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Guest Host: Ray Suarez
From Revolutionary War militias to cowboys of the Wild West, guns are often associated with American history and identity. But a new examination of gun industry archives reveals that marketing strategies helped promote these narratives. Gun sales dwindled after the civil war. In an effort to increase sales, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and other businesses helped promote a widespread love of guns through advertisements. And salesmen marketed firearms as essential to self-reliant Americans. Guest host Ray Suarez speaks with historian Pamela Haag about her new book on the history of U.S. gun culture.
- Pamela Haag A historian; her writings have appeared in American Scholar, N-P-R and Slate
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted with permission from THE GUNNING OF AMERICA, by Pamela Haag. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.
MR. RAY SUAREZThanks for joining us. I'm Ray Suarez sitting in for Diane Rehm. Historian Pamela Haag started looking through gun industry archives because of a ghost story. While living in New Haven, Connecticut, she heard about Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. According to local legend, Sarah was convinced she was haunted by the ghosts of rifle victims. Historian Haag began investigating.
MR. RAY SUAREZWhat she found became the basis for her new book. The title is "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture." Author Pamela Haag joins me in the studio. Great to have you.
MS. PAMELA HAAGThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
SUAREZNow, how did Sarah who didn't know anything about breach loading or repeating or cartridges or anything of the kind get you to this major American, this inventive early industrial revolution industry?
HAAGWell, that's a good question. When I started my work on this book, I had never owned a gun, never shot a gun even and I hadn't been involved in gun control politics. And as you said, I was lured in by the story of Sarah Winchester. She captivated me. The idea that someone could feel so stricken by conscience because of the rifle fortune. But she was an elusive figure historically. I looked into her, set the project aside to work on another one and then Sandy Hook happened and my mind wandered back to the figure of Sarah Winchester.
HAAGBut this time, I thought perhaps I was starting with the wrong end of the story and that for as mysterious as Sarah's story was, even more mysterious was the story of the gun industry and of Oliver Winchester and of the men who made the guns that made the gun culture.
SUAREZYou mentioned Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Connecticut was kind of the Detroit of guns, wasn't it?
HAAGYes. Absolutely. Connecticut Valley, including New Haven, was really the epicenter for the gun industry and for industry writ large. And the individuals who pioneered the gun industry, at first, had as much enthusiasm for the first generation of industrial technology as Silicon Valley would have for its technology today.
SUAREZSo the idea that Sarah was stricken by conscience, that we was obsessed with the people who had been killed by the guns produced by her family didn't quite pan out, but you found a more fascinating story when finding that it didn't pan out.
HAAGExactly. There was a wealth of information about the gun industry, very little about Sarah, but I ended up feeling that that was more the mystery that I wanted to solve because I knew absolutely nothing going into this about sort of more of the material history of guns. Very basic questions. Who made them? Why did they make them? Did they find it an easy business, a challenging business? Some of the very foundational questions that underlie our gun culture today were elusive and a mystery to me.
HAAGSo I rolled up my sleeves and started in on a project that I thought would take less time than it did and there's the book.
SUAREZPamela Haag is the author of "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture." We'll be taking your comments, questions throughout the hour. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. Let's go back to the beginning of the 19th century. A gun was something made, what, by hand and one at a time?
HAAGYes. Very much so. In the craft phase of the gun production, gunsmiths made guns one at a time, each one was quite unique. They were difficult to make, could take weeks to finish one and they were not uniform so you couldn't swap out parts. If your gun broke, you needed to take it to a gunsmith to get it repaired. So this was an obstacle. And the guns themselves were heavy, difficult to use, tended to be very inaccurate so there were...
SUAREZAnd expensive, too.
HAAGYes. Most households would repair guns before they would buy a new one and that was a large share of a gunsmith's business. But gunsmiths were more on the blacksmith or whitesmith line so if they didn't have guns to work on, then they could switch over to locks or forks. There are these very amusing advertisements that go on for lines and lines for gunsmiths listing everything that they could make. So to be a gunsmith, most often, was to be something else as well.
