Origins of the American Handicrafts Revival: Page 2

Aware as they were of the political and social currents then sweeping Great Britain, American Progressives in the late nineteenth century adopted Ruskin’s and Morris’s theorizing as their own. The resulting American Arts and Crafts Movement was less blatantly socialistic than its British predecessor, but it nevertheless shared a number of similarities with the parent movement. For example, American arts and crafts advocates sought to free laborers from the drudgery and “dehumanization” associated with mass production; to separate the “profit motive” from the creative process; and to ensure that craftspeople produced objects that were at once beautiful and useful. The primary differences between the American and English branches of the movement were, according to Boris, the fact that the American movement “never played a role in the [nation’s] socialist [political] program,” and the fact that American arts and crafts revivalists were more divided on the value of labor-saving machinery, with some condemning it altogether, and others, such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright, insisting that a machine was “nothing more than an enlarged [craftsmen’s] tool.” Otherwise, the two movements manifested themselves in remarkably similar ways, with middle class “esthetes” establishing handcrafting societies, shops, and craftsmen’s guilds across the United States.

Given their desire to elevate the urban immigrant poor, their belief that handcrafting offered a viable solution to the economic and social ills arising from industrialization, and their realization that the next generation of middle and upper class Americans would need training if they were to develop the sense of “taste” needed to perpetuate the movement, it should come as no surprise that Progressive American educators sought to integrate principles of the Arts and Crafts Revival into the nation’s public education system. This they accomplished with a two-pronged strategy: on the one hand by introducing vocational arts and handicrafts courses into American school curricula, and on the other by forming “Public School Art Societies” whose job it was to donate paintings, sculptures, and other art objects to schools, thereby guaranteeing that children were exposed early and often to “beautiful art.” For much the same reason, urban social settlement workers began offering similar programs to their constituents. The first president of the Chicago Public School Art Society was none other than Hull House co-founder Ellen Gates Starr, who together with Jane Addams sought to enrich the lives of their urban immigrant neighbors by loaning them art objects, treating them to slide shows of renowned artistic works, and providing them with opportunities to draw.

In time, social settlement workers ventured out from America’s urban spaces and into the rural countryside -- particularly into the Appalachian South. As they went, they carried the principles of the Arts and Crafts Revival with them, applying them wherever possible to the task of elevating the region’s poor. Over the next several decades, settlement workers labored to save, and in many cases revive, traditional Southern Appalachian handicrafts. These handicrafts were then marketed to an American public who, having been taught by arts and crafts revivalists to shun mass produced goods in favor of the “traditional” and the “handmade,” were eager to furnish their homes with “authentic” American crafts.

Founded as it was in 1912, the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School, with its emphasis on weaving and handicraft production, played a prominent role in bringing the Arts and Crafts Revival to the Southern Appalachian region. For more on this topic, please see the essay entitled “Arrowcraft.”

 

 

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Weaving class, 1929

"Tying" a broom handle, circa 1930

 
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