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Pleasure In Creation

June 2024
11min read

Born in response to the shoddy, machine-made goods available in the marketplace, the Arts and Crafts movement in America began in isolated workshops and spread to the public at large, preaching the virtues of the simple, the useful, and the handmade

THROUGHOUT AMERICA GRADE SCHOOLS AND summer camps teach “arts and crafts.” In my rural school we mitered wooden boxes, hammered decorative copper, and crackle-glazed clay pots—all under the gaze of a man who wore a dirty smock and a white beard, marks of individuality unknown to other instructors. We worked as if within an ancient order (or, in our case, youthful disorder) of craftsmen. But no one ever explained why we undertook such labors—so unlike the multiplication tables for future engineers, the test tubes for future doctors, the books for future teachers. Why fifty minutes in any school day went to arts and crafts puzzled me. Since then I have learned.

This year the phrase arts and crafts reaches its 100th anniversary. This year also (and next), an exhibition showing the full range of the American Arts and Crafts movement—including work in wood, metal, pottery, and other forms, all brought together by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—will reach museums in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York City. The show casts light not just on American education, and not just on a particular direction in American art from the late nineteenth century to the First World War; it illumines also a major response of American society to the clangor and roar of the Industrial Revolution.

The Arts and Crafts movement originated not in America but in Britain. Like most movements, it had no clear birthdate. But it did have its documented christening, in May 1887, when a London bookbinder coined a name for Britain’s new Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. In its thought the society looked back more than three decades, to the writings of John Ruskin (which, in turn, looked back more than four centuries, to the Middle Ages).

The vision of Ruskin, the first professor of art history at Oxford and the most aggressive art critic of his day, defined virtually every landmark that the American Arts and Crafts movement would steer by. He praised love of natural ob- jects for their own sake and praised the wisdom that began in close attention to “the wandering tendril, and the budding of the flower.” He attacked construction techniques that obscured the maker’s choice of natural materials and applauded design that revealed the “secrets of its structure.” He attacked machine work for turning men into cogwheels and attacked the division of labor, which he insisted had divided not labor but human beings—had divided them into “small fragments and crumbs of life.” He attacked all work that forced men to perform like tools in order to make precise copies, and called, above all else, for “healthy and ennobling labor,” which would free each worker for creative invention.

The ideas of Ruskin the philosopher took shape in the workshop of William Morris the designer. Not long after Morris encountered Ruskin’s ideas at Oxford, his firm began producing its solid wooden chairs, elegant wallpapers, and, eventually, rich carpets and tapestries. With his smock tucked under his armpits and his forearms dyed to his elbows, printing his wallpapers with woodblocks and tinting his tapestries with vegetable dyes, Morris personified the fusion of modern prophet with medieval artisan. “Nothing can be a work of art,” he proclaimed, “which is not useful.” This reverence for both user and maker divided arts and crafts from the nearly contemporaneous “aesthetic movement.” Whereas the aesthete sought to encourage “art for art’s sake,” the arts-andcrafts reformer sought, as Wendy Kaplan of the Museum of Fine Arts puts it, “to incorporate art in everyday activity,” to embrace “art for life’s sake.”

Morris’s workshop at Merton Abbey attracted American pilgrims hoping to witness the sort of spiritually healthy labor described by Ruskin in his idealized vision of the Middle Ages. The Americanization of arts and crafts, which began to gain speed in the 1890s, took new impetus from trips to England by two apparently dissimilar men—a former soap merchant named Elbert Hubbard and a rather conventional furniture maker named Gustav Stickley.

Stickley and Hubbard marketed furniture that was distinctly American and built to last.

In 1894 Hubbard visited Morris’s Merton Abbey and, in his words, “caught it.” Within two years, in the little village of East Aurora, New York, Hubbard had created his Roycroft community (see  ‘Commune’ in East Aurora,” American Heritage, February 1971), dedicated to printing books, making furniture, and, through its magazine, The Philistine, publicizing Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard, although he affected an oversized bow tie fit for an aesthetic dandy, liked his magazine to present him as the devoted leader of a group of monkish craftworkers. It called him Fra Elbertus.

