Document 5: Phil Creden "America Rediscovers Its Hands", 1953
This page reprints two documents:
Creden's article, "America Rediscovers Its Hands" begins below my annotation -- for Creden, (Creden was the advertising manager for the Chicago-based building supply firm that sponsored Walt Durbahn's weekly TV program dedicated to amateur woodworking. for more on Durbahn, click here.)
The second reprint consists of pages 17-18 from Wallace Kunkel's brief account of the development of the Dewalt radial arm saw for the home market in the late 1940s. For Kunkel, click here .
Document 5: Phil Creden "America Rediscovers Its Hands," American Magazine 156 (December 1953), pp 20-21, 111-115.
(Document no. 5, a 1953 magazine article, is a popular account of the impact at the end of WW II on of the Do-It-Yourself Movement on American society. With many 1000s of returning veterans moving back into the civilian society, a "baby boom", a "housing boom", an "education" boom -- through the GI Bill -- and a growth of the suburbs, all took place simultaneously.
This is another of several documents that I am posting online, each a part of my Online “History of Amateur Woodworking”.
For example, Document no. 2, an 1908 magazine article, chronicles the creation, equipping and operation of a home workshop by a suburban New Yorker. It is just one of a series of four primary documents that I've located that were published between 1900 and 1914, relating to the "challenge" that constructing a Morris chair presented for amateur woodworkers of that era. In that time, before electrification became widespread in urban areas, primarily a phenomenon of the 1920s, home workshops are rare, even among the affluent. Thus while constructing a Morris chair presents challenges to amateur woodworkers, regardless of the era, in the first decade of the 20th century, the challenges were particularly daunting.
In this Online "History of Amateur Woodworking" project, my intent is to create a history of woodworking that is enriched by the voices of amateur woodworkers contemporary to the times. As I add chapters in the History, appropriately, these primary documents will be integrated into my narrative. In the meantime, they are – in their own right – each a unique voice in the complex history of woodworking.)
The article posted directly below, for example, is significant because it dramatically registers the emergence in the early years of the 1950s of the “Do-It-Yourself”, or DIY, movement in Post-World War II.
Wars Stimulate National Economies
During the 20th century, amateur woodworking was stimulated to a much greater degree in the two decades that followed major wars in which America fought. World War ended in 1918, and during the 1920s, electrification of urban areas surged, a phenomenon that was followed by the widespread availability of fractional-horsepower electric motors – operating primarily refrigerators and clothes washing machines – but subsequently by the manufacture of power tools, such as table saws, jointers, and wood lathes by start-up firms.
The impact of WW I upon technological development in the 1920s and later was considerable, but definitely not as dramatic as the impact of technological development in the decades following WW II, especially the latter part of the 1950s, and the 1960s and 1970s.
Socially and psychologically, the draw-down of the military economy of WW II was dramatic in impact, because it affected millions of people engaged in getting jobs, getting an education, buying automobiles, getting married and having families,– you’ve heard of the baby boom? – and particularly building new houses in the central cities and in the new suburbs.
The Do-It-Yourself Movement
The Do-It-Yourself movement -- in large part, an out growth of WW II -- stimulated by an enticement that emerged from the home building industry. The enticement: to keep the costs down, considerable parts of a new home was left incomplete, e.g., the basement, the attached garage -- definitely an innovation -- with the understanding that, after settling in, the new owners would complete the unfinished parts themselves. As Creden notes below, home owners responded enthusiastically, and many continued this woodworking activity as a full-blown hobby. Power tool manufacturers, lumber supply firms, hardware stores and, later, malls quickly adjusted to take advantage of this new market. The market's growth was helped by the fact that, between 1953 and 1973, median family income doubled (Source: Jeff Madrick's rev of Benjamin Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Knopf, in New York Review of Books, January 12, 2006, p. 37.)
This is from Yale University professor , Edward S. Cooke, "Arts and Crafts Furniture: Process or Product," in Janet Kardon, ed., The Ideal Home, 1900-1920: The History of Twentieth Century American Craft, 1993, p. 75.
Second, the groundswell of home workshops preserved some basic technical traditions and laid the foundation for a resurgence of handcrafted furniture in the 1950s. During the prosperity after World War II, many college graduates turned their avocation into a career. But the hobbyist emphasis of much of the century actually led to technical atrophy in the custom part of the industry. No base for training existed, and it became harder to recruit qualified woodworkers. Lost was the cumulative intensity of a continuous tradition.
