Chapter 5:1 Background Information, Useful for Understanding Developments in Woodworking

Back to Chapter 5 

An Era of Challenge and Change

The Democratization of Taste, The Domestication of Culture

It was during the thirties that the idea of culture was domesticated, with important consequences. While we always had "culture", Americans began thinking in terms of patterns of behavior and belief, values and life-styles, symbols and meanings. During the 1930s, we find, for the first time, frequent reference to "An American Way of Life". (In 1933, for one example, the noted culture critic, Horace M Kallen's Individualism was subtitled, An American Way of Life. In 1940, discussing Agricultural extension work, United States Extension Service Reviewpage 156, opined,

"Our American unity, freely imposed, will demand hardship and sacrifice, ... the fulfillment of our dream for an American way of life dedicated to life, ...".
Naturally the concept has its darker side: on the place of crime in American life (and American ... especially Chapter 7, "Crime as an American Way of Life," is from the 1960 book, The End of the Ideology, by the sociologist, Daniel Bell. Richard Guy Wilson, et al, The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941, 1986, page 310:

"It was during this period that we find, for the first time, frequent references to an 'American Way of Life.' The phrase "The American Dream" came into ..."

The phrase "The American Dream" came into common use; it meant something shared collectively by all Americans, yet something different than the vision of an American Mission, the function of the organized nation itself.

Sources: Warren I. Susman, "The Culture of the Thirties," in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century New York: Pantheon, 1984, page 154; Susan Hegeman, Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, page 4.

Between 1920 and 1945, the social, economic, and political climate in America was affected by emergence from World War I, the Great Depression, and the gathering storm before World War II. World War I, the Great Depression, and the gathering storm before World War II and World War II itself.

This was an era of challenge and change: agriculture suffered extreme droughts, while urban populations had to endure difficulties provoked by the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and subsequent unemployment. In the 1930s, the promise of the New Deal and the rise of unions gave hope to the out-of-work factory worker.

The Great Depression and World War II define the quarter century that began in 1920. The economic collapse of the Depression wrought much physical suffering and psychological damage. For historian Caroline Bird, the impact of thee Great Depression was for America -- chillingly -- an "invisible scar"

Source: Caroline Bird, The Invisible Scar New York: David McKay, 1966.

Recent Social Trends

To find a formula for extracting the nation from the throes of economic chaos, in 1929, President Hoover commissioned a large two-volume study of the nation's problems. Published four years later in 1933 -- its title Recent Social Trends.

Ever since, historians and other scholars have mined the set as an incomparably rich source of information about the pre-Depression period  packed with data about all aspects of American life. It ranges from an inventory of mineral resources to analyses of crime and punishment, the arts, health and medical practice, the status of women, blacks, and ethnic minorities, the changing characteristics of the labor force, the impact of new technologies
on productivity  and leisure, and the roles of federal, state, and local governments. 


For this history it is particularly useful for data on housing of Americans, especially housing for Americans that might be amateur woodworkers. (For an account of how home-ownership factors into amateur woodworking, click here.) Below is a fragment from the set's "Introduction":



... The first third of the twentieth century has been filled with epoch-making events and crowded with problems of great variety and complexity. The World War, the inflation and deflation of agriculture and business, our emergence as a creditor nation, the spectacular increase in efficiency and productivity and the tragic spread of unemployment and business distress, the experiment of prohibition, birth control, race riots, stoppage of immigration, women's suffrage, the struggles of the Progressive and the Farmer Labor parties, governmental corruption, crime and racketeering, the sprawl of great cities, the decadence of rural government, the birth of the League of Nations, the expansion of education, the rise and weakening of organized labor, the growth of spectacular fortunes, the advance of medical science, the emphasis on sports and recreation, the renewed interest in child welfare?these are a few of the many happenings which have marked one of the most eventful periods of our history.
With these events have come national problems urgently demanding attention on many fronts. Even a casual glance at some of these points of tension in our national life reveals a wide range of puzzling questions....

Source: Recent Social Trends, 1933

Impact of the Depression

The passage reprinted below is a famous polemic by the literary-social critic, Edmund Wilson, writing in the liberal weekly, the New Republic. The impact of the Depression was causing many Americans to loose faith in capitalistic democracy, and encouraging them to look to other political systems for potential solutions. Briefly, Wilson flirted with Communism, but soon dismissed that solution as unrealistic. Writing in the early 1930s, Wilson's sharp incite captures as well as anyone of the era the desolate prospect of recovery of an earlier buoyancy about the promise of democratic capitalism.