In 1898 Gustav Stickley—to that point a furniture maker in the Queen Anne and Shaker styles—traveled to Britain, where he saw the furniture designs of two architects working in the Ruskin and Morris tradition. Within three years, in the village of Eastwood, New York, he turned his workshop into a profit-sharing guild, began producing a new line of what he would call “Craftsman” furniture, and started his own magazine. Stickley’s The Craftsman (which devoted its first issues to Ruskin and to Morris) became the bible of American arts and crafts. Unlike Hubbard, Stickley cultivated a manner that suggested, if not a monk’s piety, at least a schoolmaster’s judiciousness. His magazine showed less balance, however—describing him as a man who “rose, as it were, out of the forests, in answer to the cry: ‘Who shall deliver us from...the thralldom of extravagance, the hereditament of conventions?’ ”

Stickley and Hubbard vied not merely in self-promotion. From upstate New York villages they competed also to market a solid, spare furniture—distinctly American and built to last until the Dark Ages come again. Its strong lines seemed determined to make the graceful legs of a Queen Anne chair look the product of feminized aristocracy. It made even Shaker furniture look somewhat effete. (The language of male-female struggle was not incidental to The Craftsman. It urged men to stamp simplicity on home design, which, it claimed, largely due to the “extraordinary progress of womankind,” had “run riot” with hysterical furnishings.)

A typical Stickley chair stood foursquare on rectangular pillars of oak, seeming as much architecture as furniture. From pillar to pillar stretched horizontal joists—made of full-grained oak that suggested the beauty of dark marble. Where pillar met joist they interpenetrated, then to be again penetrated by dowels, all locking together in an indestructible oaken puzzle. The lockjoints’ conspicuous protrusions constituted virtually all of the chair’s “decorative effects,” for, as The Craftsman suggested, a designer who gave way to nonfunctional decoration was on a slippery slope; “ornament,” it said, “grows as it goes, a snowball on a muddy road.”

Stickley and Hubbard were producing furniture intended to do more than rest the weary, as Stickley’s earliest known advertisement suggests: it carried the heading “Furniture as an Educator” and proclaimed that its product would “help to make life better and truer by its perfect sincerity.” Their furniture became known as “mission oak,” a name with an obscure history. Although resisted by both Stickley and Hubbard (who preferred their own trademarks), the name persisted, perhaps because it recalled the spare Franciscan missions of California, or perhaps because it implied that this furniture had a social mission—to reform American taste.

While Hubbard’s and Stickley’s craftsmen worked in their communities, the arts-and-crafts aesthetic was spreading across America. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, arts-and-crafts societies sprang into existence in such cities as Boston, Chicago, and New York, and in such towns as Deerfield, Massachusetts. In the same period, arts-and-crafts guilds and arts-and-crafts communities took shape, often beginning with a rosy vision of rural work and with names like Rose Valley and New Clairvaux. Many modeled themselves to some extent on Morris’s Merton Abbey and took inspiration from Ruskin’s craftsman of the Middle Ages.


The homage to the medieval showed not just in craft communities but in craft itself, and most heavily in metalwork. A Craftsman article of 1906, for instance, evoked fantasies of medieval knights using wrought-iron keys to rescue maidens locked behind wrought-iron bars. As for the medieval worker’s artistry, The Craftsman assured its readers that “all the modern appliances for manipulating iron” could not match it. One artist who shared this view was Samuel Yellin, a native of Poland who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1906. He studied medieval originals for inspiration and insisted that good work emerged only from the “heat of creation” generated when man pounded hammer on anvil.

This wrought-by-hand, one-of-a-kind aesthetic did not stop at guilds and specialty shops. It entered the factories of major manufacturers. By the late 1890s one of America’s great silver companies, the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, had opened a school to train makers of a special line of silverware—shaped piece by piece with hammers and based on arts-andcrafts ideals. Gorham sold its expensive new line as Martelé (in French, “hammered”).

