The Life Of Obsolete Actions



Who cares if I can make a chair without electric machinery? 

Oddly, I ask myself this question all of the time.  As a member of the team at a living history site, where among other things, we do show people how to make things by hand and without machinery, other than as a novelty, what importance might this have on contemporary visitors? How might my newfound knowledge of how a foot-powered lath benefit my thinking in 2018?  Could the answer to this question affect how I vote? What policies I promote? What I eventually do in my life?

Like a dandelion seed floating through the breeze, the answer to this question has far-reaching and unforeseen results.

I don’t know if I actually have an answer.  I understand why being knowledgeable about the tactics and strategies of history could better inform your decisions today, but I feel less firm on why the physicality of everyday life is an important thing to know.


I watch, stunned, as kids are presented with a rotary phone and asked to place a call.  The young minds have no concept of how the phone works.  “How do you text?” one young girl asks.  Another, instead of rotating the dial, continuously pushes the holes of the rotary dial expecting the call to go through.  Will they ever be expected to use a rotary phone?

I know how all of this must seem.  It’s not even an issue for the everyday person.  For a visitor to a living history site, it’s all novelty and visually arresting.  To those of us who really work at making these experiences meaningful beyond simply the cool-ness of the interaction, it weighs heavy on our minds.  Is it good enough to simply be compelling?  Is it Ok to also be thought-provoking; challenging; and sometimes adversarial?

I am fundamentally a sculptor.  I make things (  ).  Watching people make things, and even better making the things myself, can be one of the most satisfying experiences at a living history site.  In fact, I often find myself sitting and chatting with the woodworkers at history sites – asking them questions. Why? What about this behavior fulfills something in the modern mind that is missing?  At a most basic level it is tactile.  Sensory engagement matters. Is that all there is?

What’s the next level of benefit of this experience – how can an obsolete action inform my life today in a useful and substantive way?  

Any ideas?


7 thoughts on “The Life Of Obsolete Actions

  1. Well, first of all, I think there is some difference between making a chair, and using a rotary phone. The phone is in fact obsolete, no matter how charming. The hand-made chair is not, for all kinds of reasons, Neither, even, is the foot-powered lathe. I think if you are talking to the living history craftsmen, they can tell you why. I used a foot-powered wheel when I was working for a production potter. It was not really slower than it needed to be, and it gave me exquisite control. Also a work-out. Not obsolete at all. It’s all about shifting values, but the mainstream focus on speed and uniformity is not the whole story.


  2. it’s hard to convey these questions, or transcend mere novelty, within the time constraints of most living history activities. And I’m sure a fair number of parents would side-eye the educator who made the attempt.

    To hazard an answer (bordering on the annoyingly derivative), though: There’s something profoundly human about transforming organic material (wool, wood, earth, plant and insect pigments) into durable objects, knowing that our transformation will allow those organic materials to outlast our own. It makes us integral to our environment, yet allows us to interact indefinitely with human society. Working with only essential elements, we can cheat death.

    Similarly, obsolete actions (whether in creating or communing with an historical object) give us an opportunity to reconsider the larger context of our own mundane activities. They allow us to take ourselves out of time, and temporarily divest from the occasional tyranny of our own technology.

    The same considerations bear on recent historical objects. Especially because we can’t recreate most of them. What does a rotary phone tell us about its creators’ immediate environment and how they interacted with that environment? What was the role of humanity to its environment, and society to its environment? Do we understand a rotary phone as its creators’ “legacy” in the same way we understand the “presence” of a William Searle chest? And if not, why not?


  3. Cool-ness may be a factor, but the wonder I see in people’s faces as they watch me work with my hands to produce beautiful and functional objects goes beyond scratching that itch to see something Instagram-worthy.

    Humankind has always made things. Physically manipulating materials and tools to create a physical manifestation of our mind’s eye touches something deep inside of us. It isn’t just the tactile engagement, it’s also the resulting accomplishment. The tidy, even, stitches. The evenly woven cloth. The steadfast woven basket. The sturdy wooden table, interlocking parts cleverly holding themselves together. We put ourselves, our hard-won skill, into these objects. These things are our inner selves made tangible, our strengths and flaws laid bare.

    That is why, hundreds and even thousands of years later, we must understand the gravity of these physical actions – we must understand them for ourselves. Without that understanding it is that much harder to make connections with our collective past, to appreciate the fingerprints of those who built our world as we know it now. The toil, the historic circumstances, the cultural significance of a given object. Those connections enrich our minds and inspire us.

    Allowing people to reacquaint themselves with the reality of the physical – in this deeply digital society – is important. It can also remind us that much of the world still lives like this: people around the world power their work with their muscles, human hands still directly create many of the objects we buy at import stores. What is obsolete history to us is the present day to others.

    I have been proud to perpetuate hand skills since I spun my first yarn at fifteen. I am glad to see more and more people in the western world returning to the well to reinvigorate these arts and remind yet another generation that what we do with our life has an impact on future generations.


  4. I have a lot to say on this topic…I am writing about it now, but you may not hear back from me until after the holidays. I would like to add to these deliberate and honest accounts previously noted, that the act of making is never obsolete. As a sculptor myself, making is an important part of how I perceive and interpret the world. It’s about quality of life. It’s about valued time, well spent. It is about sharing history and knowledge whether you are a philosopher or brick maker or silicon valley game developer.
    It is about our human language.
    and much more than that… to be continued.


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