Source: Edmund Wilson

New Republic
, January 14,1931, pages 235-238.; reprinted in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties 1952, 2007 New York: Library of America "An Appeal to Progressives" pages 426-430.

[under construction]

...In any case, American optimism has taken a serious beating; the national morale is weak. The energy and the faith for a fresh start seem now not to be forthcoming: a dreadful apathy, unsureness and discouragement is felt to have fallen upon us. It is as if we were afraid to go on with what we were doing before or as if we had no longer the heart for it. I want to suggest that the present depression may be nothing less than one of the turning-points in our history, our first real crisis since the Civil War. The Americans at the present time seem to be experiencing not merely an economic breakdown but a distinct psychological change. From the time of the Civil War on, all our enthusiasm and creative energy went into the development of our tremendous resources. This development had two aspects: one was the exploration of the continent and the engineering feats involved in reclaiming it; the other [the second] the amassing of gigantic fortunes. Today the discoveries have all been made: we no longer look toward the West, as the Europeans once looked to America, as to a world of untold treasures and wonders?and the excitement of mastering new seacoasts, new rivers, forests, prairies and mountains seems now completely spent. This was already true at the time of the European War [World War I] (when, incidentally, we were running into a business depression), but the war gave us a new objective?new discoveries, the discovery of Europe; new heroic stunts of engineering, the transportation of our army to France. Since the end of the war, however, we have, as a people, had nothing to carry us along except the momentum of money-making. We have been trying still to find in it the exhilaration of the moneymaking of our earlier period, which had been largely the exhilaration of the wildness and size of the continent?the breaking it in to the harness of the railroads, the stumbling upon sudden riches. But during these last years our hope and our faith have all been put behind the speed of mass production, behind stupendous campaigns of advertising, behind cyclones of salesmanship. Our buoyancy had been becoming hysterical. And the reaction from an hysterical exhilaration is a slump into despondency and inertia. What we have lost is, it may be, not merely our way in the economic labyrinth but our conviction of the value of what we were doing.

Money-making and the kind of advantages which a money-making society provides for money to buy are not enough to satisfy humanity?neither is a system like ours in which everyone is out for himself and devil take the hindmost, with no common purpose and little common culture to give life stability and sense. Our idolization of our aviators?our extravagant excitement over Lindbergh and our romantic admiration (now beginning to cool off) for Byrd?has been like a last desperate burst of American idealism, a last impulse to dissociate our national soul from a precipitate progress that was taking us from automobiles and radios straight through electric refrigerators to Tom Thumb golf-courses.

The old American ideal and legend of the poor boy who gets to be a millionaire, which gradually came to take the place of the poor boy who got to be President, has today lost almost all its glamor. Not only do people not hope to be Hoover?they do not even hope so often as they did to be Carnegie or Henry Ford. The romance of the legend of the poor boy was the romance of the old democratic chance, of the career open to the talents?but the realities of a millionaire society have turned out to be the monstrosities of capitalism: the children of the successful poor boy get lazy and sick on their father's money, and the poor boys who afterwards arrive on the scene discover that?with the crippling of the grain market, the elimination of the factory worker by the development of the machine and the decimation of the white-collar class, even though sometimes apparently well on their way to getting in on the big money themselves, by enormous business mergers?the
career is no longer open to the extent that had originally been hoped. What began as the libertarian adventure of eighteenth-century middle-class democracy seems to have ended in the cul de sac of an antiquated economic system. And capitalist-minded as the Americans have now become, they seem to feel they are in a cul de sac. It is as if they did not dare to go on. In spite of the fundamental absurdity of so much of what we have lately been doing, we are considerably better educated and more intelligent than we once were, and since the war we have been closer to Europe. The Buicks and Cadillacs, the bad gin and Scotch, the radio concerts interrupted by advertizing talks, the golf and bridge of the suburban household, which the bond salesman can get for his money, can hardly compensate him for daily work of a kind in which it is utterly impossible to imagine a normal human being taking satisfaction or pride?and the bond salesman is the type of the whole urban office class. The brokers and bankers who are shooting themselves and jumping out of windows have been disheartened by the precariousness of their profession, "but would they be killing themselves if they loved it"? Who today, in fact, in the United States, can really love our meaningless life, where the manufacturer raises the workers wages only in order to create a demand for the gadgets which for better or worse he happens to have an interest in selling them, while agriculture goes hang, and science and art are left to be exploited by the commercial laboratories, the market for commercial art illustration and the New York publishers' racket, or to be fed in a haphazard way by a dole from the fortunes of rich men who have been conscience-stricken or simply overpowered at finding themselves at the end of their careers with enough money on their hands to buy out an old-fashioned empire?