SUAREZHasn't much of the scholarly work looking at 19th century Americans, going over wills, the records from estates sales, inventories of 19th century households found that guns were not at all the ubiquitous item that they're portrayed as?
HAAGYes. This is a really interesting question and theme for colonial historians. They really struggle to quantify how many guns Americans actually had to say nothing of the shape that those guns were in. And so historians have looked at a variety of sources from that period. They've looked at probate records. They've looked at inventories and the estimates vary. Most of the estimates that I've read say that maybe it could've been upwards of half of households in the northern colonies had guns.
HAAGMaybe less than that. The south was more heavily armed and some of those estimates might go up to two-thirds. But it's important to know that there really isn't a way to know for certain how many guns we started with or in what shape those guns were in.
SUAREZSo we're sort of in a pre-mass production era. Then, enter Eli Whitney, Remington, Winchester, Colt and others in and around Connecticut. They came from other walks of life, from other industries, from other products and began to mass produce the gun. Well, you mentioned Silicon Valley earlier. Was it that concentration of expertise, of people who knew how to do things?
HAAGYes. That's very important in understanding why the Connecticut Valley became the gun bread basket. Their skilled labor and skilled ingenuity, expertise kind of clustered in New England and in Connecticut. What's really interesting to me, that surprised me in the archives, just how each one of the names that we kind of associate with guns today, you know, the iconic guns, Colt and Winchester and Remington, they started doing other things.
HAAGOliver Winchester was born in Massachusetts in 1810. Then, he builds his first fortune as a men's shirt manufacturer. He is misremembered as the inventor of the Winchester repeater rifle, but his actual inventive contribution to America was a patent in 1848 for an improved men's shirt collar that remedied the evil, in his words, of the too tight neckband. So far as we know, he had never actually displayed a gun or even owned a gun before he made a fortune off of sending millions of them into the world.
HAAGAnd he was a very pragmatic person. He wanted to make something to sell by machine and he very unromantically once described the gun as a machine made to throw balls.
SUAREZWell, which, I guess...
SUAREZ...at its essentials, it is, but if we had put Oliver Winchester to work at a bench, here's a guy who he couldn't make a rifle barrel or assemble all these pieces, could he?
HAAGNo. And in fact, Eli Whitney, who in 1798 took on the first contract to make 10,000 muskets for the government, wouldn't have been able to make a gun either. And some of his critics in the early 1800s would insult him by saying, well, you're not even a gunsmith, which was technically true, yet he had made 10,000 guns. So this was the simple, but seismic shift in vision that lead to the gun industry.
SUAREZOoh, a very 19th century conversation about capitalists and craftsmen and what the differences are. But here, we see men who put people to work who do know what to do and plant the seeds for an American industry.
HAAGThat's right. The people who worked for Eli Whitney and filled this contract knew how to make parts of guns so they didn't know how to make the entire thing, but they did know how to make parts. And this breaking up of the gun and the process into smaller parts, of course, was a prerequisite for industry.
SUAREZI'm Ray Suarez. Coming up, more of our conversation on "The Diane Rehm Show" with author Pamela Haag. We're talking about the development of the American gun industry. Oh, well, so give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Pamela Haag is the author, she's a historian. Her writings have appeared in American Scholar, NPR and on Slate. "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture."
SUAREZStay with us. No, continue talking. Well, I missed -- here, let me tell you, in the interest of real transparency, I went too early to a called for break and planned to have a lot to say to Pamela Haag right after said break, but it's one of those things that if I asked her a question right now, she wouldn't actually have time to answer it because the real time for the break would, in fact, arrive. Is it here yet? I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SUAREZWelcome back. I'm Ray Suarez, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm talking with historian Pamela Haag, the author of "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture." Our number, we want you to give us a call, is 800-833-8850, excuse me, 800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com, or find us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. You mentioned Eli Whitney and the 10,000 gun contract. There is no gun industry without the government as a buyer in the 19th century, is there?
