Saturday, February 24, 2007

Yankee Ingenuity

For the last couple of years one of the features of the Eisteddfod has been a ''craft fair", which provides an opportunity for craftsmen to exhibit, and sell, their wares. This has proved to be popular with the people who come to the Eisteddfod and also with the craftsmen; so we expect that it will be a permanent part of the festivities. The only trouble with a ''fair'' of this kind is that it has a necessarily commercial aspect.
This is no objection, because craftsmen have to sell their wares; either to support themselves or at least to have their craft pay for itself so it isn't just an expensive hobby. But it does tend to take the focus away from the prime purpose of the Eisteddfod, which is the passing on of traditional arts and crafts from person to person. As we say elsewhere, without the learning it might be fun but it wouldn't be the Eisteddfod.

This year, to supplement the fair, we are going to have workshops in which the crafts can be demonstrated; and also a gallery exhibit of both contemporary and antique examples of craftsmanship. But this raised an interesting question. The craft fair is not a judged show: we try to encourage craftsmen whose products fit the traditional theme of the Eisteddfod, but we have not yet actually rejected a craftsman's application on the grounds that what he wanted to show wasn't good enough or wasn't the right thing. We have been lucky, because that allowed us to avoid the question of just what ''craftsmanship'' consists of.

But an exhibit is a whole other thing: the essence of an exhibit is that some things are shown and others aren't. So we had to ask ourselves "What is American Craftsmanship anyway?".

The word itself is not unambiguous; the word "crafty" has a decidedly sneaky connotation. In fact the word is common in the teutonic languages and means ''strength'' or ''force''---it is only in English that is got the meaning of a skill or art. Even then the word seems to have had an occult sense earlier than a practical one; even now the skill of a craftsman seems half magical to those who don't have it.

In more modern usage the use of the word to refer to activities needing little skill has made it derogatory: "artsy-craftsy" is a real put-down. But ''craftsmanship'' still has enough positive meaning that it can be used (with more or less honesty) in commercial advertisements.

There tends to be a bit of snobbery in the way we use the word, the feeling that what We are doing is more significant, more seriously aesthetic, than making little animals by gluing glass marbles together. Still---I'd prefer to think that it isn't all snobbery; that a work of craftsmanship is something more than just something made "by hand". Maybe even more than something that is very well made by hand. If so, What is it?


Let's go to the exhibit and look at two banjos hanging side by side. Both are "collector's items", maybe even rare ones, by the accident of time; but they are quite different. One is made by Vega and labeled ''Regent'', evidently made to sell in Wurlitzer's Boston music store as a house brand, probably in the teens and twenties. The other is merely labeled "The New Yorker" and looks to be a copy of a turn-of-the-century Stewart.
They are made quite differently. The Regent is a student grade banjo---sturdy neck, solid, durable wooden rim with a metal tone ring, and with a minimum of decoration. The New Yorker is much more lightly constructed: its head is stretched over nickeled sheet metal spun onto a thin wooden rim; but the light, gracefully formed neck is decoratively laminated, has inlays on the tuner and carving on the stock.

Obviously the effort on the Regent has gone into making a sturdy instrument with reliable good tone; whereas The New Yorker has sacrificed durability (its neck and rim are both a bit warped because of their light construction) for visual aesthetics. Neither the inlay nor the sculptured neck add anything to the sound of the instrument; but its maker obviously felt that the effort was worth it in that it would find a buyer who valued visual over musical aesthetics.

Richard Dyer-Bennet once told me about a guitar-maker who I'll call ''Trabajo''. The patriarch of the clan made some fine guitars (while his sons and nephews concentrated on producing a student guitar made of plywood that was practically indestructible) but he did not himself play the guitar past a few arpeggios necessary for demonstration. As a result, the only way he had of putting a price on a guitar was by considering the amount of work he put into it.

Dick said that if you dug around in the Trabajo workshop showroom and played all the guitars you could usually find a good guitar that cost less and sounded better than the ''top of the line."


This illustrates two different styles of craftsmanship that, for want of better terms, I am going to call "European" and "American." European craftsmanship ship values ''workmanship'', which is to say the amount of effort put into the product, even if that effort is put into rococo decoration. American craftsmanship values function over decoration. The Trabajo family can illustrate both styles because we children of immigrants will often be aggressively American in ways the Yankee takes for granted.
In a sense these labels are prejudiced. The American urban upper-middle class have always been "European" in this way---sometimes excessively so. After all, the European aristocracy merely needed to remind everyone that they could command the kind of labor that workmanship entails; in America upward-mobility created the need to display one's status conspicuously. We still show our devotion to this European tradition in the way we value decor over function in such status symbols as automobiles.

