Notes on the Publication of Woodworker's Manuals

In this inline frame, I discuss the publication practices on woodworker's manuals and provide a chart on the numbers of manuals published each decade.

Any book that gives information on woodworking, whether how-to-do-it -- "processes" -- or projects to build -- "products" -- is, in my rubric, a woodworker's manual. Each chapter of my online history of the amateur woodworking movement includes an annotated list of woodworker's manuals published during that same decade.

One vexing research problem in this history of amateur woodworking -- for the first half of the 20th century -- concerns how amateur woodworkers found out about what manuals existed and how to get access to them.

While John Tebbel's 4-volume A History of Book Publishing in the United States (New York: Bowker, 1978) is outstanding as a source for topics on mainstream publications, fiction, general nonfiction, and the like, for specialized areas like woodworking or cookbooks, coverage is sketchy, at best.

John -- he's a friend -- does discuss bookstores, and other types of distribution, such as newsstands and books sold in large department stores such as Macy's, he does not mention speciality fields.

We know nonetheless that woodworking books were published in considerable numbers, which suggests that publishers saw them as marketable. Further, starting in 1936, the Index to Handicrafts was used widely in public libraries, and chapters of woodworking books are well represented among the books contained on its pages.

Likewise, seeing an additional source of profit, periodicals dedicated to woodworking such as Popular Homecraft, Home Craftsman, were launched in the early 1930s. Read more here. Each month these magzines included listing of manuals and other types of books from many publishers that readers could order, sometimes through the through the magzines themselves.

(Further, in going through Seattle Public Library's volumes of Home Craftsman, evidence readily exists that a librarian checked Seattle Public's holdings of woodworker's manuals against the Home Craftsman lists.)

It's obvious, too, that something happened in publishing, probably that the volume of books published on handicraft topics, including woodworking, became much larger because after 1974, the Index to Handicrafts reduced itself to exclusively indexing the chapters of books -- i.e., dropping periodicals entirely, and then -- after 1984 -- simply ceased publication, suggesting that the volume of books published had become too great, at least for a strictly volunteer operation that the Index to Handicrafts always was.

Taken together, then all these factors show that woodworker's manuals were published in plentiful numbers -- -- but a lack of bookstores in the first half of the 20th century made access and purchase of these woodworker's manuals problematical. In contrast, in the second half of the 20th century, as bookstores moved into smaller and smaller urban areas, the possibility of woodworkers access to woodworker's manuals became much easier.

After 1976, when woodworker's periodicals such as Fine Woodworking and American Woodworker emerged, book clubs suddenly appeared along with these magazines and began advertising in issues of these perioidcals. (I'll have to investigate the woodworker's book clubs.)

And finally, used bookstores became rich sources of books on woodworking, and in this age of the Internet, buying used woodworker's manuals is possible through outlets such as Alibris, Barnes and Noble , and Amazon.

Until I launched on this project, the only "old" woodworker's manuals I was familiar with were Franklin Gottshall's 1937 How to Design Period Furniture, R J DeCristoforo's 1953 Power Tool Woodworking for Everyone, and the 1950s Delta manuals, all with the title How to Get the Most Out of Your [a mamed machine tool]

. (All of the latter I owned because of the vintage tools I owned.)

However, once I began working on this history of woodworking project, it dawned on me that maybe woodworker's manuals were worth examining.

(In my earlier career, when I wrote several books on historical subjects, I became convinced that -- to understand a given historical period -- looking at the documents contemporary to the period was essential.)

Using the digitized bibliographical database, Worldcat, I began assembling a list of workworker's manuals. As the list was constructed, I began either borrowing the actual volumes from libraries or purchasing my own copies.

Slowly it dawned on me what these books contained, veritable treasure chest of memories, lore, wisdom, of what woodworkers, including amateurs, were confronted with, decade by decade, whether they used hand tools or power tools, what projects they preferred, etc.

Next I began to make notes -- annotations -- on manuals that I considered more significant, and scanning images of recommended projects, the text of "prefaces", "tables of contents", and the like.

