Review of A Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane

A Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane, New York: Ballantine, 1965, 110 pp.
Having previously read and enjoyed Eric Sloane’s Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake—1805, it was an easy-to-make purchasing decision when I found his A Reverence for Wood for a dime at my local thrift store.
Sloane (1905-1985) was a prolific author who loved early American New England and was fascinated by the ingenious use of wood in that time period.
A chapter on “The Old Barn” explains the thought put into the barn designs of yesteryear. Moss on the roof helped the old barns breath and prevented rain from coming in through gaps. The back of the building is placed to the North where the cold winds hit. They used white cedarwood, and when the supply ran low they mined it out of the swamps of New Jersey. As wood boards breathe over time the nails are forced out; the round ones quicker than the square. The old-timers say that nails are left protruding on roofs because they keep the snow with its insulating properties in place. And like in all of his books (I believe) Sloane includes many nice hand-drawings of his subject matter.
The author’s mind is full of information and it is his joy to share it. He explains that ship-lap joints prevent gaps from developing in picture frames better than do mitered joints. Early American paintings were often made on wood slabs imported from Europe, and it is important to paint both sides of boards so that dry evenly and don’t curl up. Sloane’s reverence is for the past and what they stood for.
With an appreciate for things antique and authentic, Sloane tells the reader that he once was to judge the Christmas decorations in his town and he chose as the winner not any of the houses with modern lights and lawn ornaments, but a chicken house that had “almost a holy dignity.”
While early American houses were made of pine or chestnut, the doors were special and often made from sassafras, apple, cherry, or mahogany. And doors were set on a slightly leaning outward angle so that they would close on their own and stay closed.
In those times the bones (the structure) of a house were big and much stronger than necessary, though they furnished the weight of the house to keep it from blowing away.
The chapters work backwards in time, a hundred years each from “1965: The Old Barn” to “1865: The Cleared Land” to “1765: The Warehouse” and finally “1665: The New World.”
In the 1865 chapter I got a kick out of Sloane’s statement that “For a while there were born countless intricate machines devised to do any job faster and poorer.” (p. 45) This was the time also when wood gave way to the ascendancy of iron. Wood was still used, but often wasted. “Navigation was often stopped by the sawdust and chips which were emptied into the rivers.” (p. 46) A lot of the wood was burned in locomotives and maybe even more burned to make charcoal. And an Englishman said, “the Americans seem to hate trees and can’t wait to cut them down.” (p. 46) Sloane mentions zig-zag stone fences built the woods; the shape, though a modern person wouldn’t know it, due to its avoiding trees that disappeared generations ago.The order of preference for wood used for fences was “locust, cedar, chestnut, walnut, white oak.” (p. 54)
In the 1765 chapter the reader is transported back to a time when nearly everything was made of wood or came in some way (fruit, bark, etc.) from a tree. And in the 1665 chapter America is a place of thick woods. Sassafras plays a particularly strong role in that there was much desire at home and abroad for its roots to make tea. The final dozen pages describe the most common American trees.
A Reverence for Wood is a fun short read. It makes me think it likely that any or all of Sloane’s books (more than forty of them) are worth reading.

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