Conversely. the style I call American has always been present in rural crafts in Europe. Only in America, however, did the combined factors of a seemingly limitless territorial expansion and the explosive development of the industrial revolution make a rural style into a national one.
''Rural'' does not mean ''badly done''. 1 live in a rural house, framed in local oak, morticed and trunneled, and now in its third century. [ photo]If anything about the house doesn't survive into the fourth century it is likely to be the parts added in this century out of milled lumber fastened with nails. The balloon-framed house superseded the post-and-beam house not because it was better but because there was a shortage of house carpenters in the new western territories The farmer who had never made a mortised joint could order a set of precut lumber from a city mill and have it shipped by rail to the nearest whistlestop; then put it up himself.
Now that the traditional revival includes craftsmanship we are seeing a revival of I the post-and-beam house; as witness the ads in Mother Earth News and Yankee Magazine.

But if it is sturdy there is little fancy-work in our house---even the parlor paneling is a kind of shiplap and the cupboard inserted above the fireplace is severely functional. It represents a kind of craftsmanship that had to be reintroduced to us from Europe---Mies van der Rohe's Bauhaus dicta of "Form follows function" and "Less is more." The difference is that in modern European tradition these had to be introduced as theoretical aesthetic principles; in early America they were not set by theory but by the situation. There was simply not enough time and effort available for frippery. . Things had to work, and you made them work the best and simplest way you knew how.

But this didn't mean that you made things that were bad to look at. Among the exhibits are some forged ironware for the kitchen: a spoon and some tongs for breaking loaf sugar. Isolated from their uses they are like small items of statuary; but they worked, and still work. The carpenter's scale, square and miter gauge have their fastenings and points of wear reinforced with brass; and the contrast between the brass and the walnut of the handles and the gray steel blades is particularly satisfactory.
With all that, nothing on these pieces is of the nature of superfluous decoration. The epitome of this kind of American craftsmanship is that associated with the Shakers.

Every item of Shaker manufacture, from cheese boxes to clothes presses, shares this economy of design; but the Shaker chair is perhaps the most characteristic. The Shakers sat to eat, during worship (and not always then, because they believed in dancing before the Lord) and at such work as absolutely required sitting. Between times the chairs were hung from pegs on the wall to eliminate the temptation to indolence. A Shaker chair thus had to be strong, because it was expected to last under use, but it had to be light, so that it could be easily lifted and hung. The design6n solution that satisfies these criteria and is still relatively simple to make has of itself a timeless beauty.

It did not, unfortunately, have to be comfortable to sit in: because sitting as a recreation was not part of the Shaker lifestyle. That, incidentally, tells us something very important: that the function that the form should follow is dependent on the social environment in which it is used, and that may not be the way we would expect to use it. One does not watch television or read novels in a Shaker chair. But that doesn't affect our viewpoint on the style of the craftsmanship.

The chairs in the cottages of the Gilded Age, like The Breakers in Newport, were meant to be looked at and admired for what they cost. They are not comfortable to sit in either. The Shakers and The Breakers provide another interesting comparison: in order to produce the costly decoration of the gilded cottages various craftsmen had to be imported from Europe; while the invention of the circular saw is attributed to a Shaker, and a female Shaker at that. (Considering that many of us still begrudge women mechanical ability, this is a particularly striking example even if it was a reinvention.)

What it indicates is that while European crafts remained handcrafts, the essence of American craftsmanship was not isolated from the industrial revolution. It was, in fact, industrial development that absorbed much of the creative energy of American craftsmen. One can see this in the early textile machinery preserved for us by such institutions as the Slater Mill Museum in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The wooden frames, reinforced by metal inserts, are of the same family as the carpenter's square mentioned earlier. Divorced from their function they too can be seen as statuary---mobiles, in fact.

