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Arts and Statecraft

Is the history of America a history of craft?

Craft: An American History by Glenn Adamson. Bloomsbury, 400 pages.

The man who dreamed up Colonial Williamsburg wrote that he wanted to create a “living shrine” to America’s colonial past. This idea of a shrine that was also alive was a curious one, but it captured the theory that something of the past needed to be transported literally into the present. In 1934, it was: 301 acres of Williamsburg, Virginia were restored and reverted to eighteenth-century conditions, in an effort funded largely by John D. Rockefeller Jr., heir to the Standard Oil Fortune. The shrine was brought to life by reenactors, among them silversmiths and cabinetmakers and eventually gunsmiths and coopers and printers. It became largely devoted to old-fashioned American craft.

The whole endeavor was an act of editing and erasure. As historian Glenn Adamson writes in his new book Craft: An American History, Williamsburg presented “a very partial view of the past.” Modern buildings were removed and replaced in a process that was less “restoration” than remaking. The park was segregated when it opened, and its first programs about slavery would not be in place until 1979. The crafts, too, were heavily curated. As Adamson describes, there were thriving contemporary crafts in the Williamsburg area, and many of the period artisans were in fact craftsmen, trained in contemporary methods, who then donned costumes to show off outmoded techniques to crowds. One of the park’s first silversmiths, Max Rieg, had trained at the Bauhaus and made modernist designs in his spare time. Meanwhile, the park contracted with the Kittinger Company in Buffalo, New York, to make what would be called “authentic reproductions” of original pieces in a factory, which would become bestsellers.

This is a very American story: craft was being performed in an effort to conjure an imagined, unreal past, and that branding was in turn used to sell things. Meanwhile, the realities of contemporary making were mostly ignored in service of the myth. Many American myths are about making things: Paul Revere’s silversmithing, Betsy Ross’s flag-sewing, Benjamin Franklin at the printing presses and tinkering with his inventions. (Even “Make America Great Again” starts with that loaded word). In Craft, Adamson examines these foundational myths, some more grounded in reality than others. He also documents early histories of craft that were marginalized or erased, including Native traditions before and after settlers arrived, and the craft traditions of enslaved people in the nineteenth century. A picture emerges of “craft” as at once central to the mainstream American imagination, and often disregarded in reality, especially when its practitioners were Native, Black, Latino, and/or women.

Craft was being performed in an effort to conjure an imagined, unreal past, and that branding was in turn used to sell things.

Adamson’s sweeping survey moves from pre-revolutionary times to the present day, zeroing on the stories of particular artisans and makers. There are many contradictions to be found in these stories. Some, like Ben Franklin’s, are stories of self-making and individuality. Others are about collectivity: building political resistance or alternative economic systems, or literally working together to create something by hand. The tensions around competing visions of crafting have repeatedly surfaced throughout this history, as Adamson documents. Reading Craft, I began to wonder if these ideals could be reconciled at all.

What is craft, anyway? Adamson writes, “I try to use [the word] in a simple, commonsense way: whenever a skilled person makes something using their hands, that’s craft.” Even in this broad definition, there is plenty of contested ground: What constitutes “skilled?” What qualifies as making something by hand? And why wouldn’t painting, for instance, fall under this rubric? The question of what constitutes craft has long been policed in ways that are racialized, gendered, and inflected with biases about class. Adamson’s framework includes things we might think of as “industry,” like riveting and joinery and textile production, as well as things we might think of as “art,” like abstract studio ceramics.

By taking a broad view, Adamson is able to make the case that craft has been central to every chapter of American history. While many of its practitioners may have been marginalized, economically and artistically, he documents their presence in every significant political moment of the last three centuries.

 This also means that craft has been harnessed to wildly different political ends. In the late nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement influenced the thinking of many American reformers concerned about factory conditions. Though some reformers approached craft with a nostalgic and paternalistic bent, others were attempting to imagine an alternative economy based on valuing both skill and labor. “Art must be of the people if it is to be art at all,” wrote activist Ellen Gates Starr, who worked with Jane Addams to found Chicago’s Hull House, which included a Labor Museum that offered public demonstrations and classes in trades. “It is only when a man is doing work he wishes done, and delights in doing, and which he is free to do as he likes, that his work becomes a language to him.” In the vision of these reformers, Adamson notes, craft and labor were intrinsic to a more just society.

Only a few decades later, however, craft was seized upon by political conservatives like Henry Ford; even as his assembly lines threatened both the economic model and spirit of artisanship, Ford created a museum devoted partly to American craft. As Adamson notes, he situated craft as a stepping-stone toward industrial progress. This pattern of opposing interpretations continued. Craft could be commercial and fundamentally consumerist, like the DIY home-improvement movements of the 1950s; it could also be staunchly anti-capitalist, like any number of utopian craft-based communities founded in the twentieth century (Drop City, for one). It could be pacifist, as many countercultural crafters who opposed the Vietnam War were, and given Adamson’s broad definition, it has also played a role in almost every armed conflict in American history, particularly World War II, to which he devotes an entire chapter.

It is not clear that we can look to anything specific in “craft politics” that transcends or complicates plain old politics.

