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Clifford Ashley on folk art and reading as rivals

This long extract from the (fascinating) Ashley Book of Knots (1944) is an excellent of example of the variety of influences and incentives (economic, technological, social) at play in the development (or loss) of particular skills or art-forms.

Ashley’s describes changes in literacy and the culture of knot-making in response to shifts in the wider ecosystem. It’s a reminder of how complex the process of cultural change can be and the influence of apparently irrelevant complementary goods on our behaviour… and I love the sense of regret as Ashley describes sailors learning to read and forgetting their “first love” of knotting.

Folk arts flourish best where there are leisure and contentment…

At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was unusual to find in the forecastle of a sailing ship more than one or two sailors who could read and write. It was a common thing for boys to go to sea before they were ten years old, and cabin boys of seven and eight years’ age were not unusual.

Even ashore, at that time, education was considered unnecessary in the classes from which seamen were recruited. But the isolation of the sea was such that the sailor’s inability to read and write was an almost intolerable hardship. In order to keep his mind occupied when off duty, it was necessary for him to busy his hands. Fortunately there was, aboard ship, one material that could be used for that purpose. There was generally plenty of condemned rope with which to tie knots.

There were two arts that belonged to the sailor: scrimshaw, which was the carving and engraving of whalebone and ivory and was particular to the whaling fleet, and knotting, which belonged to all deep water ships, including whalers. Jackknife industries also flourished aboard ship, and much of the tattooing of the old days was done in the forecastle. Sailors knitted, sewed, and crocheted; made baskets and straw hats. But the true shellback was more apt to specialize in knots.

There is a fundamental difference between the deep water and the coastwise sailor. The latter, in common with the fisherman, spends much of his time ashore, making harbor at short intervals. Usually he has a home and family ties of some sort. His excursions on the sea are too brief, and his hours at sea to busy, to encourage handicrafts. But a shellback, if he has a home, generally ignores it when ashore so long as his health and thirst last. Most of the days of his life are actually lived at sea.

In the middle of the 1800s the public of several nations became more sailor-conscious. Organizations for “uplift” were formed, sailors’ reading and educational classes were established along the waterfronts. By this time the public or common-school movement in America was well under way so, unless a boy ran off to sea at a very immature age, the rudiments of the “three Rs” had begun to seep in.

“Sailors’ Aid” societies in various ports placed compact little libraries aboard outbound ships. Voyages in the meanwhile had shortened. Ships were built more for speed and less for capacity; itinerant trading ventures had become infrequent. The best routes for making the long runs around the Horn and the Cape had been charted and, except for the whaler, the day of the long voyage was past.

Usually the advent of steam is held accountable for putting a period to the art of knotting. But the fact that a sailor could not read and at the same time employ his hands may be accepted as in great part responsible. The higher education had taken its toll. To be sure, the books put aboard ship frequently had a Rollo-like flavor – more suited for juvenile Sunday-school classes than for the minds of adult men. But hungry minds will accept anything, and the average sailor was pretty young, and quite uncritical. Ships libraries were thumbed to shreds, the subject matter of books was discussed, and the comparative merits of heroes and the beauty of heroines argued aboard ship with a seriousness, even a partisanship, that would put to blush the efforts of many a Browning Society ashore.

It was inevitable that when the sailor learned to read he would neglect the arts. Eventually good marlingspike sailors became scarce. Only the essential everyday knots were taught to the greenhorns in the forecastle, and work that formerly had been done at sea was turned out in the rigging loft.

Abruptly, however, in the second quarter of the twentieth century, knotting began to pick up again, and sailors the world over evinced a renewed interest… the manifestation proved to be no mere transient fad. Nor was it the result of sentiment or persuasion. The answer was simple, and far deeper; the return to his first love was natural and wholly unpremeditated. The sailor’s hand and eye, long slaves to magazine and book, were again free. The one no longer turned the leaf while the other scanned the printed page. Magazines and books were tossed aside unopened.

And now while the cheerful radio in the forecastle bleats out the latest baseball and cricket scores, or prize-fight gossip, from five hundred or two thousand miles away, the sailor’s hands again deftly fashion a knotted belt or handbag for his lady, or for anyone of his several ladies, in whatever port his ship is headed for; and if he is musically inclined he cheerfully whistles an obbligato to the radio soloist of the moment, while his fingers once more ply the knotted cords…

Just beyond the horizon is the threat of the cinema and television, which require only a little popularizing cheapness before they too will invade the forecastle; when they do the sailor’s hands will again be idle.

Clifford W. AshleyThe Ashley Book of Knots

So what?

What larger factors are changing behaviours that are relevant to your field of work? Where do things seem to be moving? Which trends make things harder? Where is the wind at your back?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...