Century of Whittling – 1865 to 1965

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A CENTURY OF WHITTLING – 1865 – 1965 a folk history by Donald K. Mertz – The WOOD BEE CARVER

Wood carving is perhaps one of the oldest forms of art that originated the first time a human shaped in a decorative manner a piece of wood with a sharp stone. Whittling developed when sharpened metal knives were used to carve a hand held piece of wood making Whittling one of the earliest forms of carving.

In the United States Whittling was most prevalent in the century between 1865 and 1965. The Civil War brought together men from different states and territories in a melting pot kind of gathering. Sitting around the campsite the soldiers would relax by talking, playing cards, writing letters and some would be whittling. The folding jack knife was common among the soldiers who, if one had a knife one was prone to whittle. Some soldiers who were more proficient at whittling would teach others to whittle walking sticks or canes, animals, human figures, spoons, smoking pipes and whimsies like wooden chains, ball in a cage, fans and puzzles. A soldier from Maine would teach a soldier from Ohio how to whittle a particular object. A soldier from Georgia would show a soldier from Tennessee how to whittle. This was repeated over and over in the melting pot of the casual school of whittling.

After the war the returning veterans brought their whittling skills back home amusing and teaching the children of their community the art of whittling. Some of the veterans would leave home in search of work and adventure. They were the migrant or itinerant laborers of their day who traveled to where ever their was work be it on the railroad, lumbering, farm harvest labor, ranching or construction. After the work was done at night, whittling was one of the activities. Once again, a whittler would show and teach another want-to-be whittler the tricks of the trade. These itinerant labors often traveled from one job to another, one section of the country to another in a melting pot of meeting new people and passing on or learning the whittling activity.

Farm laborers were first called “Hoe Boys” because they carried their hoe with them to do agriculture cultivation. That term was shortened to “Hobo” who became one who traveled to find work and work when he found it. Many hobos whittled and would trade their whittlings for food and other necessities. Some of which became known as “Tramp Art.” Of course hobos would teach others whittling skills who in turn would pass it on to others. It may have been a hobo who taught Ernest Warther of www.warthers.com how to whittle a working pliers out of wood. Whittled pliers became the novelty trademark of Ernest Warther, who carved the history of steam locomotive trains that are housed in the Warther’s Museum in Dover, Ohio.

Whittling can be called the common man’s art or “folk art” because is was done by folk without academic education in the arts but who wanted to fulfill a creative urge to create something with their own hands and creative ability. Whittling was an inexpensive way to make things that cost only the investment of time. So if someone needed a decorative walking stick or cane, one could whittle one that was unique and one of kind. A love spoon could be whittled as a gift to a sweetheart. A wooden animal or bird could be whittled for a child’s toy. An Indian figure could be whittled to immolate the cigar store Indian at the tobacco shop. All of these examples were whittled by the common folk as a folk art whose value was more a sentimental novelty created by the old vet, or Uncle Charlie, or the kid down the street or the traveling hobo.

Mid-century, the Boy Scout movement gained in popularity. Whittling was one of the skills taught to Boy Scouts. Ben Hunt, who taught whittling to the Scouting program, wrote several books and had whittling articles with projects published in the Boy Scout’s magazine, “Boys Life.” E. J. Tangerman, another author on the subject of whittling published books and articles in Popular Science type of magazines and even a whittling handbook for Remington Knife Company. Both knife companies and Popular Science types of magazines would conduct national contest for whittling entries.

The last quarter of the century experienced World War II where the “Greatest Generation” carried the home grown skills of make-do-with-what-you-have-to-work- with into another melting pot that changed the way of life. Whittling was still an activity of this time as a carry over for the self reliant days of the Great Depression. Almost every boy, out of necessity, carried a pocketknife and if a boy has a pocketknife the boy is prone to whittle. So all who grew up during that time of great struggle was accustomed to whittling and how to use a pocketknife.

Following World War II the GI Bill allowed many veterans to receive a college education along with the great housing boom with growth of the suburbs and migration from the farms. Manufacturing, construction and the economy grew along with vacation and leisure opportunities which all added to less and less hands-on pursuits like whittling.

1965 ended the “Whittling Century” for the emphasis shifted to the electronic age with less hands-on activity to more entertainment pursuits. Industrial and manual arts ceased to be offered in school curriculum. City and suburban life style done away with the farm chores, out door life and making things with one’s own hands. The availability of more entertainment orientated merchandise took the place a boys rite of passage to have a pocket knife and thus there was less exploration into whittling.

Woodcarving in general had a spurt of growth during the mid 1970?s with woodcarving clubs springing up all over the country. Most of the larger clubs sponsor annual wood carving shows. The National Wood Carvers Association grew in international membership and publishes a bi-monthly magazine entitled, “Chip Chats” having a membership of approximately 30,000. Woodcarving seminars taught the art of carving all kinds of subjects and numerous books of the subject of woodcarving became prevalent. Carving tools became more available supplementing the lowly pocketknife for the classical carving tools. The carving knife became one among the many tools the carver would use to carve various carving projects. Whittling took a back seat as being too amateurish and an old man’s activity of “whittling away time.”

Even though woodcarving grew after the 1965 benchmark year, yet almost all the participants in woodcarving were those who grew up in the latter half of the Whittling Century carrying with them a love for making things with their hands and the joy of using a knife for whittling. The average age of woodcarving club members today is probably seventy years of age. Even though the woodcarving community of clubs and enthusiasts seek to recruit younger people and are more than willing to teach the art of carving and whittling, yet the younger generation have little interest in hands-on hobbies or of things associated with the old days, like collecting pocket knives.

Whittling, one of the first and foremost folk arts, along with the noble and yet lowly pocket knife continue to carry a mystique of a love for the sentimental journey of traveling back to the simpler time of one’s youth. And that is not all that bad for such memories are lasting like the initials carved in the trunk of a tree or the wall of the barn.