A Brief History of American Craft
Posted on March 4, 2013
Editor’s Note: Dan Zubrzycki is a writer/consultant/jack-of-all-trades gentleman currently living in Philadelphia. He will be writing a series on the history of American craft for us over the next several weeks. You can see his most recent article for us about Frank & Oak by clicking here.
America itself was a work of craftsmanship. Forged by ambitious idealists, tempered in it’s own flaws, it’s bolts, nails, and stitching are the uninhibited hopes and dreams of those that built the first rough-hewn cabins. But the concept of craft has had a strange journey. In this series of articles I’m going to give a bit of thought to craftsmanship in America – ranging from looking at historical contexts as well as modern attitudes and applications.
But first, I’d like to take a look at a brief overview of it’s history in the US.
America’s first colonists were craftsmen out of necessity. A craftsman is distinguished from a tradesman for the quality of what they create. Living on the frontier or in the nascent towns of early America, everything you produced had to be top of the line. With general stores only capable of selling basic supplies, craftsmen contributed to society by providing top of the line supplies. As America matured and became increasingly industrial, craft returned to a place of luxury where it stayed through the Great Depression.
The culmination of industrialization in WWII created a ubiquity in ownership. To be American was to own products similar to those everyone else owned. We sought to align ourselves with patriotism – and dissociate ourselves with communism – by buying products which branded themselves as American.So began the modern struggle between individualism and a corporate attempt to monetize. Through the 60’s and 70’s, mass market producers battled minor revolutions. A brief craft beer movement is crushed by Anheuser Busch, the music industry is officially capitalized, image based advertising is essentially invented.
The uneducated consumer is born. Market research drives popular music and film, art is constructed, craft abandoned. While ubiquity doesn’t quite hold sway as it did before, brand allegiance does. While all hope seems lost, that darkness paves the path towards a craft revolution.
Then, moving into the 90’s, a spark is lit. The children of the 70’s coming to age, the rise of the internet – but mass production starts to lose it’s appeal. The concept of ethical consumerism not only arrives on the scene, but also gains massive support. We’re now living in an era where adherence to large brands seems a faux pas, and a constant pursuit for the next niche is lauded.
This is the modern American craft scene – inhabited by passionate artisans, fueled by the democratization of the internet, and driven by savvy consumers. Knowledge and skill have replaced brand identity, which allows for us to feel unified by a common intellectual goal, to support passion over profit. We’ll continue to follow this idea, and flesh out concepts proposed in this first article, weekly.