June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
A portfolio of some small things rendered large by memory
In an age of industrial conglomerates, with manufactured goods stamped out by the billions in processes ruled over by computers and dominated by a handful of major firms, it is sometimes difficult to remember that we were once a nation of workshops, when nearly every town and region had one or more modest little factory producing the tools and untensils of everyday life—barrel staves and bottlescaps, saws, chains, and locks, nails, bottles, vegetable graters, and scores of other humble, useful things. Most of these concerns were family owned and operated; most employed no more than a few dozen workers; and most operated on standards of individual craftsmanship alien to our world today. And they proliferated; in 1870, for example, there were 6,646 individual factories turning out tin, copper, and sheet-iron ware in this country, 4,901 barrel makers, and 2,891 woolen mills. By the turn of the century, the wheels of amalgamation had ground down thousands of these individual firms, and few would survive beyond a generation after that. Today, the small-town factory seems as rare as the desert pupfish.
That is what invests the photographs in this portfolio with a special quality, for the objects shown are artifacts just as surely as any pottery shard found in an archaeological dig. They were collected, arranged, and photographed by John Gruen, who has a particular affection for these relics and a special way of looking at them. “To me,” he says, “they are the remnants of an age that almost no one even remembers—a kind of evolutionary period that lay between the almost primitive industrial arts of the blacksmith and the so-called sophisticated technology of today. What I’m trying to do is give these objects the kind of permanence—through art—that the people who made them had in mind when they crafted them.”