HAAGAbsolutely right. Today the gun carries a pretty powerful anti-government mystique, and we think about the gun customer, we usually envision, I'm thinking of Buffalo Bill or Charlton Heston, you know, an individual citizen buying guns. That's not the crucible of the gun industry. It required a huge amount of labor and capital to get up machines to start to produce guns like this. And without the guaranteed market and business from the government, that never would have happened. There simply wouldn't have been adequate demand for any adventuresome entrepreneur to get up the machines to begin to do this. So really the crucible of the commercial gun industry was very much the U.S. government.
SUAREZAnd other governments around the world, right?
HAAGTo me this is one of the most fascinating and revelatory findings from the gun archive. I was so surprised by the importance of non-U.S. international markets in keeping the gun industry alive in the year before and after the Civil War. After the Civil War, demand was abysmal in the United States. The gun industry collectively was fighting to stay alive. And really what saved Samuel Colt before the war and then Remington, Smith & Wesson and Winchester after were these prodigious sales almost everywhere but the United States.
HAAGColt survived selling to the tsar of Russia. Smith & Wesson had a five-year contract in the 1870s to do the same. Remington sold 145,000 rifles to France, as well as over 370,000 total to countries that ranged from Egypt to Spain to Peru, Cuba, Mexico. Oliver Winchester himself very much stayed in business, when he was tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, first with a sale to the Juarez revolutionary forces in Mexico in 1866, which went to the border in oxcart, crossed the border in an oxcart with his enterprising international salesmen, and then with a contract for 20,000 guns for the Ottoman Empire, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1870.
HAAGSo really for all of the iconic names in the American gun industry, the non-U.S. international commerce was absolutely critical to their survival, and I think that's all but forgotten today. So when we think about America having this unique gun pathology or this unique attachment to guns, I think it's really important to consider the business perspective that this was part of a global commerce. This was part of an international economy.
HAAGSo we weren't the only ones. It wasn't just us and our guns. We were also arming the world, and that business was absolutely vital.
SUAREZEven if you have the most passing familiarity with the history of the 19th century, there are revolutions and colonial wars all over the world.
SUAREZLatin America, Asia, Africa, the tensions around the Mediterranean on both the north shore and south shore, Eastern Europe, empires pushing up against each other. It sounds like there were many wars where the two sides were shooting at each other with hardware made in Connecticut.
HAAGAbsolutely. Connecticut was, I think I said earlier, the breadbasket, the gun breadbasket to the world. "Scientific American" estimated in 1881 that there wasn't a single arm (unintelligible) internationally that wasn't of American origin. There was perhaps one. So really by the 1880s, I would be hard pressed to name any country that hadn't been touched by American arms of some kind.
HAAGAnd it's interesting because when you get into the archive, the evidence of this international gun economy shows up not only on the bottom line of the business but in these quirky places. You know, I'd be reading the local papers from tiny Ilion, New York, where the Remington factory still operates today, and the social pages would be about these lavish banquets that were held for the Spanish ordinance commission and articles on getting to know the Egyptian's arm inspector.
HAAGSo every single one of these businesses was deeply enmeshed and very necessarily enmeshed in this international, globetrotting gun economy. Oliver Winchester had salesmen who were jotting down notes on potential markets from Java to what we would call the Middle East today.
SUAREZ800-433-8850. Pamela Haag is with me this hour on the Diane Rehm Show. Give us a call or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. One thing that spurred these companies into action on the commercial side was the collapse in demand after the American Civil War.
HAAGThat's right, and the Civil War itself was a mixed bag. Colt did quite well, and up until the start of the war he was selling to both sides. He had no compunction about that. He was deeply critiqued by the New York papers for it and called a traitor, but he really exemplified the agnosticism of the modern gun-maker, which was, you know, you sell where you can, and you don't attach a sort of moral value to that.
