Chapter 5:6 Motivations for Woodworking

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Overview of Leisure in the 1930s: The Contrast Between Rural and Urban Preferences

In his 1930s study of the "Contrasts in Urban and Rural Family Life" among homeowners in rural and urban settings in Illinois, J Roy Leevy, Purdue University sociologist, gathered data that, among other matters, shows some contrasts of preferences in hobbies between town and country. He based his conclusions on data from a 5-year survey of 1000 rural and 1000 urban families in Illinois.

(Significantly, Leevy's data core includes the question of home ownership, a factor that figures importantly in whether woodowrking is possible as an activity, and is a topic covered in Appendix 27: Home-Ownership's Central Role for Amateur Woodworking.

While the findings in the Leevy study are interesting, it is unrealistic to think that a study on 1000 urban and rural Illinois families represents a cross-section of the nation's entire activities. Moreover, details about "hobbies" is not defined specifically enough for us to draw much more than generalized conclusions about hobby activity, other than the evidence that activity in hobbies was a factor in their lives. Click here, for example, and read about the events leading up to the formation of the National Homeworkshop Guild.)

(image above is the beginning of a report of National Homeworkshop Guild activities in Popular Science Monthly March 1937, pages 114-116 -- haven't yet uploaded the report, but, until it gets done, click here for the online version)

While Leevy's focus was broad, to study:

    (1) the socioeconomic activities;

    (2) the economic status as revealed by home ownership and creative comforts;

    (3) the political and educational activities; and

    (4) the religious and the recreational activities. ...,

his findings -- about the extent of engagement in hobbies by the people in his data core -- helps our understanding of some of the interests of Americans for engaging in leisure time in the Great Depression.

Explaining the Numbers for "Hobbies"

Figures for numbers of both urban and rural heads-of-families who engage in "hobbies" are highlighted in table below.

Keep in mind the following: Leevy's findings show activites of 1000 Illinois families between 1934 and 1938. With the formation of the National Homeworkshop Guild in 1933, coupled with the report In Popular Science Monthly that by 1938, at least 500 chapters of this organization existed, another picture of woodworking activity emerges, side-by-side with the Leevy findings.

For me, neither set of figures contradicts the other; instead, they can be set side-by-side, and give us a sort of "micro" vs "macro" comparison, i.e., 1000 families concentrated in a small area vs 500 chapters scattered through the nation. As a working number -- since I have yet to find data, I am setting the size of each chapter at "10 members", leading to the conclusion that NHG all told involves 5,000 -- a figure that I Know is, realistically, too low. For example: the first article in its first issue, Popular Homecraft volume 1, number 1, 1930, gives us the latest figures on the number of homeworkshops at the begining of the Great Depression: "The Growing Popularity of Homecraft Workshops"

    Recent figures indicate that more than 77,000 power-driven home-workshop outfits are being operated in the United States alone, and the number is constantly growing.

    Click here to look at a more detailed treatment of this data.

    Groups in Leevy Study

    Approximately four hundred families, half urban and half rural, were interviewed each year from 1934 to 1938 inclusive.


    The families in his data core were white, and represented many different walks of life: urban professionals, skilled and unskilled laborers, merchants, farmers, etc.

    The urban families lived in Mt. Vernon, Paris, and Danville, Illinois. The respective population of these urban communities was 14,000, 8500 and 63,000.

    The rural families lived in the open country of Clark County (125 of them) and the balance lived in Redmon, Brocton, Westfield, Casey, Martinsville, and Marshall, Illinois.

    The population of the villages, hamlets, and towns ranged all the way from 250, the smallest, to 2406, the largest. The average size of the families was 4.1 for the urban and 5.2 for the rural.

    Approximately 53.1 percent of the urban families owned their own homes and the remainder were tenants.

    Of the rural families, about 63 percent were owners and the remainder tenants.