Soon the list became formidably long, suggesting divisions by decade. Below are links to each decade, and exhibits of how far I have progressed.

Finally, the Google Books and Magazinesand Open Source books websites begun to payoff "bigtime".

Books and Periodicals, vitrually hidden away on the shelves of large libraries, are increasingly available on the Internet in fulltext, digitized versions.

For example, Manual Arts Press, a publisher catering primarily to the Industrial Arts, but to home craftsmen as well. Google Print has uploaded the Manual Arts 1915 60-page bibliography of its books and selected books of other publishers: Books on the Manual Arts .

The Manual Arts biblography describes as the best and most comprehensive book on cabinfetmaking" this woodworker's manual designed primarily for the furniture manufacturing trade, Percy A. Wells and John Hooper's Modern Cabinetwork Furniture and Fitments: An Account of the Theory and Practice in the Production of all Kinds of Cabinetwork and Furniture With Chapters on the Growth and Progress of Design and Construction Illustrated by Over 1000 Practical Workshop Drawings Photographs and Original Designs. London: Batsford; Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1909. ca 380 pages.

Two Pivotal Decades: the 1920s and the 1950s 

As the 21st century unfolds, it’s only natural to reminisce speculatively about the last century’s impact. Change in all areas abounds, especially during the two pivotal decades the 1920s and the 1950s.

Both decades followed the economic and social changes and industrial innovation generated by a major war, WW I and WW II. The two decades, were, each in their own right, periods of rapid social, economic, industrial change.

What else? Definitely education and scholarship. While scholarship of the era is not entirely relevant to the topic at hand, a history of the amateur woodworking movement, in a way this scholarship is, if only because the 1920s saw the flowering of several disciplines, especially sociology, social and cultural history, that are so important today for revealing the formerly hidden aspects of the daily lives of Americans.

Below, for example, in arguing that a parallel exists between the function of the cookbook in the kitchen and the woodworker's manual in the woodshop, to build the case, I depend upon an existing scholarship on cookbooks.

In turn, though, this scholarship of cookbooks itself is supported by decades of scholarship on America's cultures. About a decade ago, when writing about the background of subject-specific dictionaries as cultural artifacts, I needed to review the cultural function of common-place, "lexical" dictionaries:

Since the invention of the printing press, text printed on paper is without question the most common medium for the transmission and preservation of discourse. Among printed materials, the book is the most common, and comprises numerous genres. Among genres of books, dictionaries, that is, both lexical and subject-specialized dictionaries, are perhaps the most ubiquitous. In the Western world (is it fair to speculate?) few households are without dictionaries. Why? Dictionaries are the “memory” of our language, the “authorities” for the meanings, including changes in meaning, of the words in the vocabulary by which human communication takes place. In a real sense, then, dictionaries are so “commonplace”, that we tend to take them for granted. Thus dictionaries are not arbitrary creations but spring from the assumptions, both explicit and implicit, of the age in which they are written, and since they incorporate an era's intellectual history, the comparison of dictionaries from different periods allows us to detect changes from one era to another... . )

The 1920s saw electrification, radio and pop culture, automobiles, road building, the Red Scare, and the shift "from production to consumption.” (More on the the concept, "from production to consumption" below.)

The 1950s saw TV, education, religion, pop culture, education and scholarship, interstate highway system, anti-communism and Cold War. What else?

Parallel Nature of Cookbooks and Woodworker's Manuals.

For the Woodworker, woodworker's manuals, in their function in the amateur woodworker's shop, are virtually identical to that role served by cookbooks in the housewife's kitchen.

In both cases, these respective operations are almost always conducted in a home setting. Since, though, eating is something done by every human, cooking occurs on a larger scale than amateur woodworking. In ? it was estimated that -- out of a total of ? households -- one million households in America were woodworking homes. both cookbooks and woodworker's manuals have a strong prescriptive theme, prescriptive meaning that authors "prescribed" to readers how cooking procedures were conducted.

