Craft as a Way of Life

Of course, this wasn’t an easy process.  Colonial artisans often went bankrupt and were at the mercy of global trends.  Materials were scarce and had to be imported.  The silver used to make Revere’s teapots may have come from the mines of Potosi, and its slave labor, and mahogany for tables from the rainforest of Honduras.  As Adamson suggests, the “Golden Age” of craftsmanship did not feel so golden to those who had to make a living this way.  Still, it was a way to make a living, and to make one’s mark, in precarious times.  Betsy Ross may have designed the country’s flag,  but she worked as seamstress in a local upholstery shop.

Craft was a stepping stone toward freedom for many African American slaves.  The surest way to escape the fields, Adamson tells us, was through “learning a trade like blacksmithing, carpentry and boatbuilding (for men), or spinning and weaving (for women).”

Though forced to wear a metal badge indicating their ownership and occupation,  these craftsmen were trusted members of the Black community. Many helped to organize slave revolts and many went on to secure their freedom.  Frederick Douglass trained in hull caulking, then passed himself off as a sailor on a ship bound for New Bedford, where he became an eloquent spokesman for emancipation.

Craft is living history. The quilts of Gee’s Bend, on display in major museums today, were made by women of Alabama whose ancestors were slaves on the Pettway Plantation.  Arlonzia Pettway recalls her grandmother’s stories of her ancestor Dinah Miller, who was brought to the United States by slave ship in 1859.  (In this issue, read Sara Evans on how, over a hundred years later, quilts emerged as high art.)

1979 quilt by Lucy Mingo of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. It includes a nine-patch center block surrounded by pieced strips.

In 1855, Walt Whitman described our growing country in his “Song for Occupations.” showing how the spirit of America was forged by builders and other craftsmen:

House-building, measuring, sawing the boards, Blacksmithing, glass-blowing, nail-making, coopering, tin-roofing,  shingle-dressing, Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, flagging of sidewalks by flaggers, the pump. The pile drive, the great derrick, the coal-kiln and the brick kiln, Coal mines and all that is down there, the maps in the darkness, echoes, songs, what meditations, what vast native thoughts.

Yet as craft morphs into industry, the nature of work, and of our national psyche, shifts.  We are no longer a country of craftsmen and artisans, who create something beautiful and useful, and follow a process from beginning to end.  Makers no more, we are the servants of industry, mere cogs in a machine.

With the rise of factories,  we no longer have the gratification of engaging our minds as well as our hands.   Nor do our skills—now so narrowly defined—provide a means of achieving financial independence.  Our concentration is broken.  And as the dignity of craft replaced by “piece work,”  we forfeit our creativity and peace of mind.

In the early 1900,  labor unions called for a more hospitable, and humane, workplace.  Consider these words from the AFL’s founding president, Samuel Gompers, who came from the cigar trade.  “The craftsmanship of the cigarmaker,” he said, fondly recalling his apprenticeship, “was shown in his ability to utilize wrappers to the best advantage to shave off the unusable to a hairbreadth, to roll as to cover holes in the leaf and to use both hands to make a perfectly shaped and rolled product. These things a good cigar maker learned to do more or less mechanically, which left us free to think, talk, listen, or sing.”  Gompers had “earned the mind-freedom that accompanies the skill of the craftsman.”

Cigar makers strike of 1877. Samuel Gompers referred to a time when workers lost the rhythm of their labor

In the early cigar factories, there was a wholly different atmosphere—as men and women rolled the leaves between their fingers, they listened to music and engaged in conversation.  Often, someone read aloud.  Yet as the factory owners focussed on speed and efficiency, work lost its poetry and its rhythm—and we began  looking down on those who were dextrous, often to the point of genius,  insisting that they forfeit their humanity and behave more like machines.  Suddenly we had little respect for makers of any kind —- for millers and mineworkers,  seamstresses and spinners, potters and printers, weavers and joiners—and for any occupation in which we rely upon our hands.

Adamson asks if a revival of craft can save America, bringing us back from the abyss of mechanization, and perhaps even countering the disembodiment of our digital age.  He reminds us of the dignity of labor, what it means to make things from scratch—whether it’s a chair, a plate or a poem—and shows us how craft provides the basis for a strong community.