Adamson does not always apply enough pressure to these contradictions. “If there was a single event that emblematized the new fault line in American craft politics, it was the so-called Hard Hat Riot of May 8, 1970,” he writes. Four days after the Kent State shootings, protestors took to the streets of New York, angering union construction workers who were mostly pro-war and who saw this as unpatriotic activity. Union organizers encouraged their workers to go “break some heads.” And they did, descending on protestors with helmets, lead pipes, and wire clippers. “In the twentieth century, the hard hat had replaced the leather apron as the emblem of America’s skilled working class. Now it had been used as a weapon against unarmed civilians,” Adamson writes.

He situates this disturbing turn within a growing alignment between organized labor and right-wing politics, as well a broader culture war. But it is not quite clear how to think through the “craft politics” here, and especially what role craft might have played in inspiring either the protesters or the rioters. How are we to understand this symbol of workmanship turned into a weapon? Is craft even relevant or valuable in analyzing this history, or is it better read through the lens of other forces that affected the ideological priorities of organized labor during this period? How are we supposed to parse the fact that both trade unionists and hippies made things with their hands? Is there something particular to craft that makes this sad story legible? These questions are largely left unanswered. It is not clear that we can look to anything specific in “craft politics” that transcends or complicates plain old politics.

“Can craft save America?” This is the title of Adamson’s final chapter, a question he borrows from a list made by a class of masters’ students in craft studies. It is an obvious provocation, and Adamson is quick to recognize the caveats: “This seemed to me a remarkable thing to ask, partly because it took for granted that America needed saving—from what, or whom, I wondered?—but also because the question had been asked so many times before, though not quite so explicitly.” Indeed, it was an animating question for both conservative craft nostalgists like Rockefeller and left-leaning craft activists like the reformers. Adamson takes it up in a contemporary context and argues that yes, perhaps it can.

At a time of unusually fierce political conflict, it does seem possible that craft might once again do its part to “save America.” The same qualities that often make it divisive—its connection to livelihood, pride, and everyday experience—may help us cross ideological boundaries that otherwise seem impregnable. Craft may regain its place at the nation’s center rather than out on the warring flanks. It may even liberate itself from the racism, xenophobia, and sexism that have formed such a tragic part of its story in America.

This seems to me like a remarkable thing to believe. He acknowledges that this might sound like “unwarranted optimism,” but goes on to document some of the similarities between the present landscape and seventeenth century artisanal economy. Contemporary artisanship, he argues, is less a freighted social cause and more a burgeoning livelihood, including in ex-industrial centers like the Midwest and Southwest. Technology has made sales and distribution and networking easier, and a growing preference for handmade, high-quality goods has created a fragile but growing craft economy. Yet it is still hard see how this will serve to bridge the gaps he describes. He writes that if the history of American craft “offers one single lesson, it is this: We are all in it together. This history tells us to refuse the false choice between individualism and community, to see in craft a unique connection between these apparently opposing values.”

While craft has a central place in American history, it is caught in its bywaters and currents.

It would seem to me that the lesson is almost the opposite—that these tensions between collectivity and individualism have repeatedly proven difficult to bridge, by craft or any other means. One particularly poignant example that Adamson offers earlier is “The Community of True Inspiration,” a thriving religious settlement founded in 1842 in Amana, Iowa. They were German immigrants and skilled makers who sold their printed wool textiles, leather goods, and furniture. “Communist in their internal dealings, they were praised by outsiders as ‘fair-dealing and cash-paying, and highly adept in their trades,” Adamson writes. He notes also that they were puzzling to outsiders: they dressed alike and “seemed totally lacking in individualism.” Each day’s work was marked with a bell, but they seemed largely free of urgency or ambition. Yet they managed to prosper. Adamson writes, “Economically, the Inspirationists should have been the envy of any American town; ideologically, they were everything the rest of America was not.”

When the Great Depression set in, however, their community fell apart. In 1932, in a move that the elders called “the Great Change,” the local industries set up as a private firm called Amana Society Inc. They began manufacturing beverage coolers after the repeal of Prohibition. In 1965, Adamson tells us, the Amana Society was purchased by Raytheon. It is now part of the Whirlpool Corporation.

Stories like this seem more to emphasize the immense difficulty of the project Adamson is laying out. It would seem impossible to rely on the winds of economic change to uplift American artisans and in so doing produce nothing short of a social and cultural transformation. Not to mention that the sector of the economy that is “goods-producing” remains absolutely dwarfed by the service sector.

What becomes particularly limiting in this final chapter is Adamson’s choice to organize the book around the notion of “craft” as a practice. If we are looking for transformation or lessons, we lose something by prioritizing methods of making, rather than the social and political conditions of the people who are doing that making. In his conclusion, Adamson seems to fall into a trap that he himself has been attuned to throughout his history of craft, one that is common both to craft nostalgists and reformers: the seductive idea that there is something inherent to craft that might uplift not just individuals but communities. The sad lesson I read in many of Adamson’s vivid case studies is that while craft has a central place in American history, it is caught in its bywaters and currents. It would seem that these forces shaped craft as much or more than crafters shaped American history.