We liberals have professed not to love it, yet we have tried to believe in it, none the less. In a country where money changes hands so often and social position fluctuates so easily, where the minds of the working class have seemed largely to have been absorbed into the psychology of the middle class, we have been unable to believe in the Marxist doctrine that capitalism must eventually give rise to class warfare, and we have perhaps never taken sufficiently seriously Karl Marx's prediction that for many years to come the stupid automatic acquisitive instinct of humanity would still be so far ahead of its capacity for intelligent and disinterested behavior that the system of private enterprise would never even be able to run itself with foresight enough to avoid a wreck. It used to be pointed out that in America our support of this system was indestructible, since the stock market made it possible for anybody who had been able to save a little money to become a capitalist himself, with interests presumably identical with those of J. P. Morgan and Charlie Schwab. But can we expect that to be true in the future??and even if people persist in aspiring to be stockmarket capitalists, should they be encouraged in this or even left to their luck? Should they not rather be shown that their interests are incompatible with capitalism itself?

Yet the truth is that we liberals and progressives have been betting on capitalism?and that most of our heroes and allies, heterodox professors like Dewey and Beard, survivors of the old republican tradition like Woodrow Wilson and Justice Holmes, able and well-educated labor organizers like the officers of the Amalgamated, intelligent journalists like Lippmann and Chase, though all sincere and outspoken democrats, have been betting on capitalism, too. And now, in the abyss of starvation and bankruptcy into which the country has fallen, with no sign of any political leadership which will be able to pull us out, our liberalism seems to have little to offer beyond a discreet recommendation of public ownership of water power and certain other public utilities, a cordial feeling that labor ought to organize in a non-social-revolutionary way and a protest, invariably ineffective, against a few of the more obviously atrocious of the jailings, beatings-up and murders with which the industrialists have been trying to keep the working class docile.

Doesn't this program today seem rather inadequate? We liberals have always insisted on the desirability of a planned society?the phrase "social control" has been our blessed Mesopotamian word. If this means anything, does it not mean socialism? And should we not do well to make this plain? It may be said that at the present time it is utopian in America to talk about socialism; but with the kind of administrations that the country has lately been getting, do not all our progressive proposals, however reasonable or modest, seem utopian? Is it not obvious, as was lately made plain by an article in this magazine [New Republic], that a government like our present one is incapable of acting in good faith in even the simple matter of preserving the water power which is supposed to be operated for the general benefit from being exploited by private profiteers? Our society has finally produced in its specialized professional politicians one of the most useless and obnoxious groups which has perhaps ever disgraced human history?a group that seems unique among governing classes in having managed to be corrupt, uncultivated and incompetent all at once. We know that we are not even able to depend on them today to protect us against the frankly disreputable race of blackmailers, thieves and assassins who dominate our municipal life. We know that we cannot even complain that the racketeers are breaking the laws which are supposed to be guaranteed by the government, because the government differs little from the racketeers. How can we expect them, then, to check the relatively respectable scoundrels who merely rob us of the public utilities by more or less legalistic means?

Source: Edmund Wilson The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties 1952, 2007 New York: Library of America "An Appeal to Progresssives" pages 426-430

WWI brought death, left visible marks and deformities, and took an emotional toll on survivors of the battlefield, but also relatives and acquaintances of the countless who perished or disappeared.

Nonetheless, while the Depression and the War rear significantly, it is incorrect -- especially in amateur woodworking, as refracted through a prism of composed of electrification, technological development, mass production, worker alienation, and so forth -- to see the 1920s decade as less important.

The 1920s, together with the 1950s, emerge as the decades of the greatest social, economic and political impact for America in the twentieth century.

As material culture historian, Harvey Green notes when analyzing  the "crafts" -- professional, not amateur -- the "revolutionary" changes in design, production, marketing and so forth -- of the crafts in the United States during the Depression and World War II originated in the 1920s and earlier.

(Sources:  Harvey Green's "Americans and the Craft Revival: Culture and Crisis"  in 

 Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920-1945: The History of 20th Century American Craft, Janet Kardon, ed., New York: Abrams, 1995. pp 31-40; Harvey Green, "Popular Science and Political Thought Converge:  Colonial Survival Becomes Colonial Revival, 1830-1910, Journal of American Culture, 6, no. 4 Winter 1983, pages 3-24.)

The Contrast of Affluence and Poverty

Throughout the era, poverty contrasted with conspicuous affluence, perhaps most dramatically exemplified by the austere life in the poverty belt of the Appalachians and the self-indulgent society of the speakeasy. 

