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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Crafts Today

( Originally Published 1940 )



In discussing the various separate crafts we have seen a scattered picture of the various trends toward increased or industrialized production, and a consequent lessening, in many cases, of the personal element of craftsmanship. The 19th century marked the beginning of the era of American industrialism. Hand production of most commodities was largely abandoned in favor of machine methods. Of course this didn't happen overnight. It is important, even though we have anticipated some of the findings, to take a backward look and survey this transition in very broad terms.

Originally the craftsman made things exclusively for local consumption; largely to individual order, often consulting with his customer on the details of the object. Naturally, under such

a system, the integrity of craftsmanship was exceptionally high. The workman identified himself intimately with his product. Craft first manifests itself in the making of objects for use, rather than for sale.

The custom-made, or made-to-order stage, is second. Finally comes the object manufactured in quantity for extensive sale to unknown, wholly impersonal customers. In each stage of this cycle a diminishing of the craftsman's or maker's natural interest and pride in the work at hand occurs. When we add to this latter stage a new production method which usually allots to any one workman only a single part or operation in the entire process he is almost wholly denied the enriching identification with his product. It is hard to feel a glow of workmanship over a machine-turned piston-ring which must be united with neighbor X's machine-stamped hub-cap and a thousand other milled parts to form one automobile to be purchased f. o. b. Detroit by an unknown customer.

Going back to our evolution; as towns and cities began to expand in the colonies, the early craftsman found it expedient to be prepared in advance for demands with which he might not be able to cope upon order. Accordingly the store, the retail establishment, came into existence, selling pottery, glassware, furniture, and even clothing and shoes, which clung somewhat more tenaciously to the tradition of personal transaction.

The line of craftsmanship had to be perpetuated and the busy craftsman needed a helper. Both problems were then solved by the apprentice system. The craftsman exchanged the knowl edge of his craft for the labor of a boy, usually for seven years, but sometimes for a greater or lesser period. The boy started his tasks at an early age and received no cash compensation. On the other hand he was housed, clothed, fed, and trained so that, at the end of his indenture he found himself equipped with a trade in a good position to set up in business for himself in a steadily expanding world.

Here is a typical apprenticeship agreement: "This Indenture Witnesseth, that Nicolas Auger, Son of Nicolas Auger of ye Citty of New Yorke, Aged tenn years or thereabouts, with the Consent of his Parents and also of his own Full & Voluntary Will, in the Presence of Charles Lodwyck Esq., Mayor of ye said Citty, hath put himselfe Apprentice unto Wessell Evertson of ye same Citty, Cooper, and ye said Science or Trade which he, the said Wessell Evertson, now Useth, to be taught & with him after ye manner of an Apprentice to Dwell & Live from the day of the Date hereof until the full End and Terme of Seven Years, the said Apprenticeship the Sd. Nicolas Auger Well & Truely shall Serve the Commandments of his Master Lawfull & Honest. Everywhere he shall Gladly doe no hurte to his Said Master, he shall not Doe or Suffer to be done The Goods of his Said Master he Shall not Purloyn waste or Destroy nor them to any body lend at Dice or any other unlawful Game he Shall not play whereby his Master may incurr any hurte, Matrimony he Shall not Contract, Taverns he Shall not frequent, from ye Service of his Said Master day or Night he shall not absent himselfe but in all things as a good and faithfull Apprentice shall bear and behave himselfe, towards his Said Master and all dureing the Terme afore said. And ye said Wessell Evertson to Said Apprentice the Science or Trade of a Cooper which he now Useth Shall teach & Informe, Cause to be Taught & Informed the best way yt he may or Can & Also Shall finde to his Said Apprentice Apparell meate and drinke & bedding & all other Necessaries meet & Convenient for an Apprentice dureing the Terme Aforesaid & att ye Expiration of ye Said Terme to finde and Supply his said Apprentice with two good & Sufficient Suits of Wearing Apparell from head to foot.

"In Wittness whereof the Parties to these Present Indentures have Interchangeably Sett Their hands & Seals the Nineteenth day of February in the Sixth year of their Majesties Reign, Anno. Dom. 1694."