HAAGWinchester was very much a Union man, but he did not actually get a lot of Civil War contracts. Most of his sales were just to individuals. And while that looked like bad fortune at the time, it actually turned out to be good fortune in the long run for him because the Civil War was like a gun finishing school for him. He learned all sorts of valuable lessons.
HAAGThe problem with war is that it's great volume of sales but then when the war ends, you're in trouble. You've overbuilt, you have more capacity to make more guns than you could possibly sell. So his arch-rival went bankrupt after the war. Oliver Winchester didn't have that problem, but for every single one of the gun makers, the post-Civil War years were a real crisis, and that did compel them very much to international markets.
HAAGThey had invested the capital in their machines, and they needed places to sell the guns.
SUAREZAnd the gun itself is a pretty durable object. If you care for it properly, once it's out there, it's out there, and when you're not fighting a war, we have a country that becomes awash in ordinance, I guess.
HAAGYes, that's right, that's exactly right. I mean, the equation, the business equation for a gun industrialist, a gun capitalist, was really brutal. These guns were well-made, they were built to last. A lot of them aren't used that often. So they had all of those built-in obstacles, and then there are also just questions of demand and how many guns did people need and which guns did they really want.
SUAREZI'm glad you mentioned the agnosticism because there's rarely a flicker, and I read the whole great big book, of implicit or explicit soul-searching, assigning of responsibility, connection by these industrial leaders between the business of making guns and what people do with them once they have them in their hands.
HAAGYes, that's right. That was something that I kept looking for the way you kind of feel around for a mission tooth. You know, I kept wanting to hear. I mean, by the 1930s, these guys are vilified as merchants of death, you know, but I wanted to know what they had to say for themselves. And I was really struck by the extent to which their worldview was very much cut from the laissez-faire, tend to your contracts, you know, tend to the parts, do business for a living, and ideally some kind of social good will emerge out of that.
HAAGWinchester was celebrated as a man of capital and character, you know, in the term of his day. He initially thought of his weapon as one for what he called the romance of war. So he was kind of tying it more to war, which was a fairly common attitude in the 1850s and 1860s. And he would talk about also what he called the moral effect of his rifle on the shooter. So he imagined that. You know, he imagined that his repeater rifle would create coolness and a sense of power in the shooter.
HAAGBut short of those kinds of judgments, he mostly looked at the product as perfect in the sense that it was mechanically meticulous and designed, and he saw it as a beautiful and blameless object.
SUAREZAnd what you did with it was on you, not on him.
HAAGRight. He had a very short view of conscience in that way. He wasn't troubled imagining what his doing did in the world.
SUAREZ800-433-8850. Let's go first to Rockford, Illinois. Ed, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
EDThank you. I just had something to say, that the comments so far have pretty much left out information regarding our independence from Great Britain. Without firearms and the manufacture and purchase of firearms, squirrel guns and so forth, we'd have stayed a British colony. And firearms have been used for defense, freedom and for food for -- throughout our history. Without firearms, we'd be a Nazi nation speaking German right now.
SUAREZEd with us from Rockford, Illinois. We'll next go to Corydon, Indiana. Cameron, welcome to the program.
CAMERONHi, thanks so much for having me on. I appreciate the fact of this show from day to day. And yeah, my comment, I'll try to be as brief as I can, I do believe that it is a person's Second Amendment right to own arms, and I believe that that's a responsibility to have to take very seriously for what it is, that yes, if you look at our pedigree as a nation, it helped us claim our independence from a tyrant. And I think there's a lot of fear-mongering on both sides right now on this issue, and I think that we need to back off and look at it clearly and see it for what it is.
CAMERONIt's like I said, you know, as a gun owner, which I am, you know, we need to do it very responsibly and very well.
SUAREZWere there anticipations of today's conversation about guns when the gun industry was rising to become a really big, high-tech, advanced American industry?
HAAGI'm inclined to say no, actually. I agree with the caller that guns have always -- there's always been a place for guns in this culture, and they have played these roles. But attitudes are not static. They've changed over time. And I would say in the 1800s, there was much more of an inclination to look at guns in a simpler way, as tools, used for a variety of things, like other domestic objects or objects of agriculture, hunting, and less of this attention to the gun as a totem or as something that symbolized deeper values.