But they should not be divorced from their function, which was to supply a rapidly increasingly American population with textiles at a price and volume that could never have been supplied by a cottage industry of hand looms. This mechanical evolution transferred the need for craftsmanship from the finished product to the machine that made that product; and the need for the finest craftsmanship to the machine that made that machine- the lathes and millers, drill presses and shapers we call machine tools.
The historic importance of the Slater Mill is not only that it was an early textile factory, but that it developed in conjunction with the shop of David Wilkinson, who developed the screw cutting lathe and is called 'the father of the machine tool industry".

But if the factory produced the necessities for American expansion, the factory system had, and has, severe drawbacks. There must have been considerable satisfaction for the Wilkinsons and Slaters when they finally got their balky machines to work; but there wasn't much for the mill-hands who kept them running. It is a yet unappreciated result of modern technology that the mill-hand is obsolete. (Organized labor and corporate management are slow to see this because when the mill-hand finally goes they will, too. Like the Luddites they seek to spit against the wind.)
In many areas of production the processes are so standardized that even toolmaking goes by the book: creative satisfaction is limited to those who write the computer programs. Between the automatic machinery that takes the joy out of making things and the bureaucracy that takes the joy out of doing business most of us get little satisfaction out of earning a living. A situation which has had some effect on the revival of the handcrafts.
But that is a recent development. While it was certainly true that America had no monopoly on the industrial revolution (the screw-cutting lathe, for instance, was independently and almost simultaneously invented in England and France) we certainly acted as if we did. Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee bringing inventions to the benighted English may have been pure jingoist propoganda, but it suited our image of ourself, (and, incidentally, Europe's image of us), as a classless innocent bumpkin riding a machine.

If it was a myth that each of Napoleon's troopers had a Field Marshall's baton in his knapsack, it was equally a myth that every American mechanic had a world-shaking invention up his sleeve. But some of them did.
The turning point came with Eli Whitney, not merely because his cotton gin made cheap textiles possible (and slavery economic) but because he developed the mass-production of small-arms at the Springfield Armory. Till then the factory had been a building housing a convenient collection of machines. The final product was generally built by one man laboriously cutting and filing pieces to fit till he could assemble it as a whole. In the assembly line each worker makes just one part, and makes it precisely to predetermined standards, so that the whole can be assembled from parts selected at random; parts which need no final fitting or adjustment. This is a process that is obviously unsuited for making one of anything; it is only efficient if you have to make a lot of whatever it is. This means big sales, big marketing, big capital investment in plant and equipment---in a word, big business.

This, in turn, means that one particular consumer doesn't matter too much---it is the "market' that counts, and the market, which is the least common denominator of many consumers, is interested in cheapness. This created a new twist on Mies' principle of "form following function" - - the function that form followed was not that of the final use, but of ease of manufacture. Make it cheaply enough, they figured, and it doesn't matter if it doesn't last very long. It doesn't even matter if some of them don't work when they come right off the production line. They can always throw it away and get another one.

Curiously, this also brought on a revival of rococo decoration. When you build something of cast iron the molds, usually of sand, have rough surfaces and there are inevitable voids or bubbles in the surface of the casting. If you cover the surface with decoration this is a lot less obvious. It took considerable sophistication in the rolling and forming of sheet metal before manufacturers could afford to display large areas of smooth surface on their products: to get a subtly curved roof on an automobile requires a press the size of a building.

It was late in the industrial revolution before Mies' other proverb, "less is more', could practically be rediscovered and applied as theoretical aesthetics rather than the result of necessity.

This has led directly to the revival of craftsmanship. When the design of a consumer product is determined by the convenience of the manufacturer rather than the use by the consumer it doesn't work well and it doesn't last long. This is acceptable as long as it is a cheap throwaway. But cheapness is relative: you can reduce the cost of labor by mechanization, but in an economy where the cost of energy and raw materials rises faster than labor mass production doesn't save very much. You end up with expensive shoddy goods rather than cheap shoddy goods. It then makes sense to go back to labor-intensive rather than energy intensive processes because expensive high-quality goods have an obvious advantage over expensive shoddy goods.

The small craftsman, operating by hand or with a few machines that are merely updated versions of the ones in Wilkinson's shop, and selling to a local market that doesn't require too much promotion, can easily compete with the topheavy multinational corporation in selected areas.


Sometimes, however, the vagaries of an industrial economy can lead to a satisfactory solution: an item of manufacture that is both cheap and useful. A case in point is Zimmerman's Autoharp.

