Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Twilight of Handicraft Production


"The crafts had a long and venerable past that began with human history and reached maturity in the guilds of Europe. When transplanted to America, they evolved free from the fetters of the guild system- and in a way that set them apart from the new industries. Classes, in fact, were as alien to the crafts as artisanal skills were to textile operatives. Tradesmen thought of themselves and were considered to be part of a fluid hierarchy that consisted of master craftsmen, journeymen, and apprentices. Masters were proprietors who did everything from waiting on customers to ordering supplies and raw materials and keeping the books, such as they were. They also laid out the work, supervised hirelings, and worked along with their employees. Most were former journeymen, skilled workers paid by the day or the piece depending on the trade. Journeymen were onetime apprentices who usually began their indentures as teenagers and spent three to seven years learning the “art and mystery” of their callings under the stewardship of a master. They could expect room, board, and other necessities, as well as the indulgence of their natural fathers. They were punished by their masters when insubordinate but protected from external authority at all times. Between the ages eighteen and twenty-one apprentices were promoted to journeyman and given a suit of clothes as a symbol of manhood and a set of tools in recognition of their formal entry into the fraternity of the trade. Apprentices-turned-journeymen were for the first time entitled to a wage, even though some were paid modest sums and did not expect to be permanent wage earners. In the best of circumstances journeymen were masters in the making busily accumulating resources in order to set up shop of their own

All around journeymen who turned rough-cut timber into elegant furniture could still be found in the 1850s, as could accomplished building tradesmen, but their numbers were shrinking. More and more furniture makers worked in garretlike shops on single lines of goods for wholesale in a process best described as a nonmechanized assembly line. Some cut out the parts, usually by hand but increasingly on steam-powered saws, that were assembled by another team, and finished by still another. The twilight of handicraft production was near at hand throughout the North."

- from "Artisans into Workers" by Bruce Laurie

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