Revival in Context
While the core period of the Craft Revival was from the mid 1890s into the 1940s, its roots extend back a half century and across the Atlantic to England where the Industrial Revolution was changing traditional society. Its philosophical beginnings were articulated by Thomas Carlyle whose Past and Present (1843) expressed the notion that “All work, even cotton spinning, is noble.” 1 Carlyle inspired a number of other English thinkers who followed in his wake. Most influential among them were philosopher and professor John Ruskin and his disciple William Morris. Writing in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, Ruskin was England’s most vocal cultural critic. He questioned whether the ground swell of industrialization contributed to the betterment of English society or whether it undermined long-held community values.
While industrialization brought goods into more homes via an increasingly mechanized manufacturing process, factory-made goods came with a cost to communities. For generations, goods had been produced in cottage-style industries where apprentices learned from master craftsmen. Skills were often passed down through family affiliations. The material needs of a community were made locally where each village supported its own potter, blacksmith, weaver, and woodworker. As industrialization grew, the making of things became the province of a new economic entity—the factory—replacing the traditional workshop. It wasn’t so much that the factory was larger. While that was often true, what particularly distinguished the factory from the studio were changes to craft practice. New factory methods broke work into small bits, resulting in long days that were monotonous and grueling. A division of labor, sweatshop conditions, and the exploitation of children characterized much of the new industrial environment. The result was that the worker was robbed of any pleasure from work.
Factory-style manufacturing also affected the objects produced. Increasingly, the factory elevated quantity over quality, a situation carried over into our own times. New technologies allowed things to be produced rapidly with little thought to their function and use. The products themselves were many, but not necessarily well made. By the middle of the 19th century, critics began to note that objects made by new technologies—cast iron in place of wrought or hammered iron, for example—were inferior to those made by traditional methods. Within a few decades, the great tradition of European wrought iron declined, as casting replaced the more time-consuming and skillful work made by hammering, driving the decorative smith toward extinction.
The craft of weaving changed as well, not so much as a product, but as a way of working. Weaving moved from the privacy of the home, where a single loom was commonly found beside the home hearth, to undergo the most dramatic change of any of the crafts. With the invention of the steam-powered loom in the late 18th century followed by the introduction of a wool-combing machine, the meditative and personal environment of the home loom gave way to the cacophony of the factory floor.
John Ruskin (1819-1900), an Oxford College professor, began to address his concerns about industrialization in his writing and lectures. He wrote prolifically—Modern Painters (1843, 1846), Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Stones of Venice (1851, 1853)—texts that cast creativity and work in moral terms. Ruskin also introduced the idea of historic preservation as a duty “to preserve, as the most precious of inheritances, that of past ages.” 2 As Ruskin continued to develop this idea, his argument took a surprising twist, weaving in more esoteric points from a chapter titled “The Lamp of Life.” He claimed that the value of a building or artifact should not be based upon its beauty or its history alone, but rather upon “that spirit which is given by the hand and eye of the workman.” 3 Here Ruskin began to develop the notion that material culture was imbued with a spiritual force and, as such, was a reflection of the character of its maker. As handwork was more “honest,” so too did it embody complimentary qualities of “happiness,” “spirit,” and “life,” itself. These ideas, introduced in Seven Lamps, became critical to his subsequent writing.
On the bedrock of his own “stones” of Venice, John Ruskin laid a foundation for an international Arts and Crafts Movement, defined and reiterated in passionate lectures. His writing was so often quoted that his words appear like stock phrases in Arts and Crafts literature; “head and hand,” “dignity of labor;” even the label “arts and crafts” is a Ruskinian phrase. Within his lifetime, Ruskin’s books were read worldwide and translated into several languages. “On the Nature of Gothic,” a chapter from The Stones of Venice, is one of his most often cited essays. In its day it was labeled ”one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.” Ruskin’s essay didn’t suggest that society regress to the Middle Ages as some have claimed. Instead, he was selecting, albeit from the past, values he hoped to graft onto the present for the sake of the future. 4 But the chapter is elusive; few have actually read it from first to last, although like the Bible, it was quoted at length. What did “Nature of Gothic” mean to those who read it in the late 19th century, and what sustained its influence well into the twentieth?
