The Artisan’s World

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The Artisans World


Made by Hand . In the first third of the nineteenth century most consumer goods were produced goods were produced in small, unmechanized manufactories (literally, places where things were made by hand). Contemporaries referred to these business places as shops and their proprietors as craftsmen, artisans, or mechanics. Many small shops combined manufacturing and retail operations (often in one room), produced goods to order (called bespoke goods), and were generally owned and run by master craftsman and his family generally lived in rooms above or behind the shop, and the journeymen and apprentices he hired often lived under the same roof.

The Master . In traditional shops masters, journeymen, and apprentices knew their specified duties and maintained a rough hierarchy of authority under the masters control. In an era of ardent republicanism, however, journeymen and apprentices chafed under harsh masters, and the wise shop owner tried to maintain a spirit of mutuality and common effort. Nonetheless, it was the master artisan who either owned or rented the place of business, possessed all of the tools appropriate to the craft, and supervised the work of the journeymen and apprentices. Masters purchased raw materials, punished recalcitrant apprentices, greeted customers, and drummed up new business (though not usually by advertising, which was considered inappropriate for a respectable craftsman). To become master of his own shop, which was every journeymans goal, required years of learning the field, first as an indentured apprentice (bound by contract and law to serve ones master, usually for four to seven years) and then as a journeyman working by piece rate.

Pride of Work. Craftsmen took pride in their work and the quality of the products they created. They spent years acquiring the skills needed to assemble a finished product out of a pile of raw materials using only hand tools and experience. Over time the knowledge, skill, and usual vocabulary of his particular craft became second nature to the skilled artisan, so much so that retired craftsmen still used the lingo of the trade decades after they left the shops. The tools of the trade were treated with the utmost respect; half a century after his retirement shoemaker David Johnson could still weigh the relative merits of English and American awls and the qualities of the Allerton, Wilson, and Titus brands. Awls were the most expensive tools in a shoemakers box, and according to Johnson, a boy who broke too many awls by accident, perhaps while trying to work some particularly hard leather, could expect to fell some leather applied to his own hide by the master of the shop.

Leisurely Pace. Artisans worked hard, often ten to fourteen hours each day. But they did not labor at the same relentless pace that bosses demanded in the mechanized factories of Lowell and Lynn, with their tight production schedules and expensive machines. In most shops in fact, work and leisure were not clearly separated. Breaks were frequent, and hard cider or other alcoholic beverages were liberally distributed among the workers, creating a congenial atmosphere. The working week in theory ran from Monday through Saturday in most shops, but in many communities workers regarded it as their right to enjoy Blue Monday at home, visiting friends, or more likely, nursing their headaches after drinking too much on Sunday. In Philadelphia, for instance, German Americans held regular neighborhood Volksfests (folk festivals) that ran from Sunday to Tuesday. The rise of the temperance movement would end the alcoholic aspects of artisan culture even as the advent of mechanization would end the leisurely pace of craft labor.

The Artisans Household. By tradition, and in many towns as late as the 1820s, masters were morally and legally responsible for the care, upkeep, training, and behavior of all the dependent members of their households, which included not only their families but the journey men and apprentices who lived with them as well. these extended work-related families ate and drank at the same table and attended social events together. Some journeymen

(who wear usually young adults), and even some apprentices, might live on their own, but even then their masters were responsible for their behavior in the community. For this reason contracts between masters nad journeymen or apprentices usually contained specific stipulations about personal behavior. The apprentice John English, who eventually became a well-known steamship builder in New Yorks East River yards, signed in 1825 a four-year contract of indenture that required that the said apprentice his master faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commands everywhere readily obey he shall not contract matrimony within said term: at cards, dice, or any unlawful game he shall not play whereby his master may have damage he shall not absent himself day or night from his masters service without his leave; boor haunt ale-houses, taverns, dance-houses, or play-house.

Craft Traditions. Americas master craftsmen never succeeded in developing European-style guilds, organizations of masters that regulated prices, output, and pay. Nor could American cities control market prices or workers lives like European communities did. Cheapland, a constant demand for labor, and an American tradition of resistance to authority and government regulation of markets made these options untenable. Nevertheless, American artisans did adhere to the celebratory traditions of the crafts, and they developed European-style craft organizations, habits perpetuated by the continual influx of immigrant workers steeped in the lore of the ancient symbols and rites of the European system. Throughtout the nineteenth century tailors, hatters, printers, and shipwrights could be found in annual paraeds, marching under the banners of their crafts, wearing the symbols and regalia of their organizations, or riding on floats displaying their work routines. Fourth of July parades were popular holidays for such displays, but any public celebration would do. The shipwrights and caulkers marched with their mallets and other articles emblemattical of our Trade and even built a skooner to be carried in procession when New York City celebrated the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal.

