American History Seen Through Five Trades

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Old Tools

“A nation that forgets it’s past can function no better that an individual with amnesia.” -David McCullough

What may be done with hands and a tool.

This is the essential relationship of the human story. Since way back. Before technology, before history, before most everything we know. Since the human animal fashioned a sharp object perhaps to hunt efficiently or to make fire, all of our shared experience since then is the direct result of this correlation.

It created nations and economies. It created travel and art. Architecture and medicine. War and cuisine. None of these imaginable without the ability, often highly specialized, to simply make a thing.

Farmhands harvesting sugarcane in Cuba. Fathers working alongside sons in an auto shop. Pianos built and tuned at the Steinway factory in Queens, New York. Women sweating it out on the production line in Mobile building airplanes to defeat facism in the 1940s. High school graduates painting houses all summer to save money for college textbooks. Workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps breaking ground in 1933 at the site for Norris State Dam.

It is well documented that these and many thousands of other like examples are the foundation of our society. The so-called blue collar worker. And yet, it seems to the average American that these specialties and basic core services are a vanishing class, a lake gone dry (assuming that person was aware in the first place).

The toil that created America is the same that sustains us today, and will certainly shape our future, however that future may be unknowable. The facts remain unchanged: bridges need to be maintained, cars need tune-ups and someone’s gotta know how to build a house.

Would it be possible to give equal time in our schools to both college prep and shop class? If every American knew how a basic combustion engine worked, or the principles behind rotation farming, or carpentry ‘101,’ would competing on an international level seem so insurmountable?

Our history is a rich parade of discovery and innovation. Whether it’s the writing of Thomas Paine or the visionary engineering of John Roebling or your relative who makes the best pie crust you ever tasted. Taking the time to study and absorb our past, to immerse ourselves in the tale of ‘how-we-got-here,’ leads us down a path that takes us directly to the chairs we sit in and the windows through which we peer.

Here, we’ll be looking at: construction, transportation, service, manufacturing, and farming.

Whether it’s the well-known titan of industry, or the millions who bore the burden: there are myriad stories and those stories are out there waiting to be discovered. And so, over the next several weeks, we will take a closer look at five of these areas and the people responsible. We’ll learn a few things and have some fun along the way.

Photo: spinster cardigan

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Author: Staff Writer

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