The division of labor overtaking England in the 19th century fractured production into a mindless succession of tasks to be performed by factory “operatives.” Ruskin poetically described workers toiling under the yoke of an oppressive machine mentality:
Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them...[until the] soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last--a heap of sawdust. 5
Using such depictions of human workers as mechanized cogs in the machine that was the factory itself, Ruskin underscored his ideas with metaphor, creating a pun on the term “division of labor.”’
It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided; but the men:--Divided into mere segments of men--broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all...that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail. 6
Ruskin’s evangelical banner was picked up by the younger Englishman, William Morris (1834-1896). Difficult to characterize, Morris was a poet, architect, artist, printer, socialist, and entrepreneur. Always a political thinker, he identified with the worker. Morris was described by those who knew him in his “workman’s blouse, steeped in indigo, and with his hair outstanding wildly, he was in the habit of presenting himself cheerfully at the houses of his friends...entirely happy in his role of workman.” 7 Like John Ruskin, William Morris became a household name through his decidedly political output. Typical of his writing, the essay “Useful Work vs. Useless Toil” was an indictment of those who profited from the labor of others.
In 1861 Morris founded a company with the long subtitle, “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture, and Metals.” He began in earnest to experiment with the goal of producing beautiful objects to transform society into a socialist utopia. Although Morris succeeded in producing finely crafted objects, these items did not enter into the homes of the ordinary worker as he had hoped. Instead, objects made by Morris & Company were purchased by the upper-middle class. In spite of this failing, Morris succeeded in influencing the aesthetics and craft ethic of subsequent generations.
John Ruskin and William Morris were influential celebrities of their day. As unceasing advocates for good design and craftsmanship, their names appear well into the 20th century. Ruskin wrote in English of course, but his writing needed some “translating” anyway. His books were long, often extending to several volumes. Moreover, each densely written chapter made reference to specific, and sometimes esoteric, works of art or literature and was punctuated with meandering, and sometimes confusing, poetic metaphor. Still, Ruskin’s influence is not anecdotal, but well documented. It was his social doctrines that elicited the most praise...and the most condemnation. Tolstoy wrote, “Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times.” Unto This Last (1862), a treatise that formed the foundation of Ruskin’s socialist thinking, was acknowledged by Gandhi in his own autobiography. 8
It was the far reaching influence of Ruskin and Morris that prompted American craft promoter Gustav Stickley to dedicate the second issue of his new The Craftsman magazine to John Ruskin, a year after his death. In a turnabout that put the cart before the horse, the very first issue of The Craftsman was dedicated to William Morris, perhaps because, as “a household word throughout America,” 9 Morris would give name recognition to the nascent periodical.
In America there was evidence of the Ruskin/Morris vision everywhere. The production of “Mission” furniture, with its hallmarks of heft and exposed construction, was widespread. The “Morris” chair promised functionality and “honest” construction. In the Northeast Tiffany adapted the quintessential medieval artform of stained glass to domestic application. The Midwest saw the development of a new kind of factory, which in turn, produced a new kind of “art” pottery, not subject to a strict division of labor (although, in truth, most pieces were not made wholly by a single individual). Utopian communities, like Roycroft in upstate New York, were founded in pursuit of a holistic lifestyle, based upon quality craftsmanship and the production of leather-clad books and copper lamps. In Philadelphia Samuel Yellin adapted the Gothic style to 20th-century metalwork to create an imposing sense of significance to the public buildings of a still-young country.
Did the Ruskin/Morris philosophy reach into the highlands of Appalachia? Much writing about the South, and especially the upland South, is fraught with widely held assumptions. Because Appalachia was a geographically isolated place, it is generally assumed that it was, likewise, remote from the intellectual dialog of its day, but the region did play a proportionate role in the international dialog. Although physically removed from population centers—and most consciously so—Craft Revival leaders shared their thoughts and experiences through meetings, letters, conferences, personal contact, travel, and magazines. The founders of the Craft Revival in Appalachia observed each other and learned from each other's experiences via a network that linked settlement schools to production centers and to craftsmen, in spite of the lack of modern communications and transportation systems. The new genre of widely circulated magazines, international expositions, and the dissemination of ideas made possible by the availability of radio contributed to a growing knowledge of world events which culminated during World War I.