HAAGSo I think the gun had somewhat less exceptional status in our attitudes in the 1800s, certainly, than developed in the 1900s. And as to the other caller, one of my interests in writing this book was to add to the conversation because today the talk about guns is very dominated by constitutional debates and the Second Amendment. And one of my points is a very simple one, which is that guns are not all about the Second Amendment.
HAAGThey are right now very deeply part of our political life, and that's become extremely polarized. But they were also part of our commercial life.
SUAREZI'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Author Pamela Haag is with me. She wrote "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Culture." If you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850. Or send an email to email@example.com. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
SUAREZWe go next to Carleton, Michigan. Cody is with us now from Michigan. Welcome to the program.
CODYHello, thank you very much.
SUAREZWhat's on your mind, Cody?
CODYI'm curious if modern gun culture as we know it today lends more to events in the 1800s and the ads of gun companies such as Winchester, Colt or Remington or more to popular media, of films from the 1900s, popular Westerns or gangster films.
HAAGThat's an excellent question, and that was one of my preoccupations in this book because the legends are such an important part of our gun culture today. And I was really curious about when they started. You know, were these things just inherent in American culture, this mystique, and when did it develop? And it's very interesting to note the explosion, the proliferation of these Western stories and tales not so much in the 1800s.
HAAGThey were definitely starting in the 1800s with the dime novels and the National Police Gazette, but if you look to the early and mid-1900s, you see this profound deepening and proliferation of all of the legends of the gunslingers. I mean, just to quantify that a little bit, there were 35 million paperback Westerns sold in the 1950s. Eight out of 10 of the top TV programs in primetime were Westerns. There were 1,400 Hollywood films released about cowboys, about gunslingers, from the late '30s through the 1960s.
HAAGOne of the things I did in research for this book was I took a bibliography of over 2,000 stories about gunslingers, and it was an annotated bibliography, and I just tried to figure out, well, when were these stories actually published. And shockingly all but about 241 of them hail from the 1900s. So one of the things I talk about in "The Gunning of America" is that a lot of the gun culture we have today really is a product of the 20th century talking about the 19th century and narrating the 19th century in the Cold War. And that's...
SUAREZBy doing so, mistelling that story?
HAAGWell, the pattern with these stories is exaggeration, which is unsurprising. From the very start, when the first article was published in Harper's about Wild Bill Hickok in 1867, Westerns tend to be a mashing together of a lot of fact and fiction. But with the Westerns, over time some of the fictions came to be treated as fact. So yes, these stories are all exaggerated and typically exaggerated in the same direction, toward overkill.
HAAGThe number of people thought to be killed by the hero is always overestimated. And they also change the quality of the gun violence. The stories tend to make the gun confrontation as one of honor or justice or virtue triumphing over vice, when most of gun violence in reality is about impulsivity, intoxication. It doesn't have this quality to it. So the gun stories tended to take senseless violence and narrate it so that it had more sense.
SUAREZSo the guy with the gun was often a good person.
SUAREZRestoring order and restoring the right way of things going. Coming up, your calls and questions for Pamela Haag. We'll be right back.
SUAREZWelcome back. I'm Ray Suarez sitting in for Diane Rehm. Historian Pamela Haag is with me, the author of "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture." Lancaster, Pa. is next. Kyle, welcome to the program.
KYLEHi. How's it going? Thanks for having me.
SUAREZWhat's up, Kyle?
KYLESo I just thought it was interesting, the comment at the beginning of the show mentioning kind of the friction between the craftsmen and the gunsmiths and then, like, the mass production, capitalist businessmen. 'Cause I -- I'm just coming from a gun show in North Carolina right now. And there's a bunch of gunsmiths and craftsmen and gun makers there that still make every piece of the gun by hand.
