culture and craft

Cotton field in November

Last week on my way home from buying groceries, I passed a cotton field. It’s ready for harvest. The bolls are open and the plants look like they are covered with snow. Until I moved South, I didn’t realize cotton was harvested in the late fall and early winter. I teach about the role of King Cotton in the economy of the antebellum South. I tell my students about the invention of the cotton gin by a Yankee and show them pictures of slaves picking cotton, bags slung over their shoulders. In another class, we talk about what happened to agriculture in the South once slavery was abolished and tenant farming and sharecropping dominated. And when we discuss the New Deal, I show them pictures from the Farm Security Administration’s photography project that includes images of cotton pickers from the 1930s. And, maybe, as I rush toward the end of the semester, I mention in passing the increased use of pesticides and the mechanization and industrialization of farming after World War II, when I talk about the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

But I stop there. I  have no real understanding of how cotton is picked and processed after about 1940, other than that machines are involved now in a way they weren’t in the past. I lose the thread. I can remedy this. I’m a historian. I know how to find that thread and finish the story.  (Here’s a book that I think will help.) But the thing is, lots of threads get lost and nobody goes to find them. And that got me to thinking about the ways in which knowledge and skills are bequeathed from one generation to another:

Why do some skills get lost and others survive?

There’s no simple answer to that question. Sometimes we are completely unaware of why or how we’ve acquired certain skills. We do so unconsciously and only when someone questions us do we become aware of what we are doing. This is how I learned to cook. I didn’t ask my mother for cooking lessons. I just hung out in the kitchen, setting the table, drying the dishes, husking corn and shelling peas each summer. And somehow when I wandered into a kitchen as an adult I knew, for the most part, what I had to do to feed myself.

Often a new technology replaces an old one and the skills disappear along with the need for them. Most shoes, for instance, are made by machine. Few people today know  how to make a pair of shoes from start to finish by hand. These days much of what we need and buy is machine made. Which begs a question:

Is there a point to trying to save or recover craft skills? And does writing or reading a history book contribute anything to recovering those lost skills?

Open cotton bolls

Undoubtedly, the best way to learn skills is to be around someone who has them. The best way to learn about cotton production is from a farmer–someone who grows cotton for a living. It’s immersion that truly facilitates the transfer of cultural practices. So cultural anthropologists stress the importance of scholars immersing themselves in the culture they are studying.

For the historian, however, short of time travel, immersion isn’t possible. Or it is only possible to the extent that the historian immerses herself in the documentary record–letters, diaries, newspapers, government records, artifacts–all of the ephemera produced by people in the past that we piece together to make sense of their lives and our own.  Historians can deepen that immersion by listening to stories, by which I mean oral histories. As an example, see University of California Santa Cruz’s oral history collection about organic farming in California is a good example of the value of oral history in telling the story of ordinary people.

So am I saying that we ought all to become anthropologists and give up on being historians? Can we learn nothing except what we do (or observe)? Obviously, I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I believed that. It is not the historian’s job to write how-to books. It is the historian’s job, however, to gather up those lost threads (stories of lost skills) and weave them into a narrative that connects our present practices with our past and sustains a conversation between us and those who have come before us. And, I would argue that in the act of recovering our past, we learn more about who we are in the present. And a little bit of self-awareness never hurt anybody.


About Susan Myers-Shirk

Professor of cultural and intellectual history
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