Author Topic: And it says in this book...  (Read 4862 times)

jwh1947

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And it says in this book...
« on: July 26, 2010, 03:45:03 AM »
As a teacher of language, technical writer, and editor for 50 years, I have come to be critical of much that is written and most that is said.  Admittedly, I fight cynicism as I age, and don't necessarily "mellow."  

I just spoke to a respected young scholar about vetting "knowledge" and rating it against one's BS detector.  I suggested that that which is observable and testable through theory-based science is of the highest believability.  Conversely, that which rests on authority, tradition or revelation is to be held as tentative.

Lots have problems with this type of thinking, and that's OK.  Scientists, too, need to deal with people that don't necessarily agree with their ideas.  Point is, we all rest on authority of some sort.  Even the most empirical, skeptical, and doubtful among us are inclined to take the word of a noted sage or experienced master.  It's just natural and often makes sense.  Needless to say, science is often counter-intuitive.

So what?  So we come to old guns and old gun books, and then to the material that we have been given by previous scholars.  

I take one relatively old source...American Gun Makers, by L. D. Satterlee and Arcadi Gluckman, 1945.  The text is still frequently used by those of us who need a cross-reference.  But, where did these two men go for their information?  Upon what pillars of "truth" do their comments rest?  In short, the men studied personal notes and family letters, the local histories of many smaller towns...ie.) Easton, PA, Hamilton, OH, Lancaster, PA, Guilford Co., NC, and some additional county records.  Then they reviewed the Pennsylvania Archives and the Connecticut Archives.  This and the Congressional Record and munitions reports to which a military man like Colonel Gluckman would have had available.  

That's it, folks.  Not a whole lot.  That's why in 1960 and beyond there was much clarification from more recent scholars who studied birth records, censuses, tax lists, business records, church and court records, metallurgical tests, and extant specimens.

We could also pick on Colonel J.J. Dillin.  His was an early book, too.  In short, as a pioneer, he was misled by comments and assumptions of the people who owned the big collections of the day that he photographed.  Great book with some blatant errors.

The purpose here is not to belittle the early writers.  On the contrary, their efforts are to be respected.  They first saw the value in the things we cherish.  Rather, it is just a call or reminder to look also at an author's base.  It can explain a lot.   Incidentally, Gluckman went on to become a consultant at the Smithsonian's gun room and an NRA exec. who actually did a lot for collectors.  Dillin died penniless in a one room men's hotel in Chester, PA.  Someone had to start somewhere. These were some of our early visionaries.

A reporter is only as good as his sources.  Let this be a simple reminder to all that read today; check the bibliography first.  It will tell you a lot.    These sources were good in their day, but much more has been learned.  That's how research works, bit by bit...or, today, byte by byte.  Rarely a "breakthrough," just mounting data.

If you have some relevant material with documentation, no matter how small, write it down and share it with us.  Drops in the bucket mount up.  Wayne
« Last Edit: July 27, 2010, 06:06:36 AM by jwh1947 »

Offline JV Puleo

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #1 on: July 26, 2010, 06:44:19 PM »
I agree. This is a point very well made...
The problem with most of the early resources isn't that the authors were lax, its that the resources available to them were far thinner on the ground. Much better resources are now available and many of the early books are badly dated. Both Dillon and Gluckman fall into this category, as well as A. Merwin Carey, H.B.C. Pollard and a large part of Gardner. Sellers compiled much of his directory from these sources too, so if Gardner made a mistake in 1938 (understandable enough) its often still in circulation with the added sanctity of having been cited by numerous additional authors for the last 60 years. Unfortunately, the early authors hardly ever cited their sources and often took the word of local "experts" and family members regarding dates. All of this is acceptable in this sort of research as long as its made clear where the information came from. When it isn't made clear, everything becomes questionable.

As an example, I'm working on a monograph on the Ketland family. I started 20 years ago but lost the thread when I kept running into brick walls. Now, with the advent of much better "finding aids," I've been able to make tremendous progress. I can say this.... almost everything that has been published about the Ketlands is inaccurate to some extent and a great deal of it is pure fantasy. I can only guess what the problems in the published literature are with other, less known makers.

Here's another one... Henry Pratt, a prominent NE rifle maker. Gardner gives a starting date of 1831 and has him working up to about 1860. It turns out that Henry was born in 1793 and his working dates probably begin around 1815... which is completely consistent with the flint rifles that he signed.

jwh1947

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #2 on: July 26, 2010, 07:21:20 PM »
Kindred spirit, JV Puleo, thanks for adding to the list of old-time sources, and for pointing out that a commonly used reference, used here often...Sellers...is often hanging on a thin thread from our emerging bibliography of shaky sources.  This is an important point!

