On this day in 1858, the great American ethnographer Stewart Culin was born. Ethnography is the study of cultures from the outside. I have long had a great interest in ethnomusicology, especially as it relates to the music in America. Mack McCormick’s work in the south, for example, found amazing differences just a couple of miles away; for example, in one town everyone played the banjo, but in another close by town, no one did. Culin spent most of his life looking at the games played by various groups, although later in his life he became interested in dress.
He was completely self-taught. It reminds me of a line from the movie Quiz Show where a student asks Mark Van Doren what he is supported to learn from Don Quixote, and the professor responds, “It means: if you want to be a knight, act like a knight.” People waste whole lives waiting for permission to do things. That’s what higher eduction is all about—especially the PhD. More than showing that you’re learned, it is about showing that you are one of the guys.
I was thinking about that last night as I was researching, Inequality Has Been Rising Steadily for 50 Years. The work was relatively simple and I made simplifying assumptions. But I know exactly how to do it as well as any PhD economist. It’s just that it would have taken a lot more time, and I’m not that interested. I got the results I wanted. Now it just so happens that I have a PhD and in a field that is kind of related to economics—physicists and economists are generally bound by their love of differential equations. But the truth is that anyone with a basic understanding of mathematics and an interest could do the same work.
And that was the case with Stewart Culin: he was smart and he was interested. And he managed do an amazing amount of work. He became involved in several ethnographic groups in his twenties. That’s one of the great things about that period of time. There was no television or radio, so people started groups with others of similar interests. It was the great age of the amateur. Now it is the great age of the conspiracy theorist. In this way, we have certainly slipped. But Culin rather quickly became a professional: first as the Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Paleontology and then as the curator of Ethnology at the Institute of Arts and Sciences of the Brooklyn Museum.
His major work was Games of the North American Indians, a 900 page tome that divided the games into those of chance and those of skill. He did much the same with various other cultures, including those in Africa and especially Asia. Although he continued to study ethnic games all his life, he branched out into decorative art, furniture, and fashion. He seems to have worked pretty much to the end, when he died at the age of 70 in 1929.
Happy birthday Stewart Culin!