The Autoharp began with a fight for principle. Zimmerman was convinced that the only thing standing in the way of our becoming musical virtuosos was an archaic system of notation. He invented his own system, and was discouraged that no one paid the slightest attention. He had a precedent, after all, since shape-notes were just the same kind of inventive musical notation and they are still being used to print books of gospel songs.

But Zimmerman lacked the backing of a religious revival and went in another direction: he invented a kind of semiautomatic zither that would play according to his notation. He made and sold them in Philadelphia from the early 1880's to 1895. (Incidentally, nobody paid any attention to Zimmerman's notation then, either, nor have they since.)

In that year free trade nearly ruined Arthur Dolge. He was a manufacturer of piano parts. He made almost everything but the cast iron frames and outer cases: he sold wire, felt, ivory keys and the internal mechanisms to American piano manufacturers. In 1895 the tariff was removed from cheap imported pianos (like Steinway) and they flooded the market.

Dolge saw Zimmerman's autoharp as a small piano without a cast iron frame, bought the rights, and within a few weeks was making 2000 a week. From that point till the introduction of the phonograph in the 1920s the autoharp and its equally ingenious competitors provided cheap and satisfactory musical instruments to sunday schools and backwoods cabins. He enabled the Carters and the Stonemans and the Snows to develop distinctive regional and individual styles of playing an indigenous American musical instrument; which would not have been possible without the expression of American craftsmanship through industrial production .

As Dolge's factory was dependent on volume sales it failed with the introduction of the phonograph, which provided music in the home with even less effort than the autoharp. But by making possible permanent records of the Carters and Stonemans the phonograph preserved a homemade musical tradition by freezing it; and it never quite killed the autoharp. The patents passed to other hands who could survive with lower production quotas; and it was produced in much the same form from the twenties to the folk revival of the sixties.

Then the increase in demand enabled the manufacturer to redesign them to take advantage of modern technology (aluminum and plastic) in a style reminiscent of the molded plywood furniture of the early forties and a price 50 to 100 times that asked by Arthur Dolge.

Musical instruments make interesting examples, not only because they are a bridge between the craft and musical aspects of the Eisteddfod but because they lie on the borderline between the craftsman and the factory. The exhibits include two casket-shaped guitars made by Nick Appolonio in the sixties, when he was starting as a lutanist. He soon found, however, that after he was able to build up an investment in jigs and fixtures it was no harder to make guitars in the more usual shape, and they had better acceptance. Guitar building, it would seem, is inherently a 'factory' operation; even if the factory has only one employee and the capital investment in plant is fairly elementary.

Banjos are still made at home by individual craftsmen, but they are now made for a market of fanciers of the antique: either for the decorative shape or the antique sound. The basic requirement for a banjo is a membrane that stays in position relative to the neck. In the homemade banjo that is generally accomplished by putting a small membrane in a disc-shaped wooden frame (several varieties of which have been described in the Foxfire books).

This is a limitation on the amount and quality of the sound produced, so the factory banjo has its membrane stretched over a hoop like a drumhead. Two of the exhibits show this technique in an interesting comparison--one is obviously handmade and is similar in construction to banjos shown in paintings of the 1850s, the other is equally obviously factory-made, but has the same details, from the shield shaped brackets to the red paint inside the hoop. It seems likely that one was made as a copy of the other, but which came first?

As the banjo evolved as a band instrument improvements were directed toward more volume of sound: steel instead of gut strings, tighter head membranes (which required sturdier construction) and the addition of sound reflectors (called resonators). This led to the use of laminated wooden hoops and, more recently, cast metal finely machined; techniques which are obviously more suited to factory than home workshop production.

Inventiveness was then pointed toward more minor improvements: numbers of variations on the edge-mounting of the membrane, or the adjustable brace on the Waymann 'Keystone State' that assured precise positioning of the neck relative to the head membrane. Whether or not proprietory or even patented, these improvements were not basic and their effects were more or less duplicated by all the major manufacturers; so that aside from a tone coloration characteristic of each manufacturer and evident only to fairly advanced banjo players all the major lines of good banjos are pretty much alike.

This, in turn, meant that the 'top of the line" had to revert to the European style---an expensive banjo was expensive not because it sounded that much better but because it had decorative touches, primarily extensive inlay on the neck, that showed considerable hand labor. the factory, in other words, having reached the limits of inventiveness in the American style of craftsmanship turned to the employment of craftsmen of the European style in order to provide luxury goods to an urban market.