Examples of manuals designed for the DIY Revolution
How to Work With Tools and Wood [Edited by Robert Campbell and N. H Mager, inside this 1955 volume -- first publihed in 1952 -- is the claim that the book is in its 24th printing.
Popular Science Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia [A 12-volume set]
Popular Mechanics Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia 1955 [A 12-volume set]
(I bought both these 12-volume sets, and will be integrating some its contents in the future. My initial response to a quick perusal is that both are conssiderbaly better than I expected. In sets the editors claim that ALL articles are written by authorities in that respective field. Unfortunately, none of these "authorities" are mentioned. I did see somewhere though that R J DeCristoforo is one of the contributors. In the early 1950s, DeCristoforo was commissioned by Shopsmith to write TWO manuals -- one for the 10ER, the other for the Mark IV -- so it could very well be that PM sought him out to author several articles.
100 Best Woodworking Projects (Popular Mechanics Craftsman's Library) [An 8-volume set] 1951
Document 5: Phil Creden "America Rediscovers Its Hands", 1953
... On the average, there is now one home workshop in every fourth home in every residential block in America. To equip these workshops, homeowners are buying 80 per cent of all the hand tools sold by hardware dealers, and are spending $100,000,000 for power tools this year , compared to $6,000,000 in 1947...
... All over the country amateur carpenters, whom the professionals commonly refer to as "wood butchers," are finding they can save respectable sums by their butchering and, in many cases, are thus able to make home improvements or repairs they otherwise couldn't afford....
Not only the high prices but the shortage of skilled craftsmen is encouraging millions of homeowners to under-take such projects.
The old-fashioned handy man or jack-of-all-trades has virtually disappeared from the national scene, and the craft specialists have been kept so busy on big building projects that, quite understandably, they don't want to be bothered with little jobs. You simply can't hire them at any price.
But more important than these economic reasons is our discovery of the thrill and satisfaction of achieving things with our hands. It is natural for human beings to do physically creative work, and most of us who go in for home craftsmanship or other manual activities discover that it refreshes us in mind and spirit...
... I know a prominent lawyer, Merrill Olsen, general counsel of the Quaker Oats Company, who became interested in home carpentry about three years ago, when a friend took him to an adult class in industrial arts. He was a simon-pure amateur as far as any mechanical experience went, but he successfully completed two or three minor carpentry projects and then undertook to panel a recreation room in his home with knotty pine.
Very wisely, he went at it with great care and deliberation. Every night he would sandpaper a couple of boards and meticulously put them in place. Some nights he didn't put up more than one board. As a result, it took Mr. Olson two years to panel the room, but he did a fine job. When it was finished he gave a party to celebrate the event, and I doubt if he was ever prouder of a legal triumph than he was of what he had accomplished there in his home with his two hands. Now, as you probably can guess, he is engrossed in other building adventures.
Why does a man like that, who could afford to hire all the carpenters he wanted, mess around with sawdust and shavings?
The answer is, of course, that he loves it and finds creative manual work relaxes and replenishes him after mental work. And it is for these same reasons, I'm convinced, even more than the economic ones, that so many millions of people are using their hands again.
Psychologists have found that the surest cure for fatigue lies not in rest, but in a complete change of activity. They also say that, by working with his hands, a person can more completely forget his worries than in any other way. You can keep right on worrying while you watch a television program, or even while you play bridge, they add, but if you become engrossed in manual work your brain no longer has room for worry, fear, fatigue, and other kindred emotions.
As an illustration of this, I recently heard Charles F. Kettering, the General Motors genius, say that he once attended a banquet and sat through several long-winded and pretty depressing speeches. Listening to the speeches made him feel so tired, he said, that when he got home he took his watch apart and put it together again just to rest himself! You may not be as clever as that with your hands, but tinkering with simpler things can be just as relaxing.
Since our mental and physical processes are so closely interrelated, virtually all doctors today recommend manual hobbies for their purely therapeutic value, and not a few do-it-yourselfers are motivated by health considerations. Working with their hands, they find, makes them feel better and increases their energy.
