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Thursday June 08 2017

The Industrial Arts Books of Richard Roberts

This week I'd like to share a story about two high school text books written in the 1940s, one of the co-authors, and my connection to it all.

[IMG] The books are 'Industrial Arts' text books and were used for high school wood shop classes in Kansas and Oklahoma, although their reach may have extended further. They were written in the 1940s but because they were school text books they were reprinted several times and there are still a lot of them around. I found a lot of them on Amazon and eBay.

Naturally there are a lot of old shop books around, but what makes these special to me is that I am related to one of the co-authors. 'Units in Woodworking' (1946) and 'Projects in Wood Furniture' (1948) were co-written by J. H. Douglass & R. H. Roberts. Richard Roberts was my mother's uncle.

[IMG] R.H. Roberts died prematurely in 1947, age 49, after a 'protracted illness', according to the obit. He had been a director of a high school industrial education department and an administrative assistant of industrial and vocational ed in the public school system. In 1943 he was named to the War Manpower Commission as an area training supervisor and headed a program of training thousands of skilled workers over 13 counties in Oklahoma. Returning to Tulsa he went from his previous administrative assistant job to taking on the directorship itself.
Dusting those books off and waking up a ghost
[IMG] Since I was not born until 1954 I never actually met Richard Roberts and in fact it was not until many many years later that I even knew about his books. It's interesting to me that his focus was on Industrial Arts. Almost everyone on both sides of my family were carpenters of some sort going back at least 4 or 5 generations as far as I can ascertain. And I certainly got that gene.

After thumbing throught the books for a while I decided to take the books to work (the Home Depot) to show my co-workers and a few close customers. I wasn't sure what they would think of them. I thought that they might find them 'old timey' or look at the illustrations and laugh at how crude they were compared to today's printing standards. Or maybe they would give them lip service but really wouldn't be interested in a couple of old books. But I was pleased to find that in everycase the books actually held their attention while they thumbed through the pages of plans and the hand drawn tools. It truly seemed fascinating to them.

After I let them take it in for a few minutes I casually mentioned that these books were co-written by my mother's uncle, Richard Roberts. The tool guy at the Home Depot had just achieved some serious street cred.

[IMG] It began to dawn on me that a project from one of the books might make a good Christmas present for the right person. I didn't have much time so I chose the simplest project I could find to give to my mother as a present. I chose the simple 'Picture Frame and Pen Holder' (Units in Woodworking p.143).

I followed the original plans closely although it was set up as a fountain pen holder only and I made it a fountain pen and mechanical pencil holder.

[IMG] When I finally finished it I needed a temporary picture to set in the glass. I found a photo of my parents when they were very young as a temporary place holder. But as temporary things tend to go, it is still there.

Christmas came and I gave it to Mom. After she looked it over I asked her if she knew what it was. She knew it was a pen and pencil holder for her desk but when I told her it was made from plans from her Uncle Dick's book, her stunned reaction made the rush to finish it all worthwhile. At that moment I felt like a ghost had come back to life for a moment in that simple wood working project. I have to wonder how many years it's been since someone has made anything from those books. Ghosts indeed. Since then I haven't made anything else from the books since but I intend to someday.

Industrial Arts - Where did they go?
I took all of the Industrial Arts classes when I was in both middle school (we called it jr. high) and high school. Wood shop, metal shop, auto shop, drafting. And I took them every year. I never hear the phrase 'Industrial Arts' anymore and most of those class rooms are shuttered up and have been for a long time. Today I make a living selling tools at the Home Depot to people who don't know which end of a drill to hold on to.

Go figure.

A big part of my daily job when selling tools and hardware is to educate the customer. The most common thing I come across is people wanting to buy one cheap tool to fix their problem. They are sure that they will never use that tool again, hence, cheap. I try to explain to them why they need to start making a tool kit and not just buy a tool because one tool almost never fixes the problem. I try to impress upon them that they can buy the tools they need and own them, or they can pay someone like me to come and fix their (often small) problem at ten times the price of the tools that they could have owned.

My education in Industrial Arts has allowed me to collect a few tools and fix my own cars or most things around the house where ever I've lived. In Japan I was the manager of an old building that was used as a guest house for travellers and I had to adapt to the Japanese style of carpentry in order to keep the old building standing. I had to buy my own tools for that and when I returned to the US I brought them with me and continued using them by choice.

Industrial Arts was a program set up in schools to help the many students who were not going to be the next super geniuses. Jay Leno talks about this educational problem often. He says that not everyone was meant to be a math or computer wizard. Every day I'm amazed at the number of people who can't even use basic hand tools. When I was in school the ladies had to take a shop class and the guys had to take a semester of home economics. I don't expect every one of my customers to have the interest that I do, but this is valuable knowledge for everyday life.

Somehow, I think that I might have been Richard Roberts' best student.

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