Image: Winslow Homer’s The Whittling Boy

Carving utilitarian items from wood is a well known and well respected skill, but was mere whittling to pass the time with no inclination to “make” something useful during the process known in earlier times? You bet. In fact, the very definition of whittle as found in Abel Boyer’s Dictionaire Royal, Francois-Anglois was, “to whittle a stick”, no mention of skill or craft or of producing anything useful. – 1719. Amsterdam.

“Boys making mud walls, Men whittling wood, and our patching up Pamphlets, are all from the same principle; a simple inclination to do something”. – Stevens, George Alexander. Tom Fool’s History. 1761. London.

“I had occasion frequently to notice this philosophic repose of character, which I can only account for by ascribing it to that universal practice of ‘whittling,’ which is so prevalent with the people of this Western World. If a man has only a knife and a stick, he bids defiance to time, and all the ordinary accidents of traveling. He sets himself down, and snips away till nothing is left; and then, after appearing uneasy about something or other, gets himself another stick, and commences again with renewed vivacity. I used to admire the captain of one of the boats in which I came down the Ohio, who would fasten his vessel to a stump or post, at some little town on the bank, and stand confabulating with some tall fellow in a chip hat for hours together, each with a knife and a stick, whittling away, and settling some mysterious business which nobody could fathom. Not a soul on board seemed in the least put out by this delay, and I could not forbear applauding this quiet resignation, so favorably contrasted with that desperate and inordinate passion for locomotion which animates our Northern people, more especially those who have least to do with their time in this whizzing, whirligig world”. – Graham’s American Monthly Magazine. April 1843. Philadelphia.

“Whittling consists in chipping up wood with a knife. This pastime is very much in vogue in the States. It is not unusual to meet on the high-road, and even indoors, with Yankees busy whittling, while engaged in business or in conversation. Even in Congress, senators have been seen keeping their energy by this whittling. When by any accident they run short of bits of wood, they apply, themselves to furniture or posts. We have seen, in St. Louis, the wood pillars of a public building almost entirely cut through by this American habit”. – Brenchley, Julius. A Journey to Great-Salt-Lake City. 1861. London.

Books and magazine articles through the 1820’s and 1830’s commonly describe whittlers slicing away at furniture, door and window frames, and support posts.

Indeed, the Americans were so devoted to mindless whittling, that, “So proverbial have we become, among foreigners, in this respect, that, if a Yankee is to be represented on the stage, you find him with a jackknife in one hand, and in the other a huge bit of pine timber, becoming every moment smaller, by his diligent handiwork. If he is talking, arguing, or more appropriately, if he is driving a bargain, you find him plying this, his wonted trade, with all the energy and desterity of a beaver; and, as it was once said of an English advocate, that he could never plead, without a piece of packthread in his hands, so the Yankee would lose half his thrift, unless the knife and wood were concomitants of his chaffering.” – The American Institute of Instruction. Lectures, Discussions, and Proceedings. Vol. 11. 1841. Boston.

At what point in time did whittling go out of fashion? I’m not sure it has. As a child, I had my own knife and an ever-ready supply of sticks to chip away at. I never attempted to redesign my mother’s furniture for fear of the old Southern tradition of being told to go pick a switch with which she could dole out a stinging punishment for my indiscretion, but on occasion, when I had misbehaved in some other manner, I had the knife with which to cut a switch big enough to satisfy mother while yet sufficiently small enough to do the least amount of damage to my back side. – thehistoricfoodie.wordpress.com©

Note: After this article posted, a reader pointed out that pegs were whittled for various purposes. That goes without saying. My goal was to show that many people did whittle just to pass the time, not to say that useful items weren’t carved or whittled also.