    Method of Data Collection

    The method of collecting data was personal interviews with family heads. The writer was assisted by fifteen field workers, ten of whom were former rural school teachers. Five were graduate students. A family schedule composed of a series of questions was used when each family head was interviewed.

    In Leevy's Study, What Are "Hobbies"? For the men from urban families, hobbies consisted of

    handicraft work -- (an umbrella term, under which, we presume, woodworking falls),


    and flower gardening

    For the women of urban families, stamp collecting, painting and needlecraft were the chief hobby activities.

    In rural families, hobbies were in the main little practiced. Some family heads of rural families said they had no time for hobbies.

    The chief hobbies for the men of rural families were flower gardening and handicraft work.

    Rural women had few activities except needlecraft which they classified as hobbies......

    Truly, when the data shows hobbies for rural heads-of-families are "low", from my own background in rural Saskatchewan during this same period, it is a situation that seems entirely "normal". Farming in the Depression was not fun! Merely "keeping your head above water" was too often the normal circumstance, with time for hobbies generally outside the "norm". Likewise, among the urban heads-of-families in the Leevy study, checking the "hobbies" box was under 50%, a figure that seems entirely plausible.

    Source: J. Roy LEEVY, "Contrasts in Urban and Rural Family Life", American Sociological Review 5, No 6 December 1940, pages 948 and 952

    One Motivation for Woodworking: The Great Depression's Impact --  Millions Without a Job 

    Large scale unemployment was forcing the nation to consider policies that would relieve the hardship that unemployment was causing.  One consideration was to change the concept of leisure from that of a luxury pursuit to one applied to all levels of society.

    Thirty years before -- at the turn of the century -- leisure  was a luxury, enjoyed only among those affluent enough to take advantage of leisure time activities, as illustrated in Document 2 and Document 42, or during the Depression itself, in Document 41

    In contrast, in the Depression -- with the specter of a nation collapsing economically --  the concept of leisure , in a turn-around in meaning from the beginning of the 20th century, was cast instead as the ideal of a life preserver, often permeated with jingoistic rhetoric. 

    The Concepts of Leisure and "Handicrafts as Therapy"

    Some of this attitude of national emergency permeates the spirit of Harry Hobbs' text in his Leisure League of America publication, Working With Tools, Document 10


    Nonetheless, throughout that publication, Hobbs -- at the time an editor of Home Craftsman -- generates a tone of satisfaction  that you can derive from the craftsmanship of woodworking. 

    Evidently, too, 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. I heard of this through one of the conference papers, J. E. Vojka, [J. E. Vojka; translator, Sophie W. Downs, The Young Worker and His Spare Time, Lange Library, University of California, Berkeley, California, 38  November 1936, pp 236-238. (also Series G, no 4, Recreation and Education Reports .. to the International Conference on Workers' Spare Time) as cited in Journal of the Royal Statistical  Society 99, no 2, p 440, of the Workshop School at Budapest. The paper looks at such "psychological reactions", as the human requirement that "LIFE MUST HAVE A MEANING", with the obvious meaning that "leisure interests" are significant. Vojka cites a decade and a half study on use of spare time by young factory workers.

    "Revival of the Crafts": the Handicraft Movement

    Parenthetically, decades earlier,  in 1893, the Englishman, William Morris, pioneer in Arts and crafts movement, speaks of a "Revival of Handicraft":

    The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts. If there is no room or chance of recognition for really artistic power and feeling in design and craftsmanship?if Art is not recognised in the humblest object and material...

    Source: William Morris,   Arts and Crafts Essays London: Rivington, Percival & Co , 1893, page 4,

    For Morris, History's Medieval period represents the idyllic period of the crafts. Morris famously railed against the destructiveness to art and humanity wrought by the Industrial Revolution, where "power machinery and mass production technology ruined human handicrafts".

    For background, read  Appendix 11: On the Origins of the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Style
    Testimony of a revival of handicraft in America at the turn of the 20th century is Max West's 1904  Revival of the Handicrafts in America.

