Origins of the American Handicrafts Revival
Like the American Settlement House Movement, the American Handicrafts Revival actually originated in England. The movement may be traced specifically to art critic John Ruskin, who decried the “dehumanizing” effects of industrial labor -- or the notion that machine work degraded the human spirit by separating artisans from the joy of creating -- and encouraged consumers to reject mass-produced goods. So dedicated was Ruskin to this notion that he urged Britons to shed the trappings of capitalism and industrialism -- including such technologies as the steam engine -- and form tight-knit, “utopian” communities based on handcrafting and agriculture. This idea never gained widespread appeal; but his insistence that wealthy young people take time out from their college careers, living and working among the urban poor, certainly did. Historian Eileen Boris credits Ruskin with sparking the English and American Social Settlement Movements.
A second English handcrafting advocate, wealthy artist William Morris, likewise insisted that industrial capitalism “polluted the landscape, mechanized men, and falsified architecture.” His solution was to found his own handcrafting firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture, and Metals, as an example of the marketability of finely crafted, non-mass produced items, and to advocate a return to the days of “true craftsmanship” -- or, more specifically, to the days of the Medieval European guilds, when artisans (presumably) crafted tools, furniture, and other items for their own use and for the use of others -- employing ornamentation and embellishments as they saw fit -- and were accorded a degree of respect unknown to unskilled nineteenth century industrial laborers. Not surprisingly, Ruskin’s ideas -- and his handcrafted goods, for that matter -- found favor among middle and upper class Britons, many of whom were Marxist-socialists and many of whom indeed worried that industrialization stood to rob British laborers of their dignity and degrade the nation’s artistic culture.It was these middle to upper middle class Britons who carried the English Arts and Crafts movement forward, primarily by paying to establish craft guilds, schools, and shops that became the hallmarks of the movement; by supporting the “artistic work of designers and craftsmen” who were then “challenging the existing [industrial capitalist] economic system”; and by shunning mass-produced craft items when furnishing their homes and businesses. Given the Socialistic political bent of many of the movement’s patrons, it should come as no surprise that the movement was rife with revolutionary theorizing -- specifically a belief that a return to individualistic craftsmanship might serve to topple the capitalistic order, thereby diminishing the role of “market forces” and “competition” in day-to-day human existence (and perhaps even abolishing them altogether). Ultimately, the movement succumbed to the industrial-capitalist forces that it sought to defeat. But it left its mark; industrialists, having learned that consumers were interested in purchasing “beautiful things,” even if said beautiful things were somewhat expensive, began hiring craftsmen and designers to raise the aesthetic quality to mass-produced wares.