The fact that an item of manufacture absorbs a considerable amount of handwork does not automatically put it in the European style unless that handwork is essentially irrelevant to the function of the finished product. In the case of quilts, for instance, the function of the piecing is to allow the use of small scraps of material; and the function of the quilting stitch is to retain the insulating layer.

The "Peach Tree' quilt made by Sally Snow, which required some 1500 hours of handwork, is the result of an aesthetic evolution that has its basis in functionalism. [quilt photos]The earliest American quilts were undoubtedly merely multiple layers of patches, but that made a bedcover that was not only indifferently attractive but stiff and unwieldy, particularly considering the material was homespun. As soon as factory made cotton fabrics were available it became possible to put a!layer of cotton batting between two layers of thin fabric and still get the warmth of a thick wool blanket.

But the fabric would first be used to make clothing. so that the quilt had to be pieced out of the irregular scraps that were left when the clothing pattern was cut out. One might make one's first quilt out of pieces patched any which way (a style which was revived with a difference in the Victorian Crazy Quilt) but after immediate necessity is met the need for aesthetic satisfaction becomes important.

One might want to set light and dark colored scraps in a pattern, and the Log Cabin quilt exhibited is just such a pattern made of small scrap pieces. When this is done an interesting thing happens: the gestalt of the overall pattern tends to override the variation in fabrics, so that several kinds of reddish fabric will just read as red in the context of the pattern. The tendency, then, is to go to bold patterns that will catch the eye and suppress the fact that it is composed of scraps: a perfect example of a labor-intensive process that recycles used things into "new" ones.
The quilting stitching, starting from the necessity of holding the layers of the quilt together, also developed into a subtle aesthetic expression. In simple quilts the stitching will merely outline the pieced or appliqued pattern; but it can also provide a patterning of its own that creates a counterpoint to the main pattern. The Peach Tree quilt is used as a teaching aid because it uses several traditional quilting patterns from different regions. The combination is possible because the main pattern is a strong bordered medallion which gives the quilting patterns independent fields to operate in.

Like other labor-intensive rural processes, such as harvesting or barnraising, quilting sometimes was done cooperatively. The quilting bee then provided an occasion for socializing that did not conflict with the protestant work-ethic. It can still be used as a way of keeping the hands busy, and the protestant conscience still, while watching television. In general, those rural crafts that applied considerable labor to an aesthetic end used the time, say between supper and bed, that could not effectively be applied to more immediate needs.

Interestingly, the modern quilt is particularly a product of sophisticated industrial development, because the polyester fiber used for the batting, being lighter and warmer than cotton or wool, is a product of synthetic organic chemistry. One can raise a sheep, or grow cotton, and process a usable fiber by hand; but you need an immense capital investment to produce polyester. Recently DuPont has introduced a new hollow synthetic fiber with insulating properties approaching goose down. When available to quilters it will make possible quilts that are substantially more functional than the traditional ones, but which retain ail the possibility for expressing individual creativity within a traditional aesthetic.

We can, thus, come to the conclusion that there is no necessary conflict between craftsmanship, at least in the American style, and industrial technology. There may well be a conflict with the European style insofar as that represents the conspicuous consumption of hand labor for its own sake; but there is no inherent reason why industrial products cannot be made to satisfy a user's needs and still be aesthetically satisfying on the terms of "form follows function' and 'less is more".

But the design tradition of American industry is an ill-considered mixture--centered primarily on the convenience of the producer rather than the user, and following the notion that superfluous and superficial decoration will take our minds off inadequacies of function; steady in the belief that the design principles that characterized rural America in its first century are too sophisticated for the people to appreciate. And there seems to be too much inertia in "the system" to expect that to change: even if the economics of energy-intensive production is undergoing a revolution.
What we can do as individuals is simple: take what we need on our terms. If you want something that serves a mass need, and the drawbacks of producer-centered manufacture do not affect the function too badly, you use the product of industrial technology. You would not, for instance, get your canning jars hand-blown to order; though you might get a few storage canisters done that way.

If you want something that meets a particular need, in quality of function, or life-expectancy, or aesthetics, you go to an individual craftsman.
Or, if you believe in serendipity, you wait till you run across an "antique": a product of the past in which the American style of craftsmanship was reflected even in the products of our factories.

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