Occasionally there were added requirements in such agreements such as that the Master should teach his apprentice to "reade and write the English tongue . . ." and, more frequently, that he should present him with a complete set of tools upon the completion of his term.

The full importance of apprenticeship is further to be realized by stressing the fact that in colonial America the burgher, or freeman "right" or status, was not the inalienable and natural birthright of the individual. Without this "right" no man could practice a craft, trade, or business in the cities of early America. It could be attained in only three ways: payment of a fee to the city government, presentation as a Special Honor by the city government, or the fulfillment of an apprenticeship with a local craftsman. The freeman's right, we thus see, was automatically bestowed upon the fulfillment of the terms and conditions of indenture.

With the conditioning of modern competitive methods upon us we might suppose that a craftsman would not be too anxious to impart all the subtleties of his knowledge to an apprentice who would probably grow up to be his competitor. Such was not the case. This was that enviable period in which demand exceeded supply. Moreover, should such a thing come to pass as an overcrowding of the field the established man could reasonably expect to hold his place. The apprentice could always move on, not too far, to the ever present frontiers where the demand for his services would be constantly and constantly renewed.

Another aspect of the matter was pride of craftsmanship. The boy would be known to all as the apprentice of a particular craftsman and would probably advertise the fact when he first established his own business, thus: "Nicolas Auger, formerly apprenticed to Wessell Evertson." Lack of skill on the part of the apprentice would be held to reflect shortcomings of his master.

But in time the apprentice system became inadequate to the demands of the relentlessly expanding market and the craftsman's increasing need for help. The first tendency to arise from this was toward the forming of partnerships with somewhat less flourishing craftsmen. It was soon found to be more advantageous to pay wages. The craftsman became an employer.

At first he was the employer of less established craftsmen, possibly even taking his apprentices into service at a wage when they had freed themselves of indenture. But as the progress moved steadily forward it became necessary for him to divide up his work into its separate parts. With this he became the employer of less skilful craftsmen. In due time mechanical devices were invented to make parts of his work require practically no skill at all and with this he became an employer of labor. It is not much farther to the point where the original man becomes simply an employer and no longer a craftsman at all.

This was not yet wholly a "factory" system. Nearly all the work was still done by hand, even though divided into many stages of work requiring different degrees of skill. The artisan no longer owned what he produced, yet with the manual method there still remained a degree of individual pride in the work he was able to show. The whole thing was still operated on a relatively personal basis. Even though the owner did not work he usually had a knowledge of the craft. The workshop remained a closely-knit group of personalities. Often many of them were relatives of the employer or were related to one another. This stage was, in other words, essentially an extension of craft production.

Mechanization, we must understand, did not immediately supply the next factor. Power machinery, in the form of the steam engine, was first used only to prepare raw materials for manufacture rather than to produce finished goods. It was used to saw lumber, forge iron, grind grain and bark, to break hemp, etc., rather than to perform the final operations which fitted these commodities for direct consumption. Thus, between the mill, the furnace, the tannery, and the ultimate users of their products remained the stage of craft manufacture.

The much later mechanical application of power to milling machines of various orders basically altered the status of craft. We have seen that the glass-pressing machine greatly curtailed the honorable craft of glass-blowing. The horizontal lathe for clay objects reduced the mystical affinity between the potter and his handiwork. The power loom revolutionized weaving, and the stamping machine robbed metal work of its creativeness of execution, if not of design.

Industry flowered, if the term is apt for such a development. The resourceful and enterprising Americans were not handicapped by the feudal manufacturing tradition which hampered European factory methods. In England, for example, the major industries were broken up into their separate parts as though they were independent of one another. Thus, in the textile industry, there was carding and combing, spinning, weaving, dyeing, finishing. Each of these activities was housed in a separate building; possibly in a separate locality; was separately owned; had a separate organization; separate purchasing facilities, and separate marketing facilities. The American manufacturers regarded textiles as textiles and encompassed the whole within a single undertaking. This was the phenomenal American trend toward industrial organization in manufacture. So swift has it been that American workers are barely beginning to catch up with it in the present conflict between the somewhat outmoded form of craft union and the new mode of industrial union typified by the CIO.



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