Much as metalwork forged a link to the medieval, pottery showed its malleability to many purposes. In 1897, at the country’s first major exhibition of arts and crafts, held in Boston, the Grueby company introduced what may represent the archetypal arts-and-crafts pottery. In a brochure published soon after, the company pledged its allegiance to the Ruskinian creed: “With the advent of machinery the intimate relation of the potter to his ware disappeared,” Grueby declaimed. “Here it has been resumed.” A typical Grueby vase almost defines the arts-and-crafts ideal for ornament: that form interlock with function, that decoration not be applied to an object but emerge organically from it. One green and plantlike Grueby vase, for example, seems to grow from the edge-to-edge lapping of three broad leaves and three narrow flowers; removal of any of these six ornaments would drain the vase of water. Grueby pottery also seems designed to sit on a Stickley table (as it did often in the pages of The Craftsman), its cucumber-green glaze harmonizing with the rich tones of dark oak.

In fact, many craftsmen did open their shops to machinery, but often grudgingly.

Other potteries took arts and crafts in different directions. Some, including the Rookwood Pottery Company of Ohio and the Clifton Art Pottery of New Jersey, joined an emerging desire to seek, in American history, an equivalent of Ruskin’s noble medieval man; their search ended in the production of pottery with American Indian motifs and faces. Others saw the Arts and Crafts movement as a stimulus for the reform of education. Many of those educational ventures hoped to teach young women to support themselves honorably. Probably the most ambitious of such potteries fired its first kiln in 1910 at University City, near St. Louis (see “An Empire of Women,” August/September 1984). It brought together a businessman seeking to improve women’s lives, a great French ceramist, and the publisher of Keramic Studio, the leading pottery journal of American arts and crafts, Adelaide Robineau. The experiment quickly attracted more than three hundred students to its correspondence courses and another thirty or more to University City, but financial problems forced the pottery to close after only a few years of operation.

In addition, pottery lent itself to an emergent arts-and-crafts obsession: craft as therapy. The Marblehead Pottery of Massachusetts opened in 1904 with a plan to rehabilitate “nervously worn out patients” by allowing them to learn again how “to use their hand and brain in a normal, wholesome way.” The Arequipa Pottery of California won a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition for a display that offered fairgoers a chance to admire its wares and watch pot-making by convalescing tuberculosis patients.

But while arts-and-crafts promoters labored to cure society’s ills, the movement itself was dying. Grueby, for example, went out of business in 1913. The company succumbed, apparently, to a general malaise: the arts-and-crafts premium on handwork made goods expensive. Its premium on simplicity made them easy to imitate, cheaply and per- haps shoddily, with machinery. Its restrained ornamentation made many works look similar. As early as 1900, in a review of Grueby ware, Keramic Studio both praised its originality ("no collection would be perfect without a piece") and foreshadowed its demise ("seeing so many pieces together gives a sense rather of monotony"). By 1912 the artsand-crafts societies in Chicago and Boston had stopped printing their journals, and the arts-and-crafts communities of Rose Valley and New Clairvaux had folded. By 1916 The Craftsman and The Philistine had ceased publication, Gustav Stickley’s enterprises had been forced into bankruptcy, and Elbert Hubbard had gone down with the Lusitania.


