Crafting a New Historian

Brian Taylor

December 05, 2012

When I finished my master's degree in American material culture (a field akin to museum studies, rooted in history and anthropology), in 2011, I didn't expect to spend a year making clothing.

But when my temporary archaeological position ended and no permanent work materialized in the cultural-heritage field, I fell back on what I knew. I had taught myself to sew historical costumes as a hobby over the past decade, and soon I was taking orders for clothing from museums, historical interpreters, and living historians (re-enactors). Rather quickly what I had conceived as a stopgap developed into a robust, full-time, freelance job. The pay was fair and, despite the lack of benefits, only a bit lower than that of an entry-level position at a museum.

I still watched the "real job" postings, but as the countless CV's and letters I sent out went unacknowledged by museums across the country, I wondered whether history was becoming a world of outworkers and jobbers cobbling together careers from short-term museum consulting and adjunct teaching positions. That's certainly what I was doing.

What did that mean for academic history, and what might my own unusual work in a historical craft, tailoring garments, say about the craft of history?

Craftsmen move from mimicry to mastery. Today most hobbyists and some professional artisans are at least partially self-taught. Few complete the years of apprenticeship once common in the trades. A tailor's apprentice of old worked under the eye of a master for several years; my masters were myriad and anonymous. They were the men and women who had assembled the historic garments I scrutinized and then replicated, stitch by stitch. With each new product, I moved closer to mastering materials and methods. That learning process took place in a world that threw up roadblocks at unexpected turns.

Both as a historian and as a craftsman, I constantly confronted the limitations of my evidence. Good historians interpret and speculate only as far as their material allows. As a tailor, I was confined to the techniques and materials that I could document in historic garments. A coat for an 18th-century historical interpreter, for instance, had to fit well but also had to be woolen and hand-sewn.

Nevertheless, the tailoring work I did could be as liberating as it was restrictive. There was always room for ingenuity and creativity within the realm of historical accuracy. It was often necessary to copy certain elements of an antique garment, like the cut and construction of a coat, while modifying other details, like its size and material. Sometimes I had only a single sketch or a written description to go by. I had to reconcile the impossible goal of perfect historical accuracy with evidentiary and circumstantial realities.

Despite all my careful work, and just as with the papers and articles I'd written as a student, I was never entirely satisfied with the results. I could always see the flaws in my work that my clients seemed to overlook. But the most surprising thing about my sewing work was how much intellectual activity it required. I was planning, doing research, hypothesizing, and problem-solving as much as I did as a student. Even during menial tasks, I was at work intellectually, thinking about other research projects.

Perhaps that is why so many historians I know happen upon their best ideas unexpectedly: while in the car, the garden, or the workshop. The cognitive overload of an academic life prevents us from being truly thoughtful. As Matthew Crawford has argued in Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009), there may be nothing more thought-provoking than confronting physical realities that defy our will.

And yet many young academics feel guilty about their hobbies, because any time away from the central mission of their lives—generating research seems like time misspent, or at least not purposive. Knitting and bicycling don't translate into completed articles and conference papers.

But these days, academic historians need to spend less time in the library and more time confronting the rigorously critical world of the nonacademic public. This isn't just about being able to write accessibly. It's about being able to relate to people who work at other jobs and have many interests. It helps if you do, too. If history is going to survive in a world increasingly unsympathetic to thought for thought's sake, we need practical historians who aren't ashamed of their pastimes. Those hobbies might be more relevant than you think.

Over the 2011-12 academic year, I did more sewing and less writing than I'd ever expected. But something was missing. When I was a master's student, all I wanted was to get out of the library and into the "real" world. But some days in the real world, all I wanted to do was visit libraries.

I applied for Ph.D. programs in history with some hesitancy, and when I was offered four years of graduate-student support in a program at a good institution, the choice to accept was still far from easy.

Was I ready to leave a job where I produced real things for immediate use in public history, to return to one where I produced papers for classes in anticipation of a payoff in the future?

Moreover, that payoff was uncertain. We all know that the supply of Ph.D.'s for jobs in the humanities far outweighs the demand. Perhaps following the advice of essays in The Chronicle and elsewhere, my advisers in the master's program had been honest about the dismal state of the job market for historians, even when my diverse work experience might have allowed me to apply to either academic or museum positions.

In thinking about whether to pursue a Ph.D. in history, I was well aware of the possibility that, in six or seven years, degree in hand, I would be right back where I started, sewing clothes.

What helped me make the decision was a conversation I had with a friend and colleague. Like most people who know me well, he thought that I would be better suited to—and better served by—the academic route. My friend and I discussed that if I wanted to engage with the academic field, teach at an institution, or even land a decent job at a museum, earning a Ph.D. was a prerequisite. I'm not expecting to find a tenure-track position, but I know I will enjoy the process itself.

I asked him, half-jokingly, if he thought I should be a doctor or a tailor. "Well," he said after a pause, "you can always be both."

Tyler Rudd Putman is pursuing a doctorate in the history of American civilization at the University of Delaware.