The Telltale Part: Reckoning with Artifactual Correctness

This stock photo hit my inbox recently in an email exhorting me to do something—I don’t remember what—with my WordPress website. I don’t remember because when I saw this photo I laughed out loud and read no further. Really laughed, not just a toss-off LOL.

At a glance I could tell the photographer had never used a manual typewriter before. How did I know? Let me count the ways.

  1. There’s no paper in the carriage (aka the long cylinder on top that’s supposed to hold the paper).
  2. There’s no ribbon (an ink-infused ribbon, carried on spools, that the metal type strikes to impress ink onto the paper).
  3. The “wrists down” position might work for typing on a computer keyboard, but is almost impossible on a manual typewriter, which requires keys to be pressed with some force, straight down, without accidentally striking others.
  4. The carriage is extra wide, intended for large documents such as maps, blueprints, etc., not for home use as shown in this photo.
  5. The cover is missing, which technically wouldn’t prevent typing but does keep dirt out of the machine.

It’s possible the photographer did know the typewriter setup wasn’t right but assumed—probably correctly—that most viewers wouldn’t know or care.  

But some do.

The errors were obvious to me because I’m old enough that I learned to type on a manual. But looking at this photo made me wonder, what if I didn’t know? What if I’d seen this setting in a museum? With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, is a wrong or missing “telltale part” meaningful or trivial?

Given the work I do, you’re probably not surprised that I think it’s important for museums and historic sites to do the hard work of researching not just what a thing is and what it was used for, but how and why it was used.

What were the steps taken before, during, and after using it? What other items or supplies might that activity require? How was it made? How would it have been repaired and maintained? Are parts are missing? Are those extra parts spares or were they also used in some way? Would the user have likely been trained in its use or picked it up by observation and experience? Was it modified by the user? If so how and why?

Museums—along with schools—are one of the few places people visit with an expectation of learning something, and we need to take that seriously. Studies show that people consider museums highly authoritative sources of information. How many times have you gone to a museum on a subject you know well and spotted something—like this typewriter—that’s not right? Did you trust rest of the museum’s offerings more or less after that? Did it stick in your memory? Did you recommend the museum to others after that?

I once went to a small museum with an exhibit on native plants eaten by indigenous peoples. The label about Jerusalem artichokes was illustrated with—you guessed it—a green globe artichoke, not the brown tuber that should have been there. While I’m sure both are delicious with drawn butter and garlic, only one was cultivated by Native Americans as a food source. Michigan artichoke farms are legendary, don’t you know? Almost as popular as our orange and banana orchards.

Seeing the wrong artichoke made me mistrust everything else in the museum. I left and never returned.

Decades ago, I took my mother to an outdoor living history museum where I worked. I showed her around and stopped at a field where a coworker was plowing with a horse.

My mother was raised on a family farm in Eastern Kentucky and knew about plowing with mules the same way I know about using typewriters: she grew up with it. She stood there quietly for a few minutes.

I didn’t say anything, knowing she didn’t need an explanation.

Finally, she said quietly, “He hasn’t done this very much, has he?”

It was more a statement than a question. And she was right. It was a powerful reminder that our visitors often know more than we think.

It’s even more important to get it right when our visitors aren’t experts because they trust us. We need to be worthy of that trust, especially now as we face a global pandemic and a continuing assault on truth, science, and journalism. Once earned, trust must be guarded. If the greater narratives museums present are to be believed, accuracy in all things—to the best of our ability—should be our goal. No detail is too small.

The memory of my mom’s observation has stayed with me throughout my museum career—a constant reminder of the importance of developing skill and understanding process in addition to having the right stuff.

Although I don’t demonstrate historical skills as an interpreter any more, I do obsess over material culture details in my museum projects. When I don’t know, I find someone who does.

Mom isn’t around to comment on my work any more. But that innocent stock photo in a WordPress email brought it all back.

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Postscript – Most people now call # a hashtag, but in typewriter days, journalists used two “pound signs” centered on the page to indicate the end of the story. Because I have a few postscripts, however, it’s not really the end of the story!

Post Postscript – The typewriter in question is a 1970s Olivetti Linea 98 manual typewriter with a wide carriage, probably 27 inches. I did some searching and found other stock photos of the same typewriter from different angles (see below). No manufacturer name appeared in any of them, so I did what I always do at a dead end: I asked an expert! Thanks to Richard Polt for providing the ID. Here’s a link to his excellent typewriter website.

While I’ve critiqued this particular set of photos, the photographer does have some other beautiful images, all free. Here’s a link.