KYLEAnd they measure you and a year later you end up with a gun made specifically for you. And they cost upwards of $100,000. And I just find it really interesting that that kind of craft is still around and alive. And the people buying them aren't interested in kind of the mass produced cheap guns that you can buy today.
SUAREZKyle, thanks for your call. You know, you do write about those gunsmiths, the people who really knew how to make and put together a gun. They're kind of a cranky, independent and sometimes hard to handle bunch.
HAAGYeah, this was a rocky transition. And actually Lancaster County was a seat for the gunsmith craft in this age. That was a real hot bed for gunsmiths. So I should note that. The U.S. government wanted to put Harper's Ferry, particularly, on a system. It wanted to get these gunsmiths making guns to spec, measuring them very precisely, getting on board with the interchangeable production.
HAAGThese gunsmiths at Harper's Ferry were a really quirky lot. And they fought it tooth and nail. They were enjoying the gunsmith craft lifestyle. They would come and go as they pleased. They inherited the tools of their work. They drank on the job. You know, they had this wonderful setup and they resisted very much the imposition of this kind of industrial discipline.
HAAGIn fact, in 1830, the Ordnance had sent down a man named Thomas Dunn to get the Harper's Ferry gunsmiths on board. He ended up shot by a guy named Ebenezer Cox, one of the gunsmiths. And he was celebrated as a folk hero and sort of held up as, look, this is a warning. You come down here you're gonna get the same. So this process of moving into a gun industry was very jagged and actually violent at times.
HAAGAnd it really was, for the most part, the demise of an entire craft and a way of life. Although, I'm pleased to know that there are still gunsmiths make -- I didn't actually know that. That's very interesting.
SUAREZThe virtual email bag is filling up. So I'll root around in here for some notes. Amanda writes, "Is there a link between firearm advertisements and public health? The involvement of advertisements by the gun industry is reminiscent of the tobacco industry in the past and all of the health problems related to tobacco use, and the processed food industry of modern times and all the health problems related to obesity."
SUAREZThe gun ads that you show in the book, and those I've seen myself, dating from the 19th and early 20th century, nobody's dying in those ads. There's no blood, there's not even the puff of smoke that emanates from a -- either a long or short gun.
HAAGWell, I think the evolution of gun advertisement is absolutely fascinating. And I describe a lot of that in my book. First off, the gun industry was very attuned early on to market segmentation. In the 1870s and 1880s they knew how to appeal to very distinct gun cultures. You know, we talk today about a gun culture, but in fact, there were very heterogeneous, eclectic ways to relate to a gun in the 1800s. They'd appeal to hunters and shooting and fishing. They'd appeal to the military in the "Army and Navy Journal."
HAAGThey'd appeal to the farmer, the ordinary shooter, as the Winchester Company called him in "The American Agriculturalist" or "Rural New Yorker." So they're always very much on the cutting edge of advertisement. But a lot of those ads in the 1800s were about how the gun worked. By the time you get to the 1900s and the 20th century, more often than not, the ads are about how the gun makes you feel.
HAAGSo as America was moving into a post-frontier world in the 20th century, the ground was really shifting under the gun industry. And maybe things could have gone a different way. This was a post-frontier world. It was more urban, modern, sedentary and corporate. So how was the gun going to survive? How was it going to make this transition, if at all, into a 20th century world? And, as reflected in the gun advertisements and other artifacts, a lot of that transition had to do with the gun industry deepening the emotional values and the mystique of its product. And tapping in a much more emotionally charged way to potential customers.
SUAREZAnd heightening the sense that without a gun you're in danger, even as the frontier is closed, America's arguably becoming a more civilized closed-in, delineated, covered in roads and railroads kind of place. One ad that caught my eye in the book was of someone behind the wheel of a car, confronting a stranger who's standing on his own porch. And they're advising that motorist that it would be a good idea to have a handgun.
