This is an update of an article we originally published in 2005. Additional links have been added, especially at the end of the article.
My grandfather made tools. So did my great-grandfather and his father and all his fathers before him back to a distant ancestral blacksmith working under a tree in medieval Scotland. This and my training as a historian and my current profession as a type designer, gives me an inevitable affection and reverence for legendary American artist Eric Sloane and all of the aspects of his work.
Eric Sloane was one of the most interesting artistic figures of the 20th century, even though in many ways his work harkened back to an earlier era. He was like the Howard Pyle of his generation, displaying a multitude of literary and artistic talents which came together in brilliant and unique works which stand alone as embodiments of the art and craft of design. Sloane was a remarkable landscape and skyscape painter — one of his sky murals graces the walls of the main hall at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum — but he is best known for his books on various aspects of history, craft and American tradition — books featuring not only his evocative illustrations, but his unique hand-lettered titles and insightful distillations of history and practical philosophy from the perspective of a craftsman.
Sloane was born Everard Jean Hinrichs in 1905 in New York City and began his study of art and letters as a child with his neighbor Frederic Goudy who is best known for his antique-style type designs, but taught Sloane the art of hand lettering and sign painting. Sloane left his family at the age of 14 and worked his way across the country and back as a traveling sign painter, much like renowned type designer Rudolph Koch who was much the same age and worked as a traveling sign painter in France and Germany between the world wars. If you’re ever in the Taos or Santa Fe area you may run across a weather beaten sign with his Sloane’s unique style of lettering still in use, as he spent a lot of time in the area and eventually settled in Santa Fe in his later years. On returning to New York as a young man Sloane became part of the Hudson River School of painters and produced an amazing 15,000 paintings in his career. He was particularly remarked for his skies which had a detail and realism which are reminscent of the work of Whistler and grew out of his lifelong fascination with the weather. Yet despite all this work it isn’t his excellent paintings for which Sloane is known, but the 38 books which he wrote and illustrated, starting with Clouds and Wind in 1941 and ending right before he died at the age of eighty with his memoir Eighty, An American Souvenir.
Sloane’s most familiar written works center on the history of every day things of the past, especially in the Colonial period – on aspects of rural life, rustic architecture, tools and craftsmanship. He had a fascination with barns and bridges and every manner of tool and farm implement. In his books he would tell their history, their use and their characteristics, accompanied by detailed drawings in his evocative, sketchy freehand style. Among his best books in this oeuvre are American Barns & Covered Bridges, The Museum of Early American Tools, An Age of Barns, The ABC Book of Early Americana (aimed at kids, but greatly informative for anyone) and my personal favorite, the remarkable and almost mystical A Reverence for Wood. All of these books are written in a clear and enjoyable style, with anecdotes from the past and bits of wit and wisdom thrown in gratis. In a book that is ostensibly about tools or woodworking you’ll encounter reminscences of Frederic Goudy, bits of obscure information about the latin origins of outhouse door symbology, historical trivia about George Washington’s taste in ice cream, or an explanation of what ligatures are and why they appear on New England gravestones.
Another of Sloane’s interests was the weather. He wrote a number of books about weather both for children and adults. These included a look at weather prediction and lore through history in Folklore of American Weather and Seasons of America Past, a general guide to weather in Eric Sloane’s Weather Almanac, notes on drawing clouds and skies in For Spacious Skies: A Meteorological Sketchbook and for kids The Weather Book and The Book of Storms. All are lavishly illustrated with both decorative sketches and excellent technical drawings. His explanations of how weather works are straightforward and easy to understand and include practical examples which are invaluable. There’s nothing better for the amateur meteorologist.