Conspicuous affluence of the era is perhaps best chronicled in books, and -- perhaps -- the titles that stand out are novels by F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise.  Among  muck-raking nonfiction critical of indulgent affluence are Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Mark Sullivan, and Ida Tarbell.

workshop in popular homecraft 1930

On the left is an image of an "affluent" woodworker, featured in the first article in the initial issue of Popular Homecraft, May 1930. For more info see Chapter 5:2


With this image and the one below,  I want to show contrast between social groups engaging in amateur woodworking. Some -- the more fortunate ? enjoy it for leisure; others ? not so fortunate ? engage in woodworking, but are driven by other motives.

Noted books that chronicle poverty during this era include Studs Terkel's Hard Times , and two by John Steinbeck: The Harvest Gypsies and The Grapes of WrathI am using James Agee's  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , a classic polemic that documents Appalachian poverty in the Depression era with photos and text.

(For a reflective analysis of the social, political, social and aesthetic background of this era, see Harvey Green's "Americans and the Craft Revival: Culture and Crisis" in  Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920-1945:    The History of 20th Century American Craft,  Janet Kardon, ed., New York: Abrams, 1995. pp 31-40; Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940, The American Historical Review  Vol. 96, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 615-616" addresses these same questions. Because Green is himself an accomplished woodworker, he brings to his discourse an "insider's eye".)

The Harvest Gypsies was originally published as a series of seven articles in the San Francisco News, October 5-12, 1936. When told that some migrant workers objected to the term "harvest gypsies," Steinbeck responded in a letter to the News:

The title was used ironically, since it is ironical that a huge group of workers should, through the injustice and bad planning of our agricultural system, be forced into a gypsy life. Certainly I had no intention of insulting a people who are already insulted beyond endurance.

 John Steinbeck. [letter] San Francisco News 1936

The articles were subsequently issued in 1938 as a pamphlet by the Simon J. Lubin Society, with the title Their Blood Is Strong .

Steinbeck began work on the manuscript of what would become The Grapes of Wrath at the end of May 1938 and completed the book by the beginning of December 1938. The book was published in April 1939 in a first printing of 50,000 copies, and it became a tremendous bestseller.

I am using James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a classic polemic that documents Appalachian poverty in the Depression era with photos and text.

appalachians chair caning 1930s

In the image on the left -- somewhere in Arkansas -- an unidentified woodworker canes chairs.  "Unidentified Man Caning a Chair, 1930s"/Courtesy of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History/Arkansas State Publicity Department Collection (S-89-140-65)

Agee and the photographer Walker Evans spent three weeks in 1936 living in Hale County, Alabama, on assignment for Fortune magazine, documenting the lives of three tenant families: George Gudger, Thomas Woods, Fred Ricketts.

The collaboration between writer and photographer was extremely fruitful, and the project became much more ambitious than the magazine had envisioned.

Fortune rejected the article about the tenant families that Agee submitted in 1936 and later granted him permission to use the material gathered on his assignment for use in a book of his own.

In 1937 Harper & Brothers gave him an advance for the proposed book, tentatively entitled Three Tenant Families, but when he submitted it in summer 1939 it was rejected.

 The following year the work, now called  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was accepted by Houghton Mifflin.

 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published by Houghton Mifflin on August 19, 1941.

 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men opened with a selection of 31 photographs Evans had taken on their 1936 trip; both Evans' and Agee's names appeared on the title page. In 1960, five years after Agee's death, Houghton Mifflin published a second edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for which Evans added 37 and removed 6 photographs from the selection that appeared at the beginning of the 1941 edition. He also contributed a brief foreword, "James Agee in 1936."

This is a fragment from the Agee-Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It concerns the finances that each of these families were confronted  with. 

"Some Findings and Comments"

from part two of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

WOODS and Ricketts work for Michael and T. Hudson Margraves, two brothers, in partnership, who live in Cookstown. Gudger worked for the Margraves for three years; he now (1936) works for Chester Boles, who lives two miles south of Cookstown.

Gudger has no home, no land, no mule; none of the more important farming implements. He must get all these of his landlord. Boles, for his share of the corn and cotton, also advances him rations money during four months of the year, March through June, and his fertilizer.

Gudger pays him back with his labor and with the labor of his tinnily.

At the end of the season he pays him back further: with half his corn; with half his cotton; with half his cottonseed. Out of his own half of these crops he also pays him back the rations money, plus interest, and his share of the fertilizer, plus interest, and such other debts, plus interest, as he may have incurred.