HAAGThat's right. "Automobilists be prepared," the caption reads. This was a cult ad. As the Western frontier was settled, the gun industry, quite naturally, as just part of doing business, sought new frontiers. And this was part of keeping the gun relevant. One of those frontiers was the highways, the new automobile culture. Others after World War I had to do with continuing the sense of insecurity and fear that Americans might have felt during the war.
HAAGCults made much out of the need for each man to protect his own house. They sought all sorts of new markets, new customers. They've been going after women as a market, really for about 160 years. And that continued after World War I as well. But the mood of these ads is very much about selling also intangible qualities of the guns. So a lot of them are tapping into the vocabulary of psychology and talking about unnatural instinct to own a gun or a boy's natural yearning to have one. And that's really something that is not dominate earlier. This is something that is very much about the 20th century marketing of guns, more than the 19th.
SUAREZ800-433-8850. Owen's with us now, right here in Washington, D.C. Owen, welcome.
OWENThank you. My question is about the role of veterans in marketing and whether or not, you know, you spoke very early in the show about the outflow of weapons from the United States. But in my experience, veterans coming back have a much more 18th century view of a gun as a tool and a more moderated view. It seems mostly to be a totem among those who are sort of unfamiliar with its role, either at an agrarian level -- I own a gun myself for hunting -- or at a military level where it's exclusively for the act of killing. Have you seen in advertising any shift over time or at least the population that's being advertised to being based on large events or…
HAAGYeah, no I -- that's a really good question. I think the gun was much more tied, as the caller is saying, to a kind of marshal culture/war culture in the 1800s. And then in the 1900s, particularly with the Winchester Company, which is the focus of my book, they start grouping guns more with discretionary objects, like luxuries. One of the sources that I like the best in the archives was the internal confidential sales bulletins that the company sent out about how to market guns and how to close the deal.
HAAGAnd in the early 1900s, they're shifting very much more toward sell this gun like you would a Packard automobile or golf clubs or diamonds. In one memorable bulletin they compared the gun to fancy liquor and said, well, how -- what can we learn from the liquor people about how to do stimulate demand. So the imperative here -- and it's in keeping with industry generally in the 20th century -- wasn't just to appeal to the built-in market, the people who needed a gun, wanted a gun.
HAAGIt was to stimulate demand, not just fulfill pre-existing demand. But to create new demand, to always be pushing up against the existing demand and going beyond it. And that definitely did reorient the gun more as an urban object or something you'd have as a luxury item.
SUAREZBut piggybacking on Owen's question, there is a marshal component to the encouragement of the gun culture in the United States, because weren't there people who bemoaned the fact that young American men, for instance, didn't know how to shoot anymore. So if we had to mobilize for another conflict, we'd have a bunch of city slickers with concaved chests who don't know how to strap up and fire a firearm.
HAAGRight. One of the -- there's an industrial manufactural bureau that sort of represented the voice of the gun industry in the 1920s. And one of their press releases to support the gun industry said, look, if we don't have guns we're turning into a nation of lounge lizard anemics. So we need these guns. So that has definitely been an undertow in a lot of the gun advertising. And it was also one of the reasons for the genesis of the NRA.
SUAREZWe talk about the gun industry almost as a passive observer. But weren't they in there up to their eye teeth, for instance, encouraging these movies, encouraging these novels, doing cross promos with the makers of these stories? Cooperating and then sometimes being at odds with the early NRA and its later reiteration.
HAAGOh, that's right. I mean, the -- I talk about the gun industry's visible hand. And I would never say that the gun industry was creating gun demand. That would be absolutely wrong. It would be an overstatement. But they are a forgotten part of our gun story. And they're an untold part of the story. A lot of the transition to the -- into the 20th century, the gun really needed to be sold in new ways. It needed to find new value. The gun industry had a central role in doing all of that and in deepening the gun mystique that is so much a part of gun politics and gun culture today.
SUAREZThat's Pamela Haag. She's the author of "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture." I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Flintstone, Md., is next. Larry, welcome to the program.
LARRYThank you. Thank you. Really interesting show. I had a question about gun culture in the U.S. versus Europe and the extent to which the advertising or behaviors of the manufacturers have influenced that. And clearly, Europe has had and continues to have a very strong firearms manufacturing capability.