Post Post-Postscript – Interesting how things come full circle. In addition to her farming knowledge, my mom was an expert typist—80 words a minute her mid-50s Smith Corona portable—before arthritis robbed her fingers of flexibility. I learned to type on that machine and my sister still has it. I have the 1930 Remington Portable No. 3 that belonged to my dad’s mother. Both still work, although the Remington’s ribbon has dried out. (It was last changed when I was in high school, according to a methodical note on the ribbon box.) An old Dr. West’s toothbrush, used to clean the type was still tucked in the case. In 1938, Dr. West’s was the first brand to adopt nylon bristles, just a year after a Dupont scientist invented it. This one has nylon bristles, but because I’m not putting it in an exhibit I didn’t attempt to date the toothbrush. And yes—if I were, I would! It’s all about the details.

Post Post-Post-Postscript – A museum organization that can connect you to experts and teach you skills of bygone eras is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM). I’ve been a member since 1985, not long before my mom made her dry observation. And in another instance of things coming full circle, I just saw the call for proposals for ALHFAM’s 2021 Annual Meeting and Conference. The illustration is—you guessed it—an old typewriter! I’m happy to report it does have paper on the carriage.

For real this time:

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Judging Straightness

This summer I was asked to judge how straight people were. But it’s not what you think.

I was a judge in a plowing competition—plowing the old-fashioned way, with horses. A straight furrow is a point of pride with expert plowboys and plowgirls (or ploughboys and ploughgirls, for those who prefer the British variants).

It’s not that I have any particular skill in plowing, but the annual ALHFAM plowing competition was short a judge. (ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums.) When the chief judge, Bob Powell of the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland, asked me to help out, he said it was because I won the novice class a few years ago, and the next year—by virtue of having participated one time—got bumped up to the expert, or “fine” plowing class and took third place.

I reminded him that it had been a low-turnout year.

Nonetheless, I agreed to judge mostly because I hoped to extract bribes in the form of cold liquids. After all, we were in Farmer’s Branch, Texas in the scorching summer of 2012.

Da Judge

Why did I wear boots on a 100 degree day? I’m not from Texas!

We had three judges: one looking for consistent depth, one assessing style, and this humble plowgirl judging straightness. Keeping the plow going straight isn’t straightforward, pun intended. Changes in the soil, such as impacted areas or patches of clay, can turn the point, as can obstacles such as rocks. And it’s a little like backing up a trailer or piloting a boat with an outboard motor—you turn the opposite the direction you want to move. With a plow it’s more of a lean than a turn, but the concept is similar.

One contestant wore a dress, perhaps in a misguided attempt to sway the style judge. But the rules committee declared that attire—including the presence or absence of manly footwear—was not to be evaluated. And yes, we’ve had people plow barefoot before.

The more experience competitors have, the less instruction they receive from the plowing coach. All contestants were ably assisted by Bonnie and Max, a pair of Percheron draft horses, and Ken Murray who handled the reins and talked to his team. True experts working with their own teams can handle both the plow and the reins, but thankfully Ken wasn’t part of the competition.

When we got to the banquet where the awards were to be given, I found out that everyone got free cold beer, so all bribes were off. I introduced the ceremony with a little ditty I’d penned on the bus, sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Several ALHFAM members have asked for the lyrics. Why, I’m not sure. But here they are:

Oh say can you plow
When you do not know how?
While the judges hold court
And the horses are snorting?

The broad beam and bright share
Taken up on a dare,
While the road apples dropped
Were so bountifully steaming.

Yes the horse runs on grass!
No don’t look at his ass!
Keep your eyes on the dirt,
Best to not wear a skirt.

Oh say does that furrow
Look deep straight and true?
If it is, you win your class,
If it’s not, blame the ass!

One of the Canadian ALHFAM members asked me if it was disrespectful to appropriate the tune from our national anthem in this manner. I told him no, given that the tune started out as an English song celebrating wine, love, and poetry. Why can’t we celebrate beer, horses, and manure?

But in case some of you think I’m not sufficiently respecting America and/or plowing, here’s a poem written by Kentucky poet and author Jesse Stuart. It was published in 1934 in a collection of sonnets titled Man with a Bull Tongue Plow. He lived near where my mother grew up in eastern Kentucky, and near where my mom’s relatives (and my mom, when she was young) worked tobacco with mules for decades. Somewhere I have photos of one of my mom’s cousins in the tobacco with his mule team in 1977. If I can find them I’ll post them.

This is sonnet 10.

Hot summer days and we toil in the fields,
We hoe and plow tobacco, corn and cane,
We walk barefooted on mulch in the fields
Until the mulch is made mud by the rain,
When loose earth packs by rain we hoe again,
And when weeds grow we cut the weeds again.
Beneath the sun we watch the drifting skies,
We lift our hoes and look with sweat-dimmed eyes.
We watch the lazy drifting, drifting skies—
Tobacco leaves are pretty in the wind,
When all the weeds are cut around the stalks
And plows have cleaned the weeds well from the balks.
Tobacco plants are pretty in the wind—
Oh, prettier plants are harder now to find.
–Jesse Stuart

(Thanks to Derrick Birdsall for his photos, and for hosting a great conference.)