I have a friend in California, a high-strung young professional man, who used to suffer from stomach ulcers. He lived on a miserable diet and was to dead-beat every night that he had to spend eleven or twelve hours in bed in order to carry on the next day. When a neighbor suggested to him that he start a workshop in his basement, the idea appalled him. "If I did any physical work," he groaned, "it would kill me."
But the neighbor finally got him interested one Saturday in a small project—the building and painting of a flower box. The ailing man found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed tinkering with tools, and was amazed by his own prowess when the flower box turned out to look better than he expected. The next Saturday he started making a dollhouse for his small daughter, went on from that to other projects, and became so fascinated that he worked on them evenings as well as weekends.
Far from killing him, this physical work has made a new man of my friend. The last time I saw him he told me his ulcers had healed, he was eating any-thing he wanted to, and getting along nicely on eight hours' sleep a night. Like thousands of other victims of our high-tension civilization, he has found that home craftsmanship is not only sound economy and a lot of fun, but very, very good for him.
There are other reasons for the tidal wave of do-it-yourselfism.
For one thing, most of us have more time for extra-curricular activities than we used to, because of shorter working hours. For another, more than 50 per cent of all American families now own their own homes, compared to fewer than 40 per cent before the war. A family which occupies its own home is naturally more interested in keeping it in good repair and making improvements than one which occupies rented quarters.
Thousands of the new homes which have gone up since the war, moreover, are particularly adaptable to expansion or improvement by the amateur artisan.
Many of them have unfinished attics where attractive bedrooms can be built by anyone who is handy with tools, or basement areas which fairly cry to be converted into recreation rooms. Some of the less expensive new houses are so uniform in appearance that their owners go in for craftsmanship in order to give them a bit of individuality by putting up fences, trellises, cupolas, flower boxes, and other outside adornments.
A changed social attitude toward manual work is also partly responsible for the new trend. Today it has become smart to be handy. Not many years ago a white-collar man was inclined to boast that he had never sawed a board in his life, and many a woman bragged about her mechanical helplessness and that of her mate. "I simply wouldn't know one end of a screwdriver from the other," she was apt to say, "and poor old Bob couldn't drive a nail straight to save his soul."
But today the reverse is true. Poor old Bob is apt to bore his friends by boasting about how he tiled the bathroom or built those concrete steps, and his wife gloats to her bridge club about how she repapered Junior's room or mended a leak in the kitchen drain with nothing except an acetylene torch and a set of plumbing tools. More than at any time since pioneer days, it has become fashionable to work with your hands, and some people are undoubtedly joining the great do-it-yourself parade merely because they want to be stylish and up to date.
Of course, not all of those who go in for home craftsmanship make a shining success of it. Every year many would-be craftsmen start out with high hopes but, failing to accomplish as much as they hoped, turn to other hobbies. After observing hundreds of the customers who patronize our lumberyards, hardware-dealers, paint store, and other suppliers, I think that most of these failures are attributable to (1) starting on too ambitious a scale, (2) having no definite plan to follow, or (3) failure to seek expert advice.
I know one cocky young homeowner who, without any previous experience, attempted to build a garage. He bought several hundred dollars' worth of power tools, laid in expensive materials, donned a carpenter's cap and apron, and made sawdust fly furiously for a few days. But he failed to use one very important hand tool, a level. As a result, his garage looked like it was about to fall down even before he got the framework erected, and eventually he had to call in a contractor to straighten out the botch he had made.
The young man's mistake was that he tried to do too much too soon. If he had started out by building a sawhorse, let us say, graduated from that to a doghouse, and then proceeded to the construction of a picket fence, he gradually could have acquired the skill and know-how needed to build a garage. But, by biting off too big a project right at the start, he wasted both time and money and lost much of his zest for craftsmanship.
Power tools are terrific labor-savers for advanced amateurs, and are having much to do with stimulating the growth of home workshops, but in my opinion the out-and-out beginner doesn't need them any more than a baby learning to walk needs a bicycle. The wisest course for the average amateur, I think, is to start off with just a few hand tools, and then buy power tools as he has need for them.
The second mistake which many beginners make is that of not having a plan. Time and again, customers come to our yard offices and ask to buy materials without having any definite idea what materials they need or how they are going to use them.
"My wife wants me to put up a shelf about so long in the kitchen," one customer said recently, extending his hands. "Can you sell me the stuff I need to build it?"