What is left, once doctors' bills and other debts have been deducted, is his year's earnings.

Gudger is a straight half-cropper, or sharecropper.

Woods and Ricketts own no home and no land, but Woods owns one mule and Ricketts owns two, and they own their farming implements. Since they do not have to rent these tools and animals, they work under a slightly different arrangement. They give over to the landlord only a third of their cotton and a fourth of their corn. Out of their own parts of the crop, however, they owe him the price of two thirds of their cotton
fertilizer and three fourths of their corn fertilizer, plus interest; and, plus interest, the same debts on rations money.

Woods and Ricketts arc tenants: they work on third and fourth.

A very few tenants pay cash rent: but these two types of arrangement, with local variants (company stores; food instead of rations money; slightly different divisions of the crops) are basic to cotton tenantry all over the South.

From March through June, while the cotton is being cultivated, they live on the rations money.

From July through to late August, while the cotton is making, they live however they can.

From late August through October or into November, during the picking and ginning season, they live on the money from their share. of the cottonseed.
From then on until March, they live on whatever they have earned in the year; or however they can.

During six to seven months of each year, then ? that is, during exactly such time as their labor with the cotton is of absolute necessity to the landlord ? they can he sure of what-ever living is possible in rations advances and in cottonseed money.

During five to six months of the year, of which three are the hardest months of any year, with the worst of weather, the least adequacy of shelter, the worst and least of food, the worst of health, quite normal and inevitable, they can count on nothing except that they may hope least of all for any help from their landlords.

Gudger ? a family of six ? lives on ten dollars a month rations money during four months of the year. He has lived on eight, and on six. Woods ? a family of six ? until this year was unable to get better than eight a month during the same period; this year he managed to get it up to ten. Ricketts ? a family of nine ? lives on ten dollars a month during this spring and early summer period.

This debt is paid back in the fall at eight per cent interest.Eight per cent is charged also on the fertilizer and on all other debts which tenants incur in this vicinity.

At the normal price, a half-sharing tenant gets about six dollars a bale from his share of the cottonseed. A one-mule, half-sharing tenant makes on the average three bales. This half-cropper, then, Gudger, can count on eighteen dollars, more or less, to live on during the picking and ginning: though he gets nothing until his first bale is ginned.

Working on third and fourth, a tenant gets the money from two thirds of the cottonseed of each bale: nine dollars to the bale. Woods with one mule, makes three bales, and gets twenty-seven dollars. Ricketts, with two mules, makes and gets twice that, to live on during the late summer and fall.

What is earned at the end of a given year is never to be depended on and, even late in a season, is never predictable. It can be enough to tide through the dead months of the winter, sometimes even better: it can be enough, spread very thin, to take through two months, and a sickness, or six weeks, or a month: it can be little enough to be completely meaningless: it can be nothing: it can be enough less than nothing to insure a tenant only of an equally hopeless lack of money at the end of his next year's work: and whatever one year may bring in the way of good luck, there is never any reason to hope that that luck will be repeated in the next year or the year after that.

The best that Woods has ever cleared was $1300 during a war year. During the teens and twenties he fairly often cleared as much as $300; he fairly often cleared $5o and less; two or three times he ended the year in debt. During the depression years he has more often cleared $50 and less; last year he cleared $150, but serious illness during the winter ate it up rapidly.

The best that Gudger has ever cleared is $I25. That was in the plow-under year. He felt exceedingly hopeful and bought a mule: but when his landlord warned him of how he was coming out the next year, he sold it. Most years he has not made more than $25 to $30; and about one year in three he has ended in debt. Year before last he wound up $8o in debt; last year, $12; of Boles, his new landlord, the first thing he had to do was borrow $15 to get through the winter until rations advances should begin.

Years ago the Ricketts were, relatively speaking, almost prosperous. Besides their cotton farming they had ten cows and sold the milk, and they lived near a good stream and had all the fish they wanted. Ricketts went $400 into debt on a fine young pair of mules. One of the mules died before it had made its first crop; the other died the year after; against his fear, amounting to full horror, of sinking to the half-crop level where nothing is owned, Ricketts went into debt for other, inferior mules; his cows went one by one into debts and desperate ex-changes and by sickness; he got congestive chills; his wife got pellagra; a number of his children died; he got appendicitis and lay for days on end under the ice cap; his wife's pellagra got into her brain; for ten consecutive years now, though they have lived on so little rations money, and have turned nearly all their cottonseed money toward their debts, they have not cleared or had any hope of clearing a cent at the end of the year.