HAAGWell, the United States is today the most heavily armed civilian population. The estimate probably around 300 million guns. I do think it's important to recognize, though, that really the United States was the first comer to the gun industry. And to some extent a lot of European countries became a little more dependent -- they started out being the really strong gun makers, particularly in Belgium and Gunsmiths Row and Birmingham, England. But they came to rely, to some extent, on the U.S. gun industry, which meant that some of the pressures to keep the gun industry alive weighed more heavily in the U.S. than in Europe.
HAAGSo, for example, in World War I, before the Winchester Company even began war contracts for the United States, they were doing the lion's share of the Enfield rifle production for the British. They -- British simply did not have the ability to produce. Then when we first considered federal firearms legislation in 1934, the fact that the United States government itself had become so dependent on private manufacturers for public defense needs, became a very powerful argument against having any regulation of the commercial market.
HAAGThe argument was that these companies cannot stay in business, you know, through commercial sales, they can't stay in business just sitting around waiting for wars, as the war department described. So one of the points in my book is that there's always been this really tangled military industrial complex relationship between the government and the commercial gun manufacturers that didn't just start in the Cold War.
HAAGThat actually goes back way to the beginning and a critical juncture, you know, in World War I and in the 1920s and '30s. The fact that the United States had become very dependent on the commercial gun industry for public defense really became a powerful argument against the proposed gun control legislation.
SUAREZLarry, thanks a lot for you call. We have time for one more. We'll go to Greensboro, N.C. Harrison, welcome.
HARRISONThanks for having me on. I had a question. You'd -- earlier you had said that, you know, with Winchester, they manufactured parts. You know, they basically just wanted to machine something. And then you later said that they, you know, these gun manufacturers had struggled after the war. And I -- it made me think of this book by Witold Rybczynski called "One Good Turn: The History of the Screw and the Screwdriver. (sic)"
HARRISONAnd Rybczynski traces the history of the screw and the screwdriver back to a part in a gun where some threaded part needed to be unscrewed. And so another part of the gun detached and, you know, unthreaded that. And I was wondering if you came across in your research any other products or, you know, patents that these companies would come up with that took off or helped them, you know, in their -- I don't know -- in their commerce.
SUAREZThere was a lot of transferable technology, wasn't there? I mean, they had to do something when they weren't making guns, right?
HAAGRight. Well, Remington was the firm that most often retooled and converted. As they would apply the machinery when they weren't fulfilling military contracts to make everything, from plows to sewing machines. So, again, the emphasis really was on how do we machine things. How do we make things by machine? So there was definitely a lot of transfer there. And also a lot of transfer of technology between textiles. Textile industry and the gun industry in its early days. Remington actually was very wedded always to fulfilling large-scale military contracts.
HAAGAnd they kind of missed the transition at first to a commercial gun market and went bankrupt in 1886. Then were sold to a gun trust, of which Winchester was one part, in 1888 and rechristened as the Remington Arms Company.
SUAREZDid you find yourself understanding guns, gun culture, gun making, the use and ownership of guns in a different way by the end of the project -- and this is a massive piece of research and writing -- then you entered when you first were sort of following up the tale of Sarah Winchester?
HAAGVery much so. My ideas about it couldn't have been more transformed. I think I started this project with probably the images that most people start with, that guns -- it's kind of a historical feud almost. I mean, our gun culture is about the Minuteman and it's about Daniel Boone and John Wayne and the tragedy of Columbine. And these things kind of mash together into one sense that guns that are just -- that gun culture's timeless and inevitable and it's always been here.
HAAGAnd when I rolled up my sleeves and I got into the industry archive, I saw how much it's changed over time, and how much the gun industry itself shaped that culture.
SUAREZPamela Haag is the author of "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture." Thanks for coming over and joining us.
HAAGThank you so much.
SUAREZJoin us next time for "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Ray Suarez sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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