Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

American Beginnings

( Originally Published 1940 )

Americans can make things. This attribute has been and is one of the primary factors in our national A "genius". Our history has been, to a unique degree, a record of the ability to make just about anything; make it when it was needed; and make it fast 1 This has held true in many fields of endeavor, ranging from the production of arms and implements of war for the founding or maintaining of our Union, to the manufacture or handshaping of the humblest as well as the most complex items for our every-day use.

Even in Colonial days, when already manifested "Colonial" abilities were rapidly becoming a sore point and a matter of resentment to the stay-at-homes of England, a grudging recog nition was accorded to American ingenuity. When the Colonies fought a one-sided war for Independence, which in terms of logic and reason they should certainly have lost, the resourcefulness and never-failing shrewdness of the rebels once elicited the exasperated comment from a British officer that ". . . . the ingenuity of these people is singular in their secret modes of mischief".

With the establishment of Independence, the new country forged ahead, with a renewed impetus toward craftsmanship and mechanical contrivance which continued to make it conspic uous in the world. Franklin and Fulton and many others carried American inventions to Europe. The inventions of Europe were, in turn, adapted, improved, and often downright revolutionized by Americans. Out of this many-faceted ability rose a great modern industrial nation.

The latter day generations of Americans take many riches of their heritage for granted, and this is a pity. Many of the simpler and equally vital hand-processes which preceded our present high degree of industrialization had important aspects and values for our people which we can ill-afford to lose simply for the sake of production efficiency. We need not have lost what we may call, at the risk of seeming obscure, the philosophical and psychological concomitants of craftsmanship. America was once a nation of craftsmen. In a sense it still is, or still could be. The peculiar bent of the American toward craft accomplishments is not to be blindly or smugly attributed to the American air or to any singular quality in the bloodstream of the polyglot elements that make up the "American", even of many generations on the soil. There was good reason for the development or renewal of skills on the part of early Americans, which a little thought about the exigencies of colonization should make clear.

All around us, today, is our familiar America. We are surrounded by American "things": houses, furniture, objects of art, utensils, countless influences and variants of earlier origins which combine to constitute, or contribute to, our contemporary culture and civilization. Yet only a few hundred years ago, a relatively negligible span of history, there was nothing here but a wild continent, lushly endowed with raw materials.

When the Puritans, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Cavalier English of the South, and the French arrived at various times on the shores of America, they came to a wilderness. Widely diver gent motives had prompted the adventure; a considerable range and contrast in equipment and wealth distinguished them. But the wilderness was common to them all. The best that the wealthiest of them brought was little in the face of it. The American wilderness was literally their "common wealth". Their welfare and hope of future prosperity rested largely in what they were to wrest, or make, from the plentiful materials at hand. There were trees and minerals, and clay and sand and water. There were such tools as had been brought from the homeland, such skills as the pioneer hands might possess through previous training or through the instinct of necessity. There were memories, sharpened by the migration, of the styles and fashions of their homelands, to be carried over, as far as possible, in the homes, furniture, and accessories that must be made in the New World. Above all these things were a relentless energy, an indomitable courage, and the spark of a common genius that was to make America. How well they wrought is eloquently told in their handiwork.

This was truly a pioneer society. Under the circumstances a prime requisite for survival and social usefulness was the ability to make things. Yet even this precious faculty, if too limited, was not enough. It required another quality, versatility. The settlers of America could not, at first, afford the luxury of specialization.

In 1711, which we must remember is by no means one of the earliest dates in our Colonial history, the Reverend John Urmstone, of North Carolina, wrote: "Men are generally of all trades, and women the like within their spheres. . . . Men are generally carpenters, joiners, wheelwrights, coopers, butchers, tanners, shoemakers, tallow-chandlers, watermen, and what not; women soap-makers, starch-makers, dyers, etc. He or she who cannot do all these things . . . . over and above a11 the common occupations of both sexes will have but a bad time of it; for help is not to be had at any rate, every one having business enough of his own."

Not all of those who ventured here were prepared to cope with these rigorous exactments. In the early days of the Virginia Company shiploads of "gentlemen" arrived in the search for easy money; a search, it should be said in justice to them, which had been fostered and for which they had been recruited by the fanciful representations of the Company. None of these gentry had taken into account or been warned against the realistic nature of the job of colonizing. Charles Beard tells us that it was the shrewd, practical and courageous Captain John Smith who wrote in exasperation to the Company in London: "When you send again, I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees' roots, well provided, than a thousand such as we have."

When every man was a jack-of-all-trades the bulk of his work was necessarily crude and primitively functional. This kind of production, at best, could only be a stop-gap. When the colonists had got their second wind, the skilled craftsman in a specific field began to stand out. This was the artisan, and it was natural that he should become a focal point in the developing community life of America. He formed the third in succession of the class strata of Colonial social order, ranking immediately after the dominant, landed and merchant families, and the second level of small, landed yeomen, or farmers. The qualities of character, temperament, and native talent which were often invested in the true craftsman tended to thrust him into leadership and prominence in public life. Craftsmanship amounted to more than merely a trade or "business." It was an art and an avocation. Statesmen and leaders of genius, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, found the time in their crowded lives to be craftsmen of the first rank.

The rank-and-file of these American craftsmen are the true representatives of the genius of a people. It is they who are, rather than who make, history. Political and economic studies give us little insight into the lives of peoples. It is by what they did, made with their hands for use and left for heritage, that we can truly know them. The folk-lore, the folk-craft and handiwork of a people are its history, written more enduringly than on the printed page. We can know our forebears by their fruits. We can appraise them through the work of their hands and brains. We can judge the products of their desires and necessities in the light of what we know about the handicaps that beset them. In this way we glimpse their idealism, courage, originality, and aspiration. In this way the qualities of a society can be interpreted through the products of its typical craftsmen.

Bookmark and Share