Cultural Role of Cookbooks

"[C]ookbooks are as much about reading and fantasizing and experiencing how other people do things in the kitchen as they about cooking per se." (Daisy Maryles and Dick Donahue, "Who's Minding the Stove?" Publishers' Weekly, July 26, 1999, p 36, as cited by Jessamyn Neuhaus, p 280.)

(In the preceding sentence, instead of a cookbook, to shift from cooking to woodworking, think of woodworker's manual, change a few words, and -- in my opinion, anyway -- you have a viable concept of a wannabe amateur woodworker, dreaming about what to produce in the woodshop.)

Cookbooks, perhaps to a greater extent, even, than woodworker's manuals, have been tools used by individuals responsible for designing and maintaining kitchens, pantries, dining areas, for acquiring cooking appliances and utensils, for acquiring raw food, for composing meals, and for creating individual dishes, (Since all my life I have been simply an onlooker in such operations, I have probably not included essential ingredients -- pun intended -- in this conceptualization. By examining cookbooks decade-by-decade, cultural historians definitely could begin to visualize the impact of technological advances and such matters as dietary changes impacted given populations.

For this analogy between cookbooks and woodworker's manuals, the model cookbooks, I have in mind are Fannie Farmer 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and Irma S. Rombauer's Joy of Cooking.

Considered the one of the greatest of American cookbooks, Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was acclaimed for a number of innovations. It was the first to use measurement, now considered standard in American cooking, for example, a level cupful, teaspoonful and tablespoonful. As well as giving reader's simple directions, Farmer showed a hitherto neglected concern for nutrition. Novices and experienced cooks contemporary to the period were introduced to a large amount of information, from instructions for building a fire to how to bone a bird. By 1947, when it was a half century old, it had sold two and one half million copies.

The most popular cookbook in the United States, Joy of Cooking, was first published in 1931. Rombauer (1877-1962) simplified many recipes for American kitchens and modernized recipes for changing tastes. Since it first appeared in 1931, almost 10 million copies have sold, and it has never been out of print. It has been updated numerous times, and each new edition is designed to reflect the changes and innovations in both technology and dietary practices in the American kitchen.

(For more on the cultural impact of Rombauer's Joy of Cooking, checkout this 20-page, online paper by Elaine Cheong, a third-year student at the University of Maryland, 2000. Entitling her paper, "Cooking with Politics, Economics, Science and Technology: Book History and the Joy of Cooking, and citing over twenty sources of information, she covers such topics as "overview and editions", prohibition, great Depression, World War II, Global economy, science and food, technology and the kitchen.)

Not surprisingly, cookbooks in the twentieth century mirror the history of middle-class life. With their roots firmly in the "scientific" cookery tradition of the nineteenth century, modern cookbooks reflect both the wide-spread move away from the hired cooks and servants in the middle-class home and, after about 1920, the changes in kitchen technology and food processing. For social historian, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the 1920s constitutes the "industrial revolution in the home":

kitchens are as much a locus for industrialized work as factories and coal mines are, and washing machines and microwave ovens are as much a product of industrialization as are automobiles and pocket calculators. A woman who is placing a frozen prepared dinner into a microwave oven is involved in a work process that is as different from her grandmother's methods of cooking as building a carriage from scratch differs from turning bolts on an automobile assembly line; an electric range is as different from a hearth as a pneumatic drill is from a pick and shovel...

(See her "Industrial Revolution in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” in Terry S. Reynolds and Stephen H. Cutliffe, eds., Technology and the West: A Historical Anthology From Technology and Culture. )

(In my narrative sections on the 1920s, I will show that the revolution in the home was also reflected in the amateur woodworker's shop. Electrification, begun in the mid 'teens, was widespread in urban centers by the 1920s, and had begun to penetrate into rural areas by the 1930s. Most important for a "revolution" in woodworking fractional horse-power induction motors furnished the "on-the-spot" power that scaled-down woodworker's machines needed. At the close of the 1920s -- with manufacturers like JD Wallace, Delta, Boice-Crane, Walker-Turner -- many small scale power machines circular saws, jointers, lathes, combination machines, where on the market for consumers.