    Sponsored by the New York-based Russell Sage Foundation, Allen Henderson Eaton famously authored several books that survey American handicrafts in the 1920s and 1930s. Both volumes deserve our concern because of the  attention given woodworking as a handicraft:  Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937); Handicrafts of New England New York: Harper, 1949. 

    (In the latter book, Eaton covers the 1920s and 1930s, but didn't get the book published until after WW II.)

    In each book, chapters focus on the such issues as the significance of leisure time and/or "handicrafts as therapy", where, together, are factors that mark a major shift in civic thought about personal fulfillment. In particular. we get s "feeling" for the ambivalence -- maybe, follow Thorstein Veblen, discussed below -- we should speak in terms of a dichotomy of  the multiple "meanings" of leisure during the 1930s. Below are some ruminations on "leisure", "recreation", and "conspicuous consumption" in the 1930s: 


    "Recreation", Not "Leisure"

    "At no time in history", argues Eaton, "has so much emphasis been put upon the importance of recreation for everyone". The use of the term recreation -- today, at least -- seems curious.

    definition of recreation from webster's 2d ed 1952The Webster's New International Dictionary, second  edition 1952, defines recreation as the "refreshment of the strength  and spirits after toil". Recreation's value for children has long been recognized, claims Eaton, but recreation's value for adults is an idea that, historically, was accepted more slowly, because its [embrace as a civic value] required other factors to occur first. 

    leisure defined in webster's 2d 1952

    As a concept, leisure was demonized by the American sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 -- in Theory of the Leisure Class -- indelibly identified "leisure" with "conspicuous consumption" when he linked the term to "the non-rational, symbolic relation of consumption to social status and social stratification". By definition, conspicuous consumption is the lavish and wasteful use of goods and services for the purpose of symbolizing or establishing one's position as a member of a particular social class, especially of the upper classes, or, according to Veblen, specifically "a leisure class". As a behavior, conspicuous consumption creates cruel class distinctions, a pattern of conduct set by the richest, the leisure class, and emulated in its own fashion by each lower social class.

    In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Allen Henderson Eaton, argued that "leisure time" was a "term seems highly inappropriate when applied to persons out of work and exerting every effort to find it".

    Leisure time is a term which can fairly be applied only to those who have incomes sufficient to secure at least the essentials of life for themselves and their dependents, with the unoccupied hours to be used as they please.

    Source: Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937, pages 316-317

    Veblen's meaning includes such related terms as "conspicuous leisure,"conspicuous waste", "pecuniary canons of taste", "predatory culture", and "pecuniary reputation". 

    While these terms are employed to point out a fact about behavior of specific subcultures within a society, more frequently these terms are employed to make a value judgment about that behavior. 

    They constitute one set of terms in Veblen's conceptual dichotomy, the other set incorporates terms such as "instinct of workmanship", "industrial economic institutions", "engineers", "machine technology", "useful work", and the like. 

    Veblen identifies two sorts of "dichotomies" or "instincts", each in opposition of the other: one set of dichotomies are positive supports of  our life"s processes. But the other, second, set provides "contaminants" of that process.

    In the first set of dichotomies are the (1) inclination toward workmanship, (2) parental instincts, and (3) idle curiosity and motivations to create.

    The first dichotomy -- inclination toward Workmanship -- for Veblen

      occupies the interest "with practical expedients, ways and means, devices and contrivances of efficiency and economy, proficiency, creative work and technological mastery of facts"

    For the second dichotomy, parental instincts,

      an unselfish solicitude for the well-being of the incoming generation -- a bias for the highest efficiency and fullest volume of life in the group, with particular drift to the future

    Idle curiosity, the third dichotomy, is a drive for humans to
      seek knowledge, and value it for its inherent value, rather than other motives,  associated with a practical uses of that knowledge.

    Basically, Veblen is saying, in other words,  that by nature men, possess an idle curiosity of inquiry idle in the sense that a knowledge of things is sought apart from any ulterior use of the knowledge thus gained.

