all the way from the parking lot! a good third of a mile on a fast-warming morning! I might wilt, or something. It was assumed that I should use the golf cart. So I did, because I didn’t want to be one of those guys who is constantly showing you how tough he is, but it felt like cheating, and I was a little disappointed not to really put my new tool carrier to the test. And the damned thing did not fit under the seat of the golf cart. Stupid modern technology. Next time I’m taking the buggy.

In both cases, with the shaving horse and with the tool carrier, the tool was well adapted to the body that uses it — body and tool are integrated, you might say, becoming one in the process of work. Working wood with my hands I’m used to that idea; I have old tools that bear the finger-indents of craftsmen now dead a hundred years, and new ones as thoughtfully designed as any ever have been. But I suppose that most people, watching me, saw only work, physical labor, which is by definition hard. Few of us use our bodies for work anymore; our jobs mostly involve a lot of sitting and typing, and we sit to drive to and from them, and we sit when we get home. The body may be an object of leisure or pleasure, something that occasionally causes us discomfort and that our doctors and spouses and television commericals nag us to take better care of, but it is not a useful thing. And so to see a man using a drawknife and a shaving horse, using his whole body at once, hands and arms and feet and legs, becoming physically one with the tool and the bench — that is, to many people, I suppose, almost incomprehensible. Certainly that the work was not hard is incomprehensible. It’s work, yes, but pleasurable work.

That work, as much as my clothes, made me visibly old-timey. The lesson too often learned from “living history” is that things were really crappy in the old days, and that isn’t true, or fair, or right. Life was hard, but life is hard now. They had tuberculosis and a lot of work, but they didn’t have traffic jams and they could see the stars at night. Life is what you’re used to. And what I was doing wasn’t even old-timey; it’s what a lot of chairmakers still do, though they’re called “rustic” now. I wanted to say no, look, I’m a real person; I really do this stuff! The inability to communicate that fact effectively made me feel sort of old-timey after awhile, as if I’d been picked up by time machine and stranded in some distant future.

But occasionally there was a glimmer of recognition. A boy, maybe nine, picked up my brace and bit and began turning holes in a piece of wood. He was utterly fascinated by this simple tool; the drills he’d likely seen before, power drills, are truly incomprehensible in their operation. But an auger is simple, and he stopped working with it only when his father (after giving him two or three one-more-times) finally pulled him away. Kids haven’t learned yet to dismiss the value of their bodies. With kids there’s always hope.

Anyway, I hear next time there will be a mule, and maybe I can borrow the wagon to truck my tools back and forth from the parking lot. I bet the carrier fits under the seat of the wagon.

mules pulling a wagon