It is not often, then, at the end of the season, that a tenant clears enough money to tide him through the winter, or even an appreciable part of it. More generally he can count on it that, during most of the four months between settlement time in the fall and the beginning of work and resumption of rations advances in the early spring, he will have no money and can expect none, nor any help, from his landlord: and of having no money during the six midsummer weeks of laying by, he can be still more sure. Four to six months of each year, in other words, he is much more likely than not to have nothing whatever, and during these months he must take care for himself: he is no responsibility of the landlord's. All he can hope to do is find work. This is hard, because there are a good many chronically unemployed in the towns, and they are more convenient to most openings for work and can at all times be counted on if they are needed; also there is no increase, during these two dead farming seasons, of other kinds of work to do. And so, with no more jobs open than at any other time of year, and with plenty of men already convenient to take them, the whole tenant population, hundreds and thousands in any locality, are desperately in need of work.

A landlord saves up certain odd jobs for these times of year: they go, at less than he would have to pay others, to those of his tenants who happen to live nearest or to those he thinks best of; and even at best they don't amount to much.

When there is wooded land on the farm, a landlord ordinarily permits a tenant to cut and sell firewood for what he can get. About the best a tenant gets of this is a dollar a load, but more often (for the market is glutted, so many are trying to sell wood) he can get no better than half that and less, and often enough, at the end of a hard day's peddling, miles from home, he will let it go for a quarter or fifteen cents rather than haul it all the way home again: so it doesn't amount to much. Then, too, by no means everyone has wood to cut and sell: in the whole southern half of the county we were working mainly in, there was so little wood that the negroes, during the hard winter of 1935-36, were burning parts of their fences, out-buildings, furniture and houses, and were dying off in great and not seriously counted numbers, of pneumonia and other afflictions of the lungs.

WPA work is available to very few tenants: they are, technically, employed, and thus have no right to it: and if by chance they manage to get it, landlords are more likely than not to intervene. They feel it spoils a tenant to be paid wages, even for a little while. A tenant who so much as tries to get such work is under disapproval.
There is not enough direct relief even for the widows and the old of the county.

Gudger and Ricketts, during this year, were exceedingly lucky. After they, and Woods, had been turned away from government work, they found work in a sawmill. They were given the work on condition that they stay with it until the mill was moved, and subject strictly to their landlords' permission: and their employer wouldn't so much as hint how long the work might last. Their landlords quite grudgingly gave them per-mission, on condition that they pay for whatever help was needed in their absence during the picking season.

Gudger hired a hand, at eight dollars a month and board. Ricketts did not need to: his family is large enough. They got a dollar and a quarter a day five days a week, and seventy-five cents on Saturday, seven dollars a week, ten hours' work a day. Woods did not even try for this work: he was too old and too sick.

A Technological Revolution

On the positive side, America underwent a technological revolution: the machine upstaged the hand. In mass production, in travel on or above the ground, tempo became a social force.

Transportation and communication networks exploded?it was the era of the ocean liner, air travel, the family car, railroad vacations to the Southwest, the radio, and the telephone.

Mass production of the automobile had an enormous influence on road systems, homes, and other design spheres. New appliances enhanced domestic life, enough to be dubbed "The Industrial Revolution in the Kitchen". New designs were created to house them, and were made with new materials. 

Beginning perhaps with the turn-of-the-century Mission furniture vogue and early manifestoes of the "new" architecture, and spreading gradually to appliances, apparel, and machinery, "formalist" and "functionalist" canons of design were promulgated, crediting styles congenial to mass-production techniques with "classical" beauty, and consigning diversely decorated alternatives to the limbo of an outdated romanticism (Pulos 1983; Meikle 1979; "Tendencies in Mill Work" 1907, 19).

By the 1920s, the industrial aesthetic of the first machine age, a rich and highly spiced stylistic stew expressive of batch manufacturing's prowess, had been supplanted by a new American Standard whose smooth sheen aptly captured the technical capacities of mass production. With the triumph of bulk manufacture came a great forgetting, a recoding of the past to fit the new assumptions. The extent to which mass-production imagery of modernism dominated business and aesthetic discourse before the Great Depression (Hounshell 1984, chap. 8) is suggested by the keynote speaker at the American Management Association's 1929 convention:

"There was a time when our best things were hand-made, our poorest made in mass production. Cheap, nasty, poor taste things were turned out by the machine. The reverse seems to be beginning to be true today"(Pulos 1983, 330).

Source: Philip Scranton, "The Politcs of Production" Science in Context 8, No 2 1995 , page 376.

