Bang, Bang etc.
The legend of Sarah Winchester, the troubled heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, intrigued Pamela Haag. She learned of this mysterious tale while earning her doctorate in history from Yale in 1995.
Sarah was the daughter-in-law of Oliver Winchester, a shirt manufacturer who transitioned into making firearms, building an immense factory in New Haven in 1866. She would remain a major stockholder in the company until 1921, when it passed out of family hands.
After the murders in 2012 of 20 children and six staffers at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, Haag decided to examine America's deep affinity for guns — how it came to be and why "we have an intractable gun problem" when most developed nations do not.
Her newly published book, "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture," (Basic Books, $29.99, 496 pages) explores the subject from the historical perspective of the people who made the guns. Oliver and Sarah Winchester are main characters in this saga.
Oliver prospered in New Haven, and his Winchester rifles became iconic in American lore, toted by the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley and President Theodore Roosevelt.
In tracing the history of gun manufacturing and marketing, Haag mines the archives of Winchester, which sold more than 8 million guns and countless bullets in its 150 years, and not just to Americans. She writes that foreign customers — among them both sides in a Mexican civil war, the Ottoman Empire, and the papacy — kept the firm afloat when domestic sales lagged in the 1800s.
During World War I Winchester's expanded factory boasted a whopping 73 acres of floor space and employed nearly 20,000 people — who along with their families accounted for one third of the city's population.
Through it all Sarah Winchester remained an enigma. Was it true that her eccentric and reclusive behavior stemmed from guilt over the source of her great fortune? Haag wondered, too, if others in the arms business believed that they had some accountability for the deadly products they made and marketed so well.
Haag spoke about her book, her third, by phone recently.
Q: What surprised you most in researching this book?
A: I started the project with the usual clichés about guns and the gun culture. But I was surprised to see just how much the arms industry, at every step, had to work to find and develop markets adequate to keep pace with production. We were made a gun culture more than we were born one.
Q: How important was the portrayal of guns in popular culture to gun sales?
A: The mystique of guns became crucial to sales in the 20th century, when America was a post-frontier, more urban country. People who had previously used guns as tools, or weapons, no longer needed them. Gun manufacturers, like other industries at the time, needed to create demand for their product and embraced modern advertising techniques. They promoted the emotional, intangible qualities of their guns. Ads at this time linked guns much more explicitly to "natural instincts," to deep longings to own a gun and to masculinity.
Q: You assert that it was supply that drove demand in guns sales, not vice versa. How so?
A: When industrialists began to produce guns in volume they were making huge investments in machinery. The equation changed from the gunsmith days, when one gun was crafted for one customer. Now manufacturers were making as many guns as they could — it was bad business to leave machines idle. So it wasn't only demand, but also supply that drove the gun economy.
Q: How important was 19th century globalization, i.e. the worldwide sale of armaments, to the success of Winchester?
A: Absolutely vital. All of the gun giants relied on international contracts to survive in the years before and after the Civil War, and the scope of international sales was quite staggering. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to name a continent or nation that wasn't buying American-made firearms in the 1800s.
Q: The military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of began quite early in American and Connecticut history, didn't it?
A: This is another fascinating finding to me. We think of this as a Cold War idea, but right from the start the federal government incubated and nourished the gun industry. Otherwise, it never would have been worth the risk for capitalists like Connecticut's Eli Whitney.
Q: What prompted the first stirrings of gun control in American history?
A: Americans were sickened by the carnage of World War I, and the bootlegging gangster violence of the 1920s accelerated the idea of federal gun control. But even before World War I, some were calling into question the existence of a for-profit gun industry. The first federal gun legislation in 1927 forbade the shipments of guns through the U.S. Postal Service.