The man had made no measurements of the space the shelf was to occupy and didn't even know what his wife wished to use it for. If the shelf was to carry a heavy load such as canned groceries or stacked chinaware, it would have to be of stronger construction, obviously, than if it was to hold light objects. But he had not considered those points and he had no idea how he was going to attach the shelf to the wall. Without a plan, he was heavily handicapped before he started to work.
But it is easy for anyone to make a pencil plan of what he wishes to do. If you use graph paper, you can draw an adequate sketch without even using a ruler, and draw it to scaled dimensions, so that the picture will look approximately like the creation you have in mind. Or you can buy patterns which help the amateur to build hundreds of different household objects, or follow plans in books or magazines which tell how to make virtually everything from an ash tray to a 10-room house.
It is also easy to avoid a third mistake of not getting proper advice. Because they recognize the ever-increasing importance of selling to the small consumer, dealers in hardware, lumber, paint, and all other tools and supplies are only too glad to give advice on how to use their merchandise, and are re-educating their sales personnel to be of greater service in this respect.
In the lumber industry, we have given more than 6,000 salesmen 30-day training courses to help them answer the questions of do-it-yourselfers. We are even devising a simplified vocabulary for the benefit of customers who don't understand technical building terms. In the hardware and paint industries, similar programs are under way. To a greater extent than ever before, you can get sound advice on how-to-do-it problems of all kinds by merely consulting your dealer.
You can also save money in this way. Many amateur mechanics buy more expensive equipment or material than they really need, and they could avoid this mistake if they would tell their dealers what kind of projects they're contemplating.
For example, I was in one of our yards on a Saturday morning, not long ago, when a man with a small boy came in and started looking around in a rather bewildered way. He finally picked out two standard-length boards of beautiful clear pine of what we call "B and Better" quality, but when he found they would cost him $6 he looked crestfallen. It was easy to see he didn't feel he should spend that much for a bit of wood.
"What did you want the boards for?" I asked him.
"My boy and I are planning to build a birdhouse," he said, "but 1 had no idea lumber is so expensive."
"You don't need that kind of lumber to build a birdhouse," I told him. "Let's take a look in the 'Economy Corner.'"
I led him to a shed where we sell odds and ends of lumber which has been marked down in price—because it hasbeen cut back to short two- and six-foot lengths. There the customer picked out a few sound-knotted boards which were just as serviceable for building a bird-house as the clear pine would have been. They cost him only $1.25, and he and his son went out wreathed in smiles.
Similar savings often could be made by many do-it-yourselfers in the purchase of plywood, hardware, paints, and other supplies. Most dealers are more anxious to win and keep your good will than they are to make a quick sale at a big profit, and, if you ask them, are happy to point out ways in which you can be economical.
I have mentioned only a few of the mistakes which frequently are made by novices. There are many others. In acquiring any new skill, one has to learn largely by trial and error. But I have observed that nine out of ten of today's do-it-yourselfers are so enthusiastic about their new activities, and get so much satisfaction and relaxation out of them, that they take their mistakes in stride, profit by experience, and move steadily toward more and larger projects.
It isn't just as individuals that we are benefiting from becoming manual doers. In thousands of homes, parents and children are working together at creative tasks, and thus tightening the ties which hold their families together. Nobody knows how many cases of juvenile delinquency have been nipped in the bud by the reappearance of home workshops, or how many divorces have been prevented because husband and wife got together to do some interesting work project.
All of which leads me to believe that our rediscovery of our hands is one of the most encouraging developments of the mid-twentieth century. Men and women who worked with their hands made America great. Now that we are following their example, not because we have to but because we want to, there is every reason to hope we may become a happier, healthier, more stable people.
This is from
The Great Do-It-Yourself Era
(This link takes you to the page where you can download a pdf of chapter 1 of
Wallace Kunkel's How to Master the Radial-Arm Saw)
My wife and I were having the first of our six sons and one daughter. Marc, my oldest, had outgrown his crib and needed a bed. We liked "Early American" — so my wife, Jean, told me I should buy one for him.
I then found out there was such a thing as a lumberyard that sold only hardwoods. I'd never heard of such a thing! It was in the bowels of Newark — but I would have found it if it had been in Timbuctoo. I told them I wanted Maple, "Three inches thick."