Sloane was also a bit of a philosopher, collecting wisdom from the past and generating quite a bit of his own. He emulated Benjamin Franklin in his two collections of essays and bon mots The Cracker Barrel and The Second Cracker Barrel, examined the thinking of the founding fathers in Spirits of 76 (written in honor of the national bicentennial) and other aspects of our history in Once Upon a Time: The Way America Was. He also collected the wisdom of past ages in The Do’s And Don’ts of Yesteryear: A Treasury of Early American Folk Wisdom which was originally published in two volumes but is now more easily available in a combined edition. He also produced several essentially biographical works, including I Remember America, Legacy and Eighty. And one of his most famous accomplishments was his discovery, editing and illustration of a touching federal period child’s diary written by a little boy named Noah Blake in 1805, which is still available in print as Diary of an Early American Boy. Through these works Sloane provides a remarkable glimpse of history, particularly of the late Colonial and early Republican period and a unique understanding of the lifestyles and thinking of those eras. He also expresses quite a bit of his own philosophy. Spirits of 76 is worth reading if only for his personalized reformulation of the Declaration of Independence as his Declaration of Self Dependence, summing up his admirable philosophy of personal responsibility and self-reliance. In his declaration he said of the work ethic:
- “I believe that self-dependence produces self-respect. Therefore, helping a man to be self dependent is an admirable pursuit. But helping a man while taking way his initiative and independence is degrading. Permanently doing for a man what he can do for himself is contrary and destructive to the American tradition. I believe in the dignity of labor and the pursuit of excellence. Therefore, I believe that striving for the most pay for the least amount of work is an immoral aim. It is a principle that cannot endure without eventual demoralization of the worker and decay of workmanship.”
An observation as true today as it was in 1976. You can read the full text of the declaration at http://www.ericsloane.com/declare.htm. To some Sloane may seem embarrassingly patriotic and unfashionably conservative, but the antique set of values he sought to preserve and apply to his life have a timeless quality and could make a huge difference in our society if more people subscribed to them today.
I’ve done my small part to preserve Eric Sloane’s legacy by designing a series of typefaces inspired by his sign and title lettering. Many of these are collected together in the Colonial Fonts Collection. Sloane’s lettering was true to traditional styles and sometimes even imitated old fashioned printed types, but he made them his own and the result was always original and dynamic. Fonts inspired by Sloane’s lettering include Bridgeport, Guilford, Queensland, Hesperides and Malagua. In each of these designs I’ve done my best to preserve the character of Sloane’s lettering. Hesperides and Malagua are a bit of a creative departure, but in the same vein as Sloane’s work. The others are very true to particular styles Sloane used frequently.
Eric Sloane is worth remembering, not just as a great landscape painter or a folk historian or an illustrator or a calligrapher, but as one of those rare people who embodied the classical ideal of virtue and is worthy of looking up to as an example. He held clear values and lived by them and incorporated them into every aspect of his life. Like the heroes of the Arts and Crafts movement he lived his art in every way. He wrote, designed, lettered and illustrated his own books, made his own furniture and even built his own homes – like William Morris and Howard Pyle before him – and he did it all with a singular devotion to craft and excellence. He shared his knowledge and accomplishments with others, and found a way to take the crafts he loved and turn them into a successful career. We may not all have the same set of skills which Sloane had, but we should all strive for the same kind of self-reliance and devotion to our craft, whatever it may be.
For more information on Eric Sloane visit his official, but not terribly current website at www.ericsloane.com or do a search for his books on Amazon.com. Also look at the website of the Sloane-Stanley Museum which started from Eric Sloane’s collection of antique tools and was enhanced by donations from the Stanley company. The museum itself is also worth a visit if you’re in the area and have a fondness for tools. There’s also a Sloane gallery/museum in Santa Fe, but aside from a very poor website information is limited. Sloane’s widow still lives in his hand-crafted house, ‘La Tierra’ outside of Santa Fe.
You can purchase many of Sloane’s books at Amazon.com from this page.
Eric Sloane’s 8800 square foot home in Santa Fe, Casa de las Nubes, is on the market again. The price has gone up to $2.9 million if you need a humble adobe dwelling.