Many leaders of the Craft Revival were well aware of Ruskin and Morris; some were educated in the arts and others had first-hand experience with European culture. Eleanor Park Vance (1869-1954), woodcarver and co-founder of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate Industries, trained at the School of Design in Cincinnati where she studied woodcarving under Benn Pitman and William Fry, both English-trained woodcarvers. With her interest thus peaked, Vance traveled to England with collaborator Charlotte Louise Yale (1870-1958) before settling in western North Carolina to teach at a woodworking school for the children of workers on the Vanderbilt estate. Thus trained in England, through Vance and others like her, surprising trans-Atlantic links bound Appalachia to the core of the movement.
In Kentucky, Berea College’s Fireside Industries served as a model for many western North Carolina weaving centers. Weaving teacher Anna Ernberg (1874-1940)—herself a native Swede—wrote an pamphlet describing program goals with the title, Ruskin’s Ideal for Humble Homes. In it, Ernberg provides a brief history of craft making that concludes with the establishment of Berea’s Fireside Industries. Crediting the “Ruskin-Morris movement” beginning in her home country in the 1870s, she wrote,
I have seen in my own land what a blessing the awakened interest in home industries has been for rich and poor; how the demand for it was created by developing the taste for artistic surroundings, and how those that needed to earn their living were taught to produce things that would meet the taste of those that wanted to buy them. 10
In both England and America, and particularly in Appalachia, the craft worker was the direct ideological link between social reform and the Arts and Crafts movement. Author Allen Eaton (1878-1962) defined the movement in the text Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands along with his colleague Doris Ulmann (1882-1934) who captured its image. Their publication was a static vision of the dynamic ebb and flow of thought and action. Eaton was decidedly influenced by Ruskin and Morris and used their words frequently to pepper his talks and writing. He credited Morris with his definition of art as “not so much the thing that is done as the manner of doing it.” 11
Here the philosophy that informed the Craft Revival in Appalachia differed somewhat from its Northeast and Midwest incarnations. While acknowledging and celebrating the object, inherent in the object was the value placed on a process that had the capacity to enhance the life of its maker. Eaton echoed this philosophy once again when he wrote,
Every kind of work will be judged by two measurements: one by the product itself...the other by the effect of the work on the producer.
These two interwoven ideals were twin characteristics of the Craft Revival.
The combination of both issues—the aesthetics of the object and the social welfare of its maker—was to be the defining characteristic of the Craft Revival in Appalachia. While acknowledging and celebrating the object, inherent in the object was the value placed on a process that enhanced the life of its maker. This dual purpose was put well by craft promoter Frances Louisa Goodrich (1856-1944), who underscored the multivalent character of process when she wrote, Not texture of wool...alone is woven, but also...texture of character.
Throughout Appalachia woven coverlets were marketed as symbols of old-fashioned American perseverance and evidence of a national style. Certainly, throughout America, individual makers approached their work with aesthetic concern, but the primary motivation for the Craft Revival in Appalachia was founded on principle rather than aesthetics, a principle that embraced process as a means to achieving social value and meaning.
- M. Anna Fariello, 2007
1. Carlyle quoted in Daniel T. Rodgers. Work Ethic in Industrial America: 1850-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974, 1978) xi.
2. John Ruskin. Seven Lamps of Architecture, numbered Artists Edition (New York: Merrill & Baker, n.d.) 39.
3. Ibid. 184.
4. William Morris quoted in The Genius of John Ruskin, ed. John Rosenberg (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963) 123; see T. J. Jackson Lears. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); for an alternate view, see Fariello, “Regarding the History of Objects,” in Objects & Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003), eds. M. Anna Fariello and Paula Owen.
5. John Ruskin. The Stones of Venice, numbered Artists Edition (New York: Merrill & Baker, n.d.) 162.
6. Ibid. 165.
7. Irene Sargent. “William Morris: A Recent Study by Elizabeth Luther Cary,” The Craftsman (April 1903): 54.
8. Rosenberg, 11.
9. The Craftsman (October 1901) 1.
10. Anna Ernberg. Ruskin’s Ideal for Humble Homes (pamphlet) in the Berea College Archives, Berea, Kentucky.
11. Allen H. Eaton, “Mountain Handicrafts: What They Mean,” Southern Mountain Life and Work (July 1926): 19.
12. Allen H. Eaton. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937) 21.