New Markets . In a traditional artisans shop the journeyman or master assembled the entire producta chair, a shoe, a suitand often fashioned the constituent parts as well. The system was effective but slow, and when the market for consumer goods began to expand after the War of 1812 due to population growth, westward expansion, and improved transportation, masters found it difficult to increase production to meet the new demand. A master could add more journeymen, but this made supervision difficult without increasing efficiency. Alternatively, he might insist that his journeyman work faster and for longer hours, be punctual, and stay sober, but only at the cost of coming into conflict with his employees, who considered such demands to be impositions on their autonomy and traditional rights to work at their own pace.

Bastardization of the Crafts. Many masters solved this problem by bastardizing (as journeyman termed it) the craft process. Ratyher than have a skilled journeyman complete an entire product, masters broke the production process down into several simple steps, each of which could be done by almost any untrained apprentice. Once the work process was broken down, masters could assemble teams of these workers, pay them by the piece or by the hour, and then impose a quota on their production. In this system skilled journeyman were no longer necessary. Moreover, task subdivision readily yielded to mechanization because inventors had a much easier time devising machinery that the multiple tasks of the journeyman. Market demand, task subdivision, and mechanization (especially with steam power) made the steps to fully mechanized factory production much easier to contemplate on the part of investors, merchants, and masters. The world of the skilled craftman did not crumble immediately in the face of these changes, and many of the new mechanized industries never had a craft tradition to replace (for example, the production of McCormick reapers or cheap colcks), but by their 1850s factory-made goods were taking over many of the markets of the traditional craftsman.

Resistence. Artisans resisted changes in their traditional pathways to independence and status. Starting in the 1820s and 1830s workers formed political paties up and down the Eastern Seaboard to lobby for the right to strike against their employers and to push for legislation limiting the length of the workday to ten hours. Craftsman also formed unions, both within their individual crafts and collectively in the 1834 National Trades Union. The reforms they suggested seemed mild, but their rhetoric often expressed a more fundamental criticism of the whole process of industrialization. Workers argued that the bastardization of their crafts undermined the honor of honest labor and denied them the freedom, equality, independence, and opportunity promised by the Revolution. Craftsman countered evidence of advancing productivity with republican arguments: this sir, is a free country, one artisan remarked, we want no one person over another which would be the case if you divided labor. Artisans argued that the masters who had once been fellow workers were turning into nonproducing investors, parasites on society who were attempting to reverse the gains of the Revolution. In 1836 female strikers at the Lowell textile mills made this point clear when they promosed that as our fathers resisted unto blood the lordly avarice of the British ministry, so we, their daughters, never will wear the yoke which has been prepared for us.

Mixed Results. The new unions and workers parties won some significant victories, including the ten-hour day in several states and an 1842 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that legalized strikers in that state. But several factors militated against the growth of a full-scale, organized labor movement. First, the potential unity of workers was weakened by racial, ethnic, gender, and craft divisions. Many skilled native-born workers thought that African, Irish, and female wage laborers undermined their demands for a living wage (which they defined as enough for a worthy mechanic to support his family without the labor of children or wife, to purchase a comfortable home, and to save up to open his own shop) by working for low pay. Equally important to the failure of working-class protest was the fact that craft workers and their unions rarely had the financial resources to support prolonged strikes or survive periodic depressions such as the Panic of 1837, which destroyed many nascent unions. Finally, and perhaps most significant, many workers either welcomed with no craft tradition (like railroads), grudgingly accommodated themselves to new work systems, or worked in crafts relatively untouched by labor subdivision, such as blacksmithing.


Paul E. Johnson, A shopkeeper Millennium: Socirty and Revivals in Robester, New York, 18151837 (New York: Hill & wang, 1918;)

Bruce laurie, Nothing on Compulsion: life Styles of Philadelphia Artisans, 18201850, Labor history, 15 (1974): 337366;

Steven J. Ross, Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure, and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati, 17881890 (New York:Columbia University Press, 1985).

Sean Wilentz, Cbants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 17881850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

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The Artisan’s World

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The Artisan’s World