Artisans and Craft Workers, and the Workshop

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Artisans and Craft Workers, and the Workshop

Craftsmen were the largest sector of the population in America's seaports. They were central to the political and economic life of its emerging municipalities.

late colonial america

Though found throughout the colonies, artisans were most heavily concentrated in towns and cities, especially the major seaports. They worked in a panoply of trades ranging from goldsmithing, silversmithing, and cabinetmaking at the top to baking, butchering, and carpentry in the middle to tailoring and shoemaking at the bottom. The trades with the largest numbers of artisans were the building crafts, particularly carpentry and masonry, which might employ 40 percent of craftsmen during construction season. Tailoring and shoemaking followed in size.

Mid-eighteenth-century artisans could be classified as either wage earners, the beginning of a working class, or as master craftsmen, incipient bourgeois entrepreneurs, since in the course of a colonial career they were often both. Normally a lad of thirteen or fourteen would contract with a master craftsman to learn a trade as an apprentice. He boarded with his master, who was responsible for his rudimentary education and clothing as well as teaching him the secrets of the trade. Learning the mysteries of the most demanding trades, such as cabinetmaking or watchmaking, took many hours at the hands of the ablest craftsmen, who passed down knowledge gained from centuries of craftsmanship. The more rudimentary trades, such as shoemaking, which required awl and hammer skills, took less time to master. Following release from indentures at the age of twenty-one, the apprentice would become a wage earner, or journeyman,

often working in various cities for master craftsmen. If competent and savvy, he would open his own business. A master's dwelling commonly included a lower-story shop and an upper floor where his family lived.

While the vast majority of artisans in colonial America remained craftsmen throughout their lives, upward mobility was possible within the middling or lower middling ranks of society. Expert cabinetmakers, for example, participated directly in colonial trade, shipping thousands of Windsor chairs. Other highly skilled artisans worked closely with merchants in a nascent capitalist economy operating under the rules of British mercantilism.

Within the poorest trades, notably, shoemaking and tailoring, however, mobility to master craftsman standing was not the rule. Moreover, even masters owning small shoemaker or tailoring shops often earned a subsistence living, with little security in times of personal crisis or economic recession. This was particularly true of Boston, a city impoverished by wars for empire, where many craftsmen sank to subsistence levels. Shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes, the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party (1773), was imprisoned early in his career for small debts; such were the perils of his trade. Poorer artisans, like other economically weak urbanites, were also prey to the scourge of epidemics, especially smallpox and yellow fever, that decimated the nation's seaports.

English guild traditions that limited admission to a trade, controlled prices, supervised craft practice, allowed for the building of elegant headquarters, and provided artisans a respected place in their city's life did not survive the transatlantic crossing. While a few trades established benevolent societies to provide social security and camaraderie for master craftsmen, and some traditions of apprenticeship indentures and workshop practices persisted, colonial America had no guild tradition, nor did it develop one. Artisans, possessing demanding skills and well-fashioned tools, were clearly above the level of laborers on the docks, indentured servants, and the slaves who made up 10 percent of the population of New York and Philadelphia and much more of Charleston. Wearing their noted leather aprons, they dressed in a common manner, kept common hours, and shared common social customs. Yet they were subject to a tradition that classified anyone who performed manual labor, however refined, as beneath the rank of gentlemen. Lacking breeding, wealth, and education, they were expected to defer to their mercantile and professional betters, who regarded mechanics (as artisans were commonly known) with a measure of condescension. There were no guilds to mediate that pejorative standing.

On the other hand, the absence of guilds allowed for a more open society in which many artisans gained freemanship. As independent entrepreneurs who owned their shops, freemen were entitled to vote, an important part of the political mix of eighteenth-century urban politics. If they seldom attained significant political positions, their voices were nevertheless considered by elite factions seeking office. They could easily make the difference in factional struggles such as that between the De Lanceys and Livingstons in New York. Within this role, artisans were generally literate, politically aware, and proud of their craft skills. If not a class consciousness, they developed a sense of their own interests and a readiness to see that their concerns were addressed.

Skilled craftsmen lived in rural communities as well as in urban society. In those communities they

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were most likely to be a jack-of-all-trades artisan, such as a joiner who could fix a wheel, mend a coach, or build a chair. There were only a few craftsmen in farming communities, though occasional villages, such as that of the Moravians in Rowan County, North Carolina, were known for their craftsmanship, male and female, in leather and textile.

the american revolution

During the Revolutionary era, skilled craftsmen became central players in the movement toward independence. Not that there were no Loyalist artisans; those with strong Anglican roots or allegiance, as well as Scottish or recent (except for Irish) immigrants, often inclined to the British position. Overall, however, artisans tended to be more radical in opposition to British measures compared to the other sectors of the urban population. In Boston the mercantile and professional elite, including John Hancock and John Adams, remained in power to become Revolutionary leaders. The role of craftsmen was largely played out within the Sons of Liberty, an association that enforced anti-British measures, through coercion if necessary, as at the Boston Tea Party (1773).