Oppression in Europe Drives Artistic Talents to America

For the arts and crafts in Europe, the years between the wars were strained and sinister, coming from the oppressive policies against freedom of artistic expression and other forms of creativity that did not match the political ideologies invoked by two European despots: Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler in Germany. In 1921, the Communist Party took official control of artistic expression in Russia and the satellite nations in the Soviet's sphere of control. Although he didn't ascend to power in Germany until 1933, in 1920, at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Hitler announced his Twenty-Five-Point Program.

Assuming power in 1933, Hitler ordered "degenerate" abstract art removed from the walls of museums throughout Germany, and the Bauhaus was disbanded. By this time, hundreds of artists had immigrated from Europe to America ? authors, architects, designers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and artists working in clay, fiber, glass, metal, and wood.

Growth in Popularity  of
Amateur Woodworking 

For amateur woodworking, two books published in New York in  1930 are, today,  interesting in several ways: The Home Workshop Manual and Things to make in your home workshop. Specifically designed for the homeworkshop -- especially National Homeworkshop Guild members -- both books are edited by Arthur Wakeling, an editor at the Popular Science Monthly, and both feature contributions by  distinguished Industrial Arts instructors.

Mysteries about these books abound, though. What is the chemistry that resulted in their publication? 

Using the limited evidence I have discovered about these events I explore these issues further in  Arthur Wakeling and the Formation of the National Homeworkshop Guild in the 1930s  and  Popular Homecraft volume 1, number 1, 1930 "The Growing Popularity of Homecraft Workshops" ; however, more background information is needed to fill out missing details about the forces leading to the growth of the numbers of homeworkshops -- according to the first article in the first issue of Popular Homecraft linked above, 77,000 power-driven home workshops exist nationwide in 1930.

Apart from mention the existence of the NHG in the 1938 Preface, additional   evidence exists in two locations. Naturally, the NHG was not in existence in 1930, so its Preface makes not mention of it. But the pagination of the main part of the 1930 and the 1938 books is identical:

  • in the book's front matter, including the the list of contributors and the Introduction, "On Becoming a Handyman" and
  • pages of the Popular Science Monthly of the 1930s

Thus there is this problem: Is the  Industrial Arts Program: The Homeworkshop Movement a portent of the growth in interest on several fronts of amateur wooddworking? Otherwise, how can we explain the reasons for this convergence of the following?

1. An Industrial Arts Program: The Homeworkshop Movement -- an event that spanned across the 1920s into the 1940s of America's Industrial Arts programs. During that period, Chelsea Fraser, Eric E Ericson,  George A. Willoughby and Duane G. Chamberlain,  William H. Johnson and Louis V. Newkirk -- all authors of  woodworking manuals that, in one way or another, advocate homeworkshop for boys enrolled in high school woodworking courses. Willoughby and Chamberlain, for example, in the second of three editions of their woodworker's manual, 1944? -- the first and third, respectively, 1936 and 1958 -- follows the same theme as the textbooks designed for industrial education by Emanuel E Ericson -- four eds for 1930 through 1976 -- the inclusion of the homeworkshop component for boys. (What is different about Willoughby and Chamberlain is that not until 1958 is any attention given power tools in the textbook's contents.) Chapter 10 of the 1946 edition of Johnson and Newkirk is "The Home Workshop"

2. The National Homeworkshop Guild -- the publication in 1930 of the books under the umbrella of the New York-based periodical, Popular Science: The Home Workshop Manual and Things to make in your home workshop, both books under the editorship of Arthur Wakeling, but with significant contributions from several Inustrial Arts people.

The verso of the title page also shows 14 reprintings, starting in 1930, and stretching to 1939, or about 35,000 copies ? my calculations are 2500 copies per reprinting.

However, Wakeling, writing the ?preface? in 1938, acknowledges his ?five years of directing the National Homeworkshop Guild, ...  a nonprofit organization -- [that originated in 1933 ] -- of about 300 home workshop clubs in forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and Canada.?

3. The Formation of the Leisure League of America in 1935 -- 

(For more on the LLA, click here: Working With Tools, 1935, a pamphlet produced by Harry Hobbs, editor of Home Craftsman, a magazine begun by the Walker-Turner Company, one of the major manufacturers of power tools for the home workshop.)

4. The Emergence of New Handicraft Magazines with Woodworking a Central Feature 

Along with the Home Craftsman, two other magazines with content directed toward amateur woodworker emerged in the very early 1930s: the Deltagram, an organ designed to promote Delta woodworking tools, and the independent, Popular Homecraft.

