Pedal Powered Anthropology occupies a strange niche within the broad spectrum of what can be considered academia. My focus during my undergrad was biological anthropology, and I had spent over a decade studying it before even starting school for it. And then within that umbrella, my focus, such as there can be one at that level, was more or less hominins that straddle the Pliocene/Pleistocene epochs. Basically I was looking at the base of the human family tree and trying to make sense of what critters were most like us and which get relegated to the outskirts of humanity’s cousins. It’s an odd thing to be so narrowly focused during an undergrad, but I did some legitimate work and even found hominin remains in Kenya back in 2013.
I came home to a life that wasn’t what I left, and to be honest, what I left wouldn’t have been what I had wanted anyway. And the next couple years were kind of adrift as far as career direction goes. I spent some time trying to get the anthropological career I aspired to have to jive with the lifestyle I wanted to lead. Eventually I settled upon Pedal Powered Anthropology. In all its weirdness.
I’ve lost a lot of what I knew about our early ancestry. It’s still in there somewhere, it’s just occupied by a lot of other stuff that I never anticipated being very interested in but apparently can’t stop publishing on. I’ve moved topics quite a bit as I got excited about his, that or the other, and as tried to find a way to get this to potentially uproot some funding from the ether. I’ve developed what I (and others) think is a pretty novel approach to research, publication, and presentation.
I started with pictures accompanied by a paragraph or two. That moved quickly to blogs. That graduated to short videos, which in turn graduated to feature documentaries. Documentaries are a wonderful way to present information but work a bit better (for me) when there’s some kind of narrative. In Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution we ultimately learned about a single but major labor strike that brought the textile industry to a halt. It required a broad understanding of the American Industrial Revolution and why it was that Rhode Island took to and stuck with textiles. So there was a story there. A background, start, point, resolution, and epilogue.
It got some criticism in terms of scope, content, and quality, but as a rookie production it did very well. The Museum of Work and Culture and National Park Service, as well as about a dozen libraries and historical societies around Rhode Island and academic media distributors as far as California would seem to agree with me on that.
The same can be said to some extent for all of the other documentary projects I’ve done, with my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology and The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment videos getting the most traction out of anything I’ve put on YouTube to date.
Pedal for Pongo was sort of a dud in some respects. I put the most amount of work into planning, outlining, networking, editing, and finally producing that one but as it wasn’t Rhode Island history, Rhode Islanders weren’t so excited (they’d come to expect industrial history from me). It would’ve gone over well with the environmental crowd and the Audubon Society was scheduled to screen it but then COVID ended the world for a bit there and it was back to the drawing board.
This time I had to take my well-received approach to cultural history presentations and get it to fit with Things My Audience Cares About while also functioning in the post-apocalyptic landscape that was trying to do archival research during a pandemic.
This is how I found cast iron. I’ve written a bit about it, contributed legitimately to the hobby, and have built a reputation for being both knowledgeable and helpful. Early on my focus turned to 19th century iron and I wanted to try and make a timeline for a specific handle style while also scratching my head about regional foundries and wondering if there was a way to attach any iron to them.
As happens with my projects, we need context. That timeline needed background and justification. I find this happens a lot as I enter topics as a non-specialist and so have to present a solid background both to establish myself as knowing what I’m talking about…as well as simply to know what I’m talking about. It quickly became apparent that this was a different kind of project and research landscape than I was used to.
Cast iron is an odd hobby, and the genuine historical research being done at the very base of it is weirdly not very mainstream, if mainstream is even the correct term here. There is a LOT of information, and it’s widespread. My previous stuff wasn’t so disparate. Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution drew from some sources in England for some early background, but for the most part it was all in Little Rhody.
This one, though. There’s a lot of stuff digitized by google or by loads of institutions. But remember when I said I was interested in regional ties? Well…each region is going to have its own trove of information. There’s a lot online, but a lot more that isn’t. And that’s where it started to get tricky. It was difficult to find my way around and as I got more and more invested in this research, I found some intense resistance to distributing this information.
It wasn’t often, wasn’t many people, and I’m not going to name any names. But for whatever reason there is some serious gatekeeping in the world of cast iron. And honestly I’m torn between being sort of spent on dealing with personalities, and being strengthened in my resolve to research and freely share what I find.
There is kind of a vacuum in this hobby and I’ve spent the last couple of years compiling materials for a book that will hopefully build a foundation of understanding regarding the history underlying cast iron cookware. There’s a lot of it and it’s kind of hard not to be drawn into it all. But colloquially there’s been more myth and supposition than facts supported by hard research. And there are also a lot of people who repeat garbage information because it’s what they learned and they consider themselves to be well-read.
Well, hopefully this book will address that all. I don’t think it’s nearly a comprehensive resource but it gives an overview of the ingenuity and labor history throughout the 19th century along with how to tailor much needed research to your area and conduct it effectively. There are a lot of tools within the book for identifying different pieces of cast iron as well as combating shady sellers who would gladly lie to you to make a premium. I don’t know what kind of impact this book is going to have but I can only believe that an informed hobby is infinitely better off than an ignorant one.
This book, called The Cast Iron Field Guide: Researching 19th Century Cast Iron Hollowware and How to Identify it in the Wild, will be available for sale on Amazon tomorrow, July 2, 2022 in both print and electronic forms. It will also be available on my web store about mid-month once my stock comes in. I’ll add relevant links to this post ASAP.
It’s an odd feeling growing over here. The most in-depth project I’ve undertaken has gotten me blocked on Facebook by at least one person (someone with whom I’ve never spoken and who certainly hasn’t read the book) and another, with whom I was at least friendly if not friends, has stopped talking to me. I’ve never encountered this type of reaction, sight unseen, to anything I’ve done before. It’s leaving an odd taste in my mouth as we continue to pack up our life in the United States and get ready to settle in the Old World.
It’s certainly the last project that will be completed before the move. I’ve begun drafting another book (on the Barstow Stove Co., which you can read a bit about at that link) and honestly may have enough information to actually write the entire thing at this point. But it’s not going to be started in any real capacity till after we’re settled, which can take some time.
Going forward I’d like to think I’ve gotten Pedal Powered Anthropology back on track to become a serious career in public anthropology. I know that Germany only has more to offer in terms of topics and access to them, so I’m really hoping for a lot more awesome stuff in the near future.
2 thoughts on “Weird Wild World”
Just got your book
Cast iron field guide.
Awesome! I appreciate the support and hope you get a lot out of it.