Crafts and social movements went hand-in-hand in American history

Author Glenn Adamson points out that the artisan’s workshop has long served as a shared space where people gathered with a common goal.

Bloomsbury Publishing
“Craft: An American History” by Glenn Adamson, Bloomsbury, 400 pp.

Activists in the 1980s had tried for years to persuade government officials to address the growing AIDS crisis. They finally broke through with a patchwork of hand-stitched fabric squares memorializing those who had died – the AIDS Quilt. Displayed in Washington and in communities across the United States, the enormous and ever-expanding project captured the public’s attention as nothing else had. Politicians could no longer ignore the situation.

As Glenn Adamson makes clear in “Craft: An American History,” this was not the first time that handicrafts had played a role in American politics. The scholar and former museum director unwinds the story through the lens of the artisans, revealing how crafts and the people who create them have played an enduring role in shaping this country’s history. The book touches on issues of race and class as well as labor movements, and Adamson weaves in familiar names such as Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and Gustav Stickley. He also includes figures usually left out of the narrative, like Candace Wheeler.

Renowned for her fine needlework and motivated by the needs of impoverished Civil War widows, Wheeler turned her skills – and those of other women – into a commercial enterprise. These women included Elizabeth Custer, whose husband had been killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Wheeler went on to found a textile company that employed only women. “It was the unwritten law that women should not be wage-earners or salary beneficiaries,” she said. “But necessity was stronger than the law.”

With an academic’s eye for detail, Adamson examines the ways that crafts like needlework or carpentry provided opportunities for many Americans to achieve a measure of independence. But he also expounds upon the dark side of that trade: When a product that originates in individuality is subsumed by industry, it often leads to the exploitation of workers, including children.

The dawning industrial age ushered in competition and job insecurity, which quickly replaced the artisans’ values of independence and quality. Adamson notes, “For Whitman and others ... there was still no absolute distinction between craft and industry. There was simply production and, increasingly, it defined America.” Yet he describes how trade-specific unions fueled the emerging clout of the labor force.

And while Adamson delineates the tension between crafts and business, including the destruction of natural resources and other challenges that persist today, he highlights the effectiveness of crafting within social movements.

A recent example is the Women’s March of 2017, the largest single-day political mobilization in American history, which might best be remembered for its ubiquitous pink hats. These hand-knit caps helped unify the gathering of women of all ages and social classes, who had traveled to the nation’s capital in a show of solidarity against the election of President Donald Trump. 

Adamson implores us to build upon American tradition and examine how crafts can be effectively leveraged to improve our shared future. At a time of deep division in America, he asks if we might tap into our country’s long-standing connection with crafts to build bridges. After all, he notes, the artisans’ workshop has long served as a shared space where people gathered with a common goal.

“Wherever you go in America, country or city, north or south, red state or blue, you will find makers, and communities of support around them,” he writes in this remarkable and eminently readable book. “There is tremendous potential in this universality.”

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