March 4, 2021

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‘Craft: An American History,’ by Glenn Adamson: An Excerpt

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Like everything else in Colonial America, then, the painting and its subject matter were situated within an interdependent network of labor, both skilled and unskilled, free and unfree. The portrait can also be taken as a symbol of craft’s dual position in American culture—notice how Copley has painted Revere’s left hand not once but twice, as actual substance and reflected image. As telling as it may be, though, the painting is a rare exception. Most artisans are unlike Revere simply because they have been forgotten, their faces and names unrecoverable even when the work of their hands is preserved. Half of them have been women; very many have been African American or of Native heritage. Others immigrated to the United States from Asia or Latin America, bringing their skills with them (and often little else). The story of American craft concerns them all.

The historian Gary Kornblith has observed that “the age of handicraft production did not seem so golden to those who experienced it firsthand.” 5 Colonial artisans faced difficulties both great and small. Most went bankrupt at least once in their careers. They were at the mercy of large-scale economic trends. They often struggled to acquire and retain materials, tools, and even their own apprentices. Indeed, though it is often romanticized, eighteenth-century apprenticeship is best understood as a system of coercive poor relief. Most who found themselves bound to a master got that way against their will, as orphans, or children of impoverished families. By law, they were then required to stay and work for very low wages, usually for seven years, sometimes up to the age of twenty-one. But this European model faltered in the United States, a wide-open country where labor was scarce. Without craft guilds to exert control over training and standards, both information and people moved around freely. In order to keep up with demand, workshop masters were obliged to impart trade secrets to their apprentices and indentured servants. Once they acquired a basic skill set, young craftsmen found it easier to relocate rather than complete their term of service. They were in a classic seller’s market: The colonies were ever short of capable hands.

In rural contexts particularly, flexibility was the rule, as artisans turned their skills to whatever needed doing. The Dominy Shop, for example—which operated over four generations in East Hampton, Long Island, and whose shop equipment, tools, and manuscripts are now preserved at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware—was the site of an array of crafts, among them clockmaking, gunsmithing, joinery and cabinetmaking, toolmaking, wheelwrighting, horseshoeing, and sundry repair work. The lives of rural artisans were further varied because they were in their shops only part of the year. At planting and harvest times, they worked in the fields among their neighbors and relations. Noah Webster, he of the first American dictionary, contrasted the situation to that in Europe: In a populous country, where arts are carried to great perfection, the mechanics are obliged to labour constantly upon a single article. Every art has its several branches, one of which employs a man all his life.

[ Return to the review of “Craft.” ]

A man who makes heads of pins or springs of watches, spends his days in that manufacture and never looks beyond it. This manner of fabricating things for the use and convenience of life is the means of perfecting the arts; but it cramps the human mind, by confining all its faculties to a point. In countries thinly inhabited, or where people live principally by agriculture, as in America, every man is in some measure an artist—he makes a variety of utensils, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes.

This image of the preindustrial artisan as a universal artist is a powerful one, and has served as a touchstone through American history. It is also an exaggeration, because in every artisan’s life, there was plenty of repetitive labor to be done. When they were at the anvil, country blacksmiths spent most of their time on a few basic tasks: making nails, sharpening plow blades, repairing chains, shoeing horses, over and over. One-off masterpieces were very rarely called for. In fact, blacksmiths had little choice in what they made. Very few—only 20 percent, by one estimate—even owned their own smithies, instead working as hired hands for the planter who owned the land. In cities, some smiths had opportunities to make decorative work, but many operated within the precincts of dockyards or mills, making chains, anchors, or gears. This was certainly demanding work, requiring high levels of skill, but it was not necessarily inventive. And repetitive labor was routine in other trades, too. Joiners commonly made sets of eight, twelve, or more chairs, all matching, perhaps based on an imported model or a printed pattern “lately from London.” Turners speedily fashioned large quantities of identical bowls, stair balusters, or table legs on their foot-powered lathes. Pewterers, many of them itinerant, had even less scope for innovation. Their stock-in-trade consisted of crucibles and molds, which they used to melt down worn or damaged pieces and cast the metal anew.

So, despite later imaginings, preindustrial craft was hardly a stream of constant creativity. Artisans’ value lay not in their power of invention, but in their reliability, their industry, a term that originally referred not to factories, but to personal work ethic. The Boston silversmith John Coney (who trained Paul Revere’s father, the French immigrant Apollos Rivoire) was eulogized on his death in 1712 as “a rare example of industry, a great Redeemer of his Time, taking care to spend not only his Days, but his Hours well, and giving Diligence in his Business.” The biblical allusion here—to Ephesians 5:15–16, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise / Redeeming the time, because the days are evil”—alerts us to the religious context for early American craft. A good artisan, a good Christian, was conscientious. The proof of that character was in the work: consistent results, achieved under time pressure despite nonstandardized materials and variable work conditions. And though later commentators liked to imagine the Colonial era as a time of “joy in labor,” the Sabbath, a full calendar of holy days, and traditional “Saint Monday” were held as sacrosanct. Artisans were not so joyful that they weren’t eager to get off the job.

So, craft production was not idyllic. But it was essential. Whenever and wherever a new town was founded, it required artisans. The first tax assessment for present-day Allentown, Pennsylvania, drawn up in 1762, had only thirteen taxpayers, but they included two carpenters, two tailors, a smith, and a wagoner; two years later, they had been joined by two more tailors, a furniture maker, a mason, a butcher, and a shoemaker who also ran an inn. As specie (hard coinage) was always limited, especially in rural areas, these artisans exchanged their services with other townspeople on a barter system. Work might be done in exchange for food, for other artisans’ services, or for raw materials like old iron. Extended lines of credit might be held open for months, or even years. All these informal, face-to-face arrangements helped bind the community together.

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