    Source: The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, first published in 1914, reprinted 2004, pages 20, 30)

    The latter proclivities, the contaminants, are impulses toward predatory behavior and invidious emulation, and ceremonialism. These are impulses toward

      exploitation, prowess, pecuniary acquisition and domination illustrate predation.

      conspicuous display and conspicuous waste illustrate invidious emulation,

      absentee ownership and other "inequities" illustrate ceremonialism,

    or, put in the popular idiom, conspicuous consumption

    It is in this way that Veblen distinguishes between those constructive proclivities that generate and sustain the well being of communities and those contaminating proclivities that sabotage the community's ability to generate and distribute the material means of life.

     Veblen's alleged concern is to minimize the damage generated by a leisure class because that class is committed to pecuniary emulation, invidious display, and "the pursuit of a life reflecting a conspicuous exemption from all useful employment" achieved by primary involvement in occupations relating to "government, war, sports, and devout observances"  

    (Source: Marc R. Tool, "A Neoinstitutional theory of social change in Veblen's The Theory of the leisure Class", in  Warren J. Samuels, ed.,  The Founding of Institutional Economics: The Leisure Class and Sovereignty

    The term conspicuous consumption was quickly (and widely) adopted in the popular press, in books as well as newspapers and magazines, most frequently as a (negative) value judgment. Elbert Hubbard, the prominent figure in the Arti and Crafts movement, used it in his 1905 book, Respectability, Its Rise and Remedy (see page 9).

    The concept was injected quickly into the eugenics debate which raged from the turn of the century until the 1920s -- with the passing of the "immigration quota bill in the early 1920s"

    "Social Ambition as Cause of Race Suicide" Lincoln (Neb) Daily News Monday Dec 1904 page 5

    "It may be of interest to state the first use of the term 'race suicide," said Rev. E. H. Willisford before the ministerial association at its regular meeting this morning in the city library building. It "was in the introduction of his paper on that subject.

     "At the annual meeting of the American academy of political and social science, held in 1901, the annual address was delivered by Dr. Edward A. Ross of our own university on "The Causes of Race Superiority". In closing his address Dr. Ross makes use of the term 'race suicide. (It was not till a year and a half later that the term was used by President Roosevelt.)

     "Among the checks to increase of population are luxury and social ambition. By this is meant the love of display, of conspicuous, consumption and love of social prestige.

    "The very composition of society makes the possession and elaborate expenditure of wealth the all important factor in gaining and retaining social power.

    "Children require care, time, and money to nourish, clothe and educate. Those who would be social leaders and enjoy luxury tend more and more to avoid becoming parents.

     "Whoever is ambitious to secure and maintain social status will resist whatever tends to pull them into a lower social life.

     "The problem with which the many are struggling is not, how can I live, but how can I live well, live better? How can I possess social power? Says Henry George: ?The more man has, the more he wants. At first more quantity, then more quality.?

    "It is not mere hunger, but taste, that urges men on; in clothes, not mere comfort, but adornment; not simply a house, but furnishings. The food supply is of minor importance

    "The law of population is: The tendency to increase, instead of being uniform, is strong where the perpetuity of the race is threatened by the mortality induced by adverse conditions, but weakens just as the higher development of the individual becomes possible and the perpetuity of the race is assured....

    In the section, ch 1:1, background information, we touch on the grinding poverty in Appalachia, the geographical area that is the focus of Eaton's 1937 Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands



    At no time in history has so much emphasis been put upon the importance of recreation for everyone. The Standard Dictionary defines recreation as the "refreshment of body and mind." Its value for children has long been recognized, but for adults the idea has been of much slower acceptanceEaton points to "three facts among others, all of comparatively recent growth, have forced upon us an increasing realization of the necessity of recreation for our adult population". In that sentence by Eaton, the operative phrase is "comparatively recent growth". The three "facts" are
    1. the strenuous, concentrated, and sometimes deadly monotonous character of much of the work connected with mill, factory, and office, from which some relief is necessary.
    2. the rapid rate at which the hours of labor in practically all occupations have been shortened, giving workers more spare time than they had ever known, thus creating a considerable margin of leisure.
    3. the unprecedented unemployment in almost every field of labor, resulting in idle time for millions of our people.