As mentioned before in different terms, young whippersnappers today just have no idea what it was like BC...before computers.  Devote a Saturday, rush to your city's biggest library (if you had a city and a library to go to), seek through Dewey Decimal System card catalog and Readers' Guide.  Rush to the stacks only to find that your peers in class, studying the same stuff, beat you to it.  Use of inter-library loan, absconding with hard-to-find books by throwing them out of the library window (so I am told) and spending much cash at the "photostat" machines.  Some information prior to comprehensive test time was worth its weight in gold.  And we spoke of the information explosion.  New-age communication is a megaton bomb compared to our firecrackers.  

The Chinese say, "May you live in interesting times."  We do.

« Last Edit: July 26, 2010, 07:21:54 PM by jwh1947 »

Offline WElliott

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #3 on: July 26, 2010, 09:16:55 PM »
Good comments.  JV, I am looking forward to your work on Ketland.  A resource which would help us better date Ketland locks, based on the form of the Ketland name, would be most welcome.
Wayne Elliott

Offline spgordon

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #4 on: July 26, 2010, 09:43:32 PM »
This is an extremely important topic. I agree that the problem with studies by early researchers is that the materials available to them to use as evidence were "thinner on the ground"--scattered, inaccessible, hidden--and that working with those materials one could find was far more difficult (note taking--slow and liable to error--say, rather than taking digital scans).

But the problem with more recent studies is that writers repeat without suspicion or critical thought information that has somehow solidified as "fact" merely because it is stated somewhere once and then restated often.

I've just been writing about the William Henry (II) gun factory in Jacobsburg--the one built after he settled in Nazareth and before his sons built Boulton in 1812. The date nearly always (but NOT always, which is the point) given for that Jacobsburg factory is 1792. But in documents that have been available for many years (and parts of which are even cited by the very authorities who continue to use the 1792 date) William Henry II himself states unequivocally that he built the factory in Jacobsburg in 1798 in order to be able to complete his state contract and then, very soon after, he converted this gun works into a "grist mill." His gunworks in Nazareth, which many authorities suggest closed when he opened Jacobsburg, continued to produce work throughout the first decade of the nineteenth century.

I don't have any solution for this, of course, and I probably have many times committed the same sort of error that I'm complaining about others making! But it is really important for writers to be skeptical of established "facts," especially if there are others that contradict them. There is no virtue to telling a coherent story that is made coherent only by twisting what can be known. Better to admit what can't be known .... so far.

SPG
Check out: The Lost Village of Christian's Spring
https://christiansbrunn.web.lehigh.edu/
And: The Earliest Moravian Work in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide
https://www.moravianhistory.org/product-page/moravian-activity-in-the-mid-atlantic-guidebook

Offline JV Puleo

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #5 on: July 26, 2010, 10:38:19 PM »
I had a similar conversation recently with Nick Chandler, the author of an upcoming book on the earliest American Underhammers. Nick's work is entirely based on primary sources and as such, offers new insights into American gun making in the 1830s that no one else has even touched on yet. He suggested, and I agree with this, that all we can do is to keep chipping away at the myths, document our sources and be completely up front and honest when we are exercising informed conjecture. After all, who is better qualified to offer opinions than enthusiasts who have studied something for years. The critical issue, where documentation is lacking, is to say why we think what we think and remain open minded to the possibility we could be wrong.

With the application of rigorous standards to new resources,  I have the feeling we could be on the cusp of a minor renaissance in this sort of study.

spgordon... I've had similar problems in my Ketland research - where a secondary source author accepts "facts" that his own research refutes!

Offline spgordon

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #6 on: July 26, 2010, 10:46:19 PM »
"All we can do is to keep chipping away at the myths, document our sources and be completely up front and honest when we are exercising informed conjecture. After all, who is better qualified to offer opinions than enthusiasts who have studied something for years. The critical issue, where documentation is lacking, is to say why we think what we think and remain open minded to the possibility we could be wrong."

I couldn't agree more!  Well put!
Check out: The Lost Village of Christian's Spring
https://christiansbrunn.web.lehigh.edu/
And: The Earliest Moravian Work in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide
https://www.moravianhistory.org/product-page/moravian-activity-in-the-mid-atlantic-guidebook

Offline JCKelly

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Re: And it says in this book...
« Reply #7 on: July 27, 2010, 03:09:50 AM »
For some years I, and now together with Dorr N. Wiltse, Jr., have been putting together a book on Michigan Gunmakers. With respect, computers are invaluable but at my level of electronic competence I've not succeeded in finding much of any value on the internet, save census records.
The Detroit Library, old fashioned dusty stuff, is another matter. So are old city directories, and gazetteers. And looking at many actual guns--sometimes the guy spelt his name differently on the barrel, than did the tax collector. And the late H. J. Swinney with his literally encyclopedic knowledge. And all the guys I meet who tell me their grampa or uncle made guns, or barrels, & provide family history. Like, "the Millar patent model of a revolving rifle was in my uncles house. . . I used to play with it. . . here is a copy of the patent, signed by Andrew Jackson...and the rifle is now in...museum"
I reference every statement to the original source, or at least the source I used, which may include oral history. However shakey the latter, it is a place to start & ought not be disrespected.