In an era when work is overly cerebral and knowledge increasingly compartmentalized,  we have begun to experience what some psychologists call the “revenge of the feeling function.”   Our jobs today are based on data and the flow of new ideas, on marketing schemes, financial projections and ways of calculating risk. The Information Economy and the coming Metaverse, with its blatant disregard for tangible things, leave a good part of the American psyche adrift.  And the energy we once channeled into physical labor—into making products that are both beautiful and necessary—no longer has our attention and respect.

To explore the heart of craft, we turn to a beautiful new book, Art in the Making: Essays by Artists about What They Do, to be published in October 2022 by The Fisher Press and the John Stevens Shop. This volume has been assembled by Christopher and Nicholas Benson whose grandfather, John Howard Benson, documented the American Crafts movement, a tributary of the Arts and Crafts movement started in England by John Ruskin and William Morris.

In the early 20th century, the John Stevens Stone Carving and Lettering Shop in Newport, Rhode Island printed books on the philosophy and practice of art and craft.  Contributors to the series included the typographer Eric Gill, and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy,  a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Art in the Making continues in this vein, with essays by dancers, singers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, chefs, poets, painters, photographers, composers, type designers, and makers of stained-glass windows.  We are pleased to feature seven of these artists in our current issue:

Funded by a kickstarter campaign, Art in the Making is democratic to its core—and a wonderful follow up to Glenn Adamson’s overview of craft in America.  While Adamson gives the broad intellectual overview,  these essays are warm, personal, and engaging—and take us directly to the source.

 “Our intent was to outflank the sometimes ponderous interpretations of professional critics and academics, and treat our readers to the direct experience, ideas and motivations of some of art’s actual creators,” says Christopher Benson. “Sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes serious, sometimes humorous; occasionally political, always philosophical and often irreverent or provocative — these are the outpourings of the genuine, living minds from which art springs.”

The artists featured in this book range from the well-known, like composer Nico Muhly, to those who rarely exhibit their work.  The focus is not on material success but on what each person gains from a particular discipline. How a way of working becomes a way of life.

“The vast majority of accomplished individuals working in every creative field, fall somewhere between (the) mythic extremes of fame and failure,”  Benson writes. “ For all the dedicated artists and artisans who occupy that middle ground, the measures of our actual success must finally lie in the real quality of the work we do, as we understand it, in the relationships we build within the communities of colleagues, patrons and admirers who appreciate and support it, and in whatever satisfaction we derive from its making.

“This is a book about making art: about what it is, how it works, why it gets made, and above all, how the people who make it understand all those things,” Benson continues.  “We will drop the old separation of art from craft at the outset. Despite that they have different aims, these two ways of making things are also — and especially in our technological age — inextricably linked. Art, for our purposes, is thus anything that an individual makes, to a high level of realization, with hands and mind working in partnership.”

Benson’s book shows what it means to pursue a craft in a culture that is often too fast, too preoccupied, and too distracted to appreciate its value.  We make sacrifices to follow this path yet we immeasurably enriched by it.

Craft is a sprawling subject, and when planning this issue, we kept adding other features. The following experts consider how craft functions in the home.

In Flush with Ideology, architectural historian Barbara Penner explores the bathroom as place of magic and mystery.

In Life Without the Chair, Galen Cranz proposes alternatives to sitting—and shows how much better the body fares with stools, carpets, divans, and old fashioned squatting.

Artist and writer L. John Harris takes us on a tour of his craftsman house and his collection of hand-made objects, in Villa Maybeck, My Cabinet of Curiosity.

In Spirit of the American City, Catherine Burns and Lisa Diamond chronicle the rise of the Metropolis in the early 20th century, through art and photography.

In The Art of Looking, photographer Susan Fassberg describes discovering San Miguel Allende’s art and architecture in the silence of the pandemic.  (Without the usual soundtrack, she “learned how to see.”)

And in A Visual Guide to Craft, we recommend a variety of films about the art of making things.

If you are still looking for a definition of craft, we leave you with the words of St. Francis of Assisi. A laborer is one who works with his hands. A craftsman is one who works with his head and his hands. And an artist is one who also works with his heart.


Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrews
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at

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  1. “the measures of our actual success must finally lie in the real quality of the work we do, as we understand it, in the relationships we build within the communities of colleagues, patrons and admirers who appreciate and support it, and in whatever satisfaction we derive from its making.”

    To me, this reads “professional pride”. And it applies not only to the tangible crafts but also to services. The real tragedy is when we for the sake of profit are forced to provide bad quality items or service and have our souls killed in the process.