    Many have called this margin of spare time, whether voluntary or enforced, "leisure time," but that term seems highly inappropriate when applied to persons out of work and exerting every effort to find it. Nor does it fit those who are employed at less than a living wage, of whom there are now many. 

    Leisure time is a term which can fairly be applied only to those who have incomes sufficient to secure at least the essentials of life for themselves and their dependents, with the unoccupied hours to be used as they please. It is the freedom from pressure which gives leisure to an individual, and to apply the term indiscriminately to all people out of work is misuse of the word. 

    These several conditions present us with the problem of encouraging wholesome recreation for those who have work with or without leisure and those who have no work but much spare time thrust upon them. What makes the problem difficult is that it is not only quantitative, involving vast numbers of people, but also qualitative, for what is recreation for one may not be recreation for another. It is a wider application of the old saying that "What is one man's meat is another man's poison."

    It is therefore of the greatest importance that we know as many as possible of the resources upon which we can draw for our recreation. It is hoped that this report on handicrafts, although dealing largely with their economic aspects, may encourage wider experiments in work with the hands for those everywhere who are in need of "refreshment of body and mind." It is believed that there are instances, perhaps many, where the thing that will best bring this refreshment is work with the hands in the soil or with materials intimately related to the earth. A vital service may thus be rendered in helping individuals to discover what their interests and abilities are. In the great variety of handicrafts something can be found which almost anyone can do well, or well enough to become a recreation.

    Source: Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937); Handicrafts of New England New York: Harper, 1949. In the latter book, Eaton covers the 1920s and 1930s, but didn't get the book published until after WW II. In each book, chapters focus on the such issues as the significance of leisure time and/or "handicrafts as therapy", where, together, are factors that mark a major shift in civic thought about personal fulfillment.

    And Tools to Work Withal


    Marshall, Missouri, fitted out with several power tools, "the best there is", including a shadowy image of a Champion bench drill press.)

    REMEMBER the "newspaper" stories you've read and the movies you've seen where the demon reporter, editor, or whoever the hero might be, sighs happily as he hears the throbbing roar of the mighty presses?

    Well, Frank C. Green, who lives in Marshall, Mo., is one of the men who make the presses roar, being by trade a newspaper pressman but, after the day's run is over and the press is washed up—

    "You can find from two to a half-dozen young men in my home shop enjoying seeing different articles in the course of construction."

    I have not spared time or expense in equipping my shop with the best there is. As fast as new machinery or tools worthy of consideration are put on the market, I add them to my now very complete outfit.

    My shop equipment now consists of the following, in addition to about a thousand hand tools:

      New South Bend 9-in. lathe with about $100 worth of extra equipment;

      Oxyacetylene welding outfit; Wallace 14-in, handsaw, with unit motor;

      Bonnett-Brown circular saw and extra attachments with unit motor;

      Champion bench drill;

      Black & Decker electric hand drill;

      Stanley miter box with 6 by 30 in. saw;

      Foley saw filer, Model F5;

      Lacquer spray painting gun with compressor and tank;

      Driver flexible shaft outfit, with all present available accessories;

      Atkins Silver Steel handsaws;

      16-in, drum sander with disk sander attachment.

    My list of small tools is by far too large to enumerate, but all the tools I have are of standard brands and not the cheap kinds that so many beginners make the mistake of wasting their money on.
    With considerable satisfaction, t he second issue of the Walker-Turner in-house organ, Home Craftsman -- scroll down on linked page --  reprinted an article taken from the New York Times which notes how a devotee of the golf links succumbed to the homeworkshop:

    woodworking beats out golf

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