In New York a sizable number of merchants, though against British measures, remained loyal to the crown; there, artisans took on a stronger political role. Besides enforcing anti-British measures, they rallied behind three incipient merchants with plebeian background—Alexander McDougall, John Lamb, and Isaac Sears—to form their own political party, one that allied first with the DeLancey and later with the Livingston party. As British-American relations deteriorated and the British lost control of the city and colony, artisans formed their own Mechanics Committee that consistently advocated more radical

measures than the mercantile leadership, from the calling of a continental congress to a boycott of British imports to a call for independence. As in Boston, craftsmen were willing to use force. When the Stamp Act (1765) was in effect, they required one printer to publish only on unstamped paper, while in 1776 craftsmen and others burned a bookseller's pamphlets that were critical of the artisan hero Thomas Paine. They were supporters of democratic reform, petitioning the state legislature that New York's new constitution be ratified by a popular vote and that property restrictions be lifted for suffrage.

In Philadelphia, a power vacuum occurred as the two governing parties relinquished office, the Quakers from pacifist orientation and the Proprietary Party from Loyalist inclinations. In its place young merchants, supported by the city's artisan population, took power. As in New York, in the years preceding the outbreak of war Philadelphia's artisans participated in many ad-hoc governing committees such as the Committee of 43, that included artisan members. With Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine, they backed a radical state constitution that eliminated property requirements for voting and called for free public education and ratification of important legislation by the public and a unicameral legislature. This party and the radical politics it stood for were strongly opposed by more conservative Whigs. Moreover, during hard economic times that was exacerbated by wartime inflation, in 1779 violence broke out at the home of noted conservative Patriot jurist James Wilson over an attempt by large sectors of the artisan population to implement a traditional moral economy of price controls in opposition to the laissez-faire outlook of the mercantile elite and some master craftsmen.

the new republic

The period from 1790 to 1830 was the golden age of the American craftsman. The era left a great legacy in craftsmanship, as Federal furniture maintains its standing into the twenty-first century as the greatest craft work produced in the American experience. In this period, too, artisan crafts gave birth to the American labor movement and to manufacturing and entrepreneurial innovation. Also, artisans emerged as a major players in American politics.

The craft work produced by such cabinetmakers as Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honoré Lannuier, to name but two, command very high prices in the early-twenty-first-century antique market. Replacing the eighteenth-century Chippendale fashion, a style that combined Chinese, rococo, and pseudo-Gothic fashions in heavily and ornately carved furniture, Federalist design possessed a manner that emphasized grace, linearity, and proportion based on neoclassical models. This approach first became popular in England in the 1770s. American furniture and craftsmanship drew on the English, Greek, and Roman models, making subtle differences in proportions. It was known for its grace, delicacy, and artful display of color, and used inlays, painted designs, and fine upholstery. Given the sprit of republicanism that pervaded the era, it is not surprising that much of the furniture and silver and many of the grandfather clocks and other fine works displayed American eagles and other symbols of the American Republic, blending easily with classical republican symbols.

From master to employer. The business of a craft in the early national period was far more extensive than in the colonial era. First, the economic ambitions and horizons of craftsmen were enhanced by the Revolution. Independence meant more than political rights; it denoted the opportunity to enter the marketplace and prosper subject only to the limitations of one's abilities in craft and business skills. Craftsmen were deft users of advertisement, credit, and banking. Indeed, New York in 1810 incorporated the Mechanics Bank, the city's highest capitalized bank at $1.5 million, with the specification that $600 thousand be devoted to the state's mechanics. Successful artisan entrepreneurs hired many employees and used division of labor; Duncan Phyfe employed over one hundred journeymen, divided among departments of inlay makers, turners, upholsterers, carvers, and gilders. His quarters included a workshop, a warehouse, and display rooms. Large amounts of furniture—of both high and low quality—were built and stocked in the city for sale to the mercantile elite there and to brokers in the West Indies, the hinterlands, and other American cities.