But the Arts and Crafts movement met its end, as it made its beginning, in the company of things newborn—not just things dying. By no great coincidence the genesis in 1887 of the term arts and crafts followed by only half a dozen years on the birth of another, far more potent phrase: the Industrial Revolution. And as the Arts and Crafts movement declined, it surrendered to new forces: wrought iron yielded to chrome, the craftsman to the corporation, the Middle Ages to the modern. New currents of design flowed from the machine-smooth Bauhaus in Europe (founded 1919) and, in America, from the creations of the machine-smitten Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s challenge to Arts and Crafts arose from within the movement itself. In 1901, only four years after he had helped found the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, Wright launched his attack on wrought-by-hand extremists: “In the Machine,” he proclaimed at a meeting of the society, “lies the only future of art and craft....” In fact, many craftsmen did open their shops to machinery, but often grudgingly. Stickley, for instance, embodied his movement’s contradictory impulses: he indicted the “introduction of machinery” because it hindered “enjoyment” and “growth” and, writing in the same year, defended the “well-nigh perfect machinery” of the modern age because it helped prepare materials “better and more economically.”

We still find tonic in the hand-thrown pot, the hand-carved chair.

Wright, however, felt no contradiction. His furniture design, like his philosophical outpourings, combined respect for the natural and simple with respect for the machine’s “wonderful cutting, shaping, smoothing, and repetitive capacity.” When he attacked the craftsmen of Chicago, he prophesied wildly in their own language, preaching of Ruskin and Morris, praising machinery as the great ally of “nature” and “simplicity,” proclaiming it would bring beauty to “the poor as well as the rich.” He called on his listeners to try to imagine an artsand-crafts society that could see the machine not as “the destroyer of their present ideals” but as “their salvation in disguise.” And the herald of that salvation, he let them know, already could be heard among them in “the heavy breathing, the murmuring, the clangor, and the roar,” in the voice of the “greatest of machines, a great city.”

For the Arts and Crafts movement, Wright prophesied not just wildly but too well. As he anticipated, the main stream of arts-and-crafts philosophy could not survive. But its ideology, which had arisen in the tendriled and woodblocked preachings of Ruskin and Morris, did not so much subside into the earth as divide and flow on. Its main current fed into the streamlined aphorisms claimed (though not necessarily coined) by modernism: form follows function; less is more; a house is a machine for living in. Utterly transformed, arts-and-crafts ideology helped build the glass box and the Manhattan skyline.

But a secondary stream of arts and crafts made its escape. It went upcountry, Down East, back to the land—wherever the rural craftsman works today, making and selling wares at WoodsEdge Wool or Saltmarsh Pottery or TreeFinery Woodshop. And it went into the schools, where seventh-graders mix potters’ glazes and miter wooden boxes—"the part of all education,” said Stickley, arguing for craft training in public schools, “that seems most necessary to life.”

To the extent that the World Trade Center overshadows the grade school, the modernist has overwhelmed the craftsman. But turn-of-the-century arts and crafts remind us that we will still find tonic in the hand-thrown pot, the hand-carved chair. They may well represent, as one enthusiast put it, “the outcome of a free person’s pleasure in creation.” In any event, they stand today as impressive relics, shaped as much by moral philosophy as by aesthetic beauty. And they stand also—quixotic in the highest sense—as the creation of romantics who chose to tilt, in the guise of medieval gallants, against the windmills of modernity.


At the same time, though born of philosophy, these arts-and-crafts artifacts remain at heart antiphilosophical. Don’t, they seem to say, don’t sit there thinking! Make something! In my grade-school arts-and-crafts class, while students elsewhere sat reading, we absorbed a message spoken with Ruskinian spirit but with an American twang. I now recognize the voice, I think. It sounds like Charles I. Lummis, one of the early proselytizers of arts and crafts, who built his Pasadena house with stones lifted from its surrounding canyon and with twelvefoot beams that he adzed himself. “Any fool can write a book,” said Lummis, who must have had his fill of arts-andcrafts philosophizing. “But it takes a man to dovetail a door.” That’s what they taught in grade school—all but the dovetailing.


Some good books on the Arts and Crafts movement include “ The Art That Is Life”: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920, by Wendy Kaplan and other scholars (A New York Graphic Society Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1987); The Arts and Crafts Movement, by Gillian Naylor (The MIT Press, 1971); Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, by David M. Gathers (New American Library, 1981); and No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 , by T. J. Jackson Lears (Pantheon, 1981).

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