I doubt if I will ever be able to do what really is necessary to determine the details of this convergence: examine the public and private papers of the major players. I work on my own dime for this project, and looking at those papers would involve expensive, labor-intensive trips to New York, Chicago, and several places in between. Such problems, though, are the "nuts and bolts" of writing history.

The latest reprinting is March, 1939. Also in 1930, under the imprint of both Grosset and Dunlap and Popular Science Monthly, portions of this book are republished as Things to Make in Your Workshop. Its original 502 pages are reduced to 255. The verso of the 1930 title page shows that it is copyright, 1930, by Popular Science Monthly.

5.  Finally, any recap of developments in the homeworkshop movement from the 1920s -- chapter 4 -- at this time must recall the impacts of electrification and the development of small scale woodworking power tools.


Sources: Janet Kardon, Craft in the Machine Age, New York: H.N. Abrams, in association with the American Craft Museum, 1995,  especially Kate Carmel's chapter "Against the Grain: Modern American Woodwork", page 74+;  Noel Riley, ed., Elements of Design: A Practical Encyclopedia of the Decorative Arts From the Renaissance to the Present new York: free press, 2003, page 378.

The Modern Age Confronts Leisure

The text below in the pinkish box is serving until I find something better, something that fits the context I wish to capture: the utter boredom of assembly line labor. 

Evidently, ineffective use of spare time was viewed as a major international problem, because in 1935, in Budapest, Hungary, a conference, International Conference on Workers? Spare Time, was convened. 

When I encountered this passage, it struck immediately that while the author was speaking of conditons that prevail in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, his characterization of the deadening impact of assembly line work, regardless of the location, has the universal ring of truth:

"If your work is boring, repetitive, treadmill-like, your work is unsatisfying, and unfulfilling". 

In my own experience, in a summer between university sessions, I worked in a brick factory. It was hard work, yes, but my body soon adjusted to the physical effort required to stack heavy concrete buildding blocks on pallets; my brain, however, could not adjust to the utter unfulfilling boredom of the task.

In his conference paper, J. E. Vojka, "Two Aspects: The Family and the Young Worker", of the Workshop School at Budapest, looked at such ?psychologoical reactions?, as the human requirement that "life must have a meaning", with the obvious implication that "leisure interests" are significant. 

Vojka cites a decade and a half study on use of spare time by young factory workers:

... There is no need to dwell at length here on the harmful effects of mechanised work. It is obvious that processes which require the worker to repeat continuously a single movement at a speed demanding complete concentration must produce nervous tension and a dulling, if not an actual paralysis, of mental processes. That is the essential point. In the past, it was the physique of the worker that was subjected to overstrain; now the harmful effects of his work are psychological. His leisure time must be used to satisfy the mental needs that appear as a result of this state of affairs.

Some brief analysis must be given here of the psychological effects of modern industrial work. The chief complaint of the worker is that his work lacks organic completeness.

His labour is regulated by the hour and does not lead to any final result; the accompanying tension is suddenly broken, but there is no natural relaxation. Even workers of little intelligence suffer from this situation, although unconsciously. The result is a longing for some sort of " active " effort ? if one may be permitted to apply the term " passive " to the effort required for mechanical work. ...

... It is not simply the nature of his toil that makes life so hard for a young worker; there is also a moral, even a sentimental, side to the question. The young worker feels that a slight is being cast on his dignity as a human being. He suffers because his existence seems of so little importance, the part he plays so insignificant. The life of an apprentice in bygone days was far from easy; apprentices' agreements have been handed down that prescribed a 16-hour day. But at least the apprentice had certain compensations: he had an opportunity of realising his own importance in the scheme of things; he was master of a craft of which he could be proud as of an art; he knew the value of that craft; he belonged to a powerful guild that often exerted a considerable influence in the affairs of the community. All these were precious possessions for an eager youth on the threshold of life.

The factory hand, who rarely sees the finished product to which he contributes, despite his toil, such a tiny fraction, whose relationship with the industry for which he works consists in a single movement repeated a given number of times in a specified number of hours, cannot acquire this sense of his personal importance ? not even indirectly through the undertaking in which he works, for he often remains quite ignorant of its extent and ramifications. His mental needs, even if unconscious, are left unsatisfied; his sense of dignity becomes atrophied. ... 

Source: J. E. Vojka, "Two Aspects: The Family and the Young Worker",  Recreation and Education; International Labour Office Studies and Reports Series G (Housing and Welfare) No. 4; Reports presented to the International Conference on Workers' Spare Time, Brussels, 15-17 June 1935, GENEVA, 1936 pages 23-25

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