On another matter, the growth of interest in home workshops: To sustain enrollment in industrial arts classes -- enrollment was declining because, with mass production of furniture, the old apprenticeship system was collapsing -- Industrial Arts teachers created the "home workshop movement". )

The Evolution and Impact of Cookbooks

Naturally, the cookbook industry—and, in the context of a growing emigrant population, the ideas emerging about domesticity and gender— followed the rise of consumerism and a newly energized domestic ideology aimed at middle-class homemakers. General cookbooks in the 1920s and 1930s increasingly represented cooking as an artistic outlet for dutiful middle-class housewives. Authors sought to redefine cooking as an important and pleasurable part of the modern woman's domestic duties—a signal feature of white middle-class womanhood. Even while social and technological changes dramatically altered the middle-class American home, cookbooks bore evidence of how many Americans continued to believe that a woman's primary responsibility should be her home.

Cookbooks echoed a national debate about women's social roles in general and represented particular kinds of food and cooking as gendered. They helped to reinforce the notion that women had inherently domestic natures. (p. 2, Jessamyn Neuhaus. Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.)

Cultural Role of Woodworker's Manuals

Background for Chart posted below:
The data given decade-by-decade below come Worldcat database searches for books on woodworking. ( Worldcat, a database of library records for books, serials and other similar publications, contains over 50 million entries)
(Note: Rather than Worldcat, in her Manly Meals and Mom's Home-cooking, Jessamyn Neuhaus, p 321, uses the Library of Congress's "Experimental Search System " for creating a similar charting to mine, but for the publication of cookbooks. I have yet to use the ESS unit, but think it worthwhile, primarily because the LOC obtains, through the Copyright Act, a single copy of every book published in America.)

Search command = WorldCat results for: su= “woodwork*” and yr: 1901-1910 [etc] and la= “eng” and ((dt= “bks”) or (dt= “ser”)).

From my survey of over a century of woodworker's manuals, the rough equivalents of Joy of Cooking are John Gerald Shea's 1944 Woodworking for Everybody, and R J DeCristoforo's 1953 Power Tool Woodworking for Everyone. when I have time, I will try to determine what was the primary woodworker's manual purchased in the 1930s. This is important, of course, because starting in 1934, with the formation of the National Homeworkshop Guild, literally hundreds of individual clubs were organized throughout North America. (A reported 500 chapter by 1936.)

Setting a modest 20 members per club, the mathematics is clear: nation-wide, at least 10,000 active amateur woodworkers, which is an appealing market for woodworker's manuals. (From my knowledge of American publisher's, profits can be made on sales of under 2,000 copies, and for most commercial publishers, 2500 copies of a title is a standard figure.

In the chart below, notice that the reported numbers of imprints for the 1930s, 321, exceeds both the 1920s, with 282, and the 1940s, with 310. I have yet to find the evidence, but I believe that with WW II being declared in 1941, the National Workshop Guild collapsed. In my investigation so far, I haven't discovered the smoking gun evidence though.

Beginning with the 1950s, the steady growth in numbers of titles, decade-by-decade, is nothing short of phenomenal: growing from 416 to 1238, and from 1901-1910 to 1991-2000, a six-fold increase.


English-language publisher's output of woodworker's manuals, 1901-2000

Books and serials: 1901-1910: 194 serials: 5

Books and serials: 1911-1920: 298 serials: 3

Books and serials: 1921-1930: 282 serials: 9

   Books and serials: 1931-1940: 321 serials: 19

   Books and serials: 1941-1950: 310 serials: 31

   Books and serials: 1951-1960: 416 serials: 26

   Books and serials: 1961-1970: 567 serials: 22

   Books and serials: 1971-1980: 962 serials: 23

   Books and serials: 1981-1990: 975 serials: 47

     Books and serials: 1991-2000: 1238 serials: 30