Many other crafts prospered within the period thanks to the strong economic growth during the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815). Shipbuilding contractors employed large numbers of craftsmen in the production of clipper ships and naval vessels. In construction, master builders contracted to construct a home and then hired carpenters, masons, and stone-cutters. A number of crafts remained small businesses; many bakers, butchers, and watchmakers still had their own shops. On the other hand, the city's largest crafts—printing, cabinetmaking, construction, shoemaking, and tailoring—became large-scale enterprises requiring considerable capital investment. Type and printing presses, for example, cost well beyond the means of an aspiring journeyman. In these trades masters tended to become cost-conscious employers rather than the paternal master craftsman who nurtured journeymen and apprentices on their way to master standing. (While small enterprises remained, they were more and more the exception.) More and more journeymen lived in boardinghouses rather than with masters, and more and more apprentices left their indentures early for wages in crafts that demanded less skill than the trades they abandoned.

From journeymen to laborers. In the new American economy, journeymen had to accept that they were unlikely to become master craftsmen. In so doing, journeymen printers, shoemakers, cabinetmakers, carpenters, and masons in American seaports formed their own benevolent associations. These provided benefits in case of illness or death and also negotiated conditions of employment with employers. As masters sought to maintain lower prices for labor, journeymen responded by demanding negotiated wages either by the hour in construction or by piecework in tailoring and shoemaking. When the two sides could not agree, the journeymen were not unwilling either to walk out of a single master, stage a citywide walkout, or even open their own stores. They demanded that masters hire only those who belonged to their journeymen societies. It was this demand, and the walkouts that ensued when violations of this principle occurred, that led to major labor conspiracy trials against shoemakers in both Philadelphia and New York in 1806 and 1809. Journeymen were charged with conspiring under English common law against the rights of other journeymen who wanted to work. The trials ended in convictions, and though the fines assessed were not severe, they limited the ability of journeymen to establish a powerful countervailing force in the marketplace. Labor strife continued, however; at stake for journeymen was no less than the right to maintain republican standing, a station that demanded economic independence. If land ownership or master status was unattainable in the new economy, an acceptable replacement was to be secure wages that offered an opportunity to raise a family within a decent standard of living, a standard faithful to and within the Revolution's legacy.

For masters, at stake in labor conflict was the right to organize their businesses as they saw fit and to fully engage within the new marketplace. Also at jeopardy was their sense of artisan republicanism, in which they saw themselves as the paternalist guardians of the artisan trades. In this light, aside from organizing for labor conflict, which they denounced as harming the unity of the trades, they formed venerable artisan societies like the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in New York, an ongoing institution, that provided libraries for its apprentices, schools for the children of its members, death and illness benefits, a place of fellowship, an organization to lobby for protective tariffs, and a forum for personal advancement. Stephen Allen, later the mayor of New York, entered public life as president of the Mechanics Society.

Political allegiances. Politically, artisans became the pivotal voting bloc in the nation's seaports. Supporters of the U.S. Constitution as a compact that offered trade protection and an advantageous market position, they were originally strong followers of the Federalist Party. However, Jeffersonian egalitarianism soon made strong headway, especially against the deferential expectations and arrogance of Federalist leaders. The Jeffersonian appeal to artisans was not the agrarianism espoused by John Taylor of Caroline. Rather, in pivotal states such as Pennsylvania and New York, it was based upon a sense of equal opportunity and entry into the marketplace and an attack against economic privilege. Artisan masters must be allowed to exploit the new economy without cumbersome restriction or regulation. (However, monopolistic factorylike organizations were not acceptable in a republican marketplace.) Artisan journeymen also had the right to be free of intimidation by Federalist employers who expected them to vote as instructed, as the Republicans were quick to point out through an active press. Also, many artisans joined the Democratic Republican societies in support of the French Revolution, which the Federalists staunchly opposed. A number of artisans followed the deism of Thomas Paine, and these were welcomed into Republican ranks, while others, although still Jeffersonian, formed the backbone of new Baptist and Methodist congregations. Enough artisans had shifted their votes in Philadelphia and New York City by 1800 to give Jefferson the presidency and maintain Jeffersonian political dominance in the mid-Atlantic, even into the hard years of the War of 1812; at that time many craftsmen were willing to temporarily sacrifice their economic welfare for the greater good espoused by President James Madison.

With the rise of the industrial revolution, party machines, and mass immigration, the influence and role of the nation's artisans would soon diminish. The early years of the nineteenth century represented its zenith in American history.

See alsoBoston Tea Party; Election of 1800; Labor Movement: Labor Organizations and Strikes; Manufacturing; Moravians; Paine, Thomas; Sons of Liberty .


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