“Craft: An American History” by Glenn Adamson: Is Hand Made Better?

Is this what you imagine when you buy a handcrafted item? This factory is in Richmond, Virginia. 15 July 2008. DearEdward from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what you imagine when you buy a handcrafted item? This factory is in Richmond, Virginia. 15 July 2008. DearEdward from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you bought anything recently that was “artisan created”?  Do you like to make things yourself, either to make or use?   

If so, you know you are part of a big trend these days.  It seems to me that now that we can buy almost anything we want, at any time, we don’t want it. 

We only want what has been made slow.

But now even that is overwhelming when everyone seems to have her own online craft shop.

So then you need to have a story to get buyers’ attention.

Eh, I’d rather go to a craft fair.

 Anyway, all of these issues made me want to read this book. Now that we can pretty much get anything we want when we want it (through the Internet), all of these things matter even more.

When I started, I thought I was going to be reading about different industries and the value of making each thing by hand, but that isn’t what this book is really about at all. It’s about supply and demand and making things quickly enough to make them pay.

According to this book, there never was a time when things were made slowly and lovingly by hand, and doing so earned the crafter a decent income. That type of industry has always existed, but it has always been specialized. For the average manufacturer, good quality is usually a part of the equation, but speed and as much automation as possible has always been important too.

Why You Should Read Craft

You should read this book if you fall into at least one of these categories:

  1. You like to buy items that are handcrafted or are from small businesses.

  2. You are thinking about “monetizing” your hobby. 

  3. You are confused about why imported things are often cheaper than things made in the U.S.

  4. You aren’t sure which is the lesser wrong: buying local and paying more or buying imports and paying less.

    In other words, almost everyone.

Is Hand Made Better?

The biggest pressure on craft, I’ve learned from this book, is the equation of time, money, and demand.  If a factory can create something that is as good or better quality than a hand made item, why pay for the hand made?  Is hand made always better? Is it ever better?

People who “hand make” items find out pretty quickly that to make money, they need speed, so they learn to make things quickly and fairly identically. 

I admire craftsmanship, but as I read this book, I thought about how craftsmanship works as a business model, and I realized that the issue is not as simple as it might seem.

The Highs and Lows of Craft: An American History 

There is a lot going on in this book, but these issues stand out.

What does it mean to be skilled?


A part of this story is about product, but another important aspect is who has the power in the industry.  As different ethnic groups became assimilated into the United States, different groups were able to control industries, and command the highest salaries, by becoming part of the elite “skilled” group.  Often, to my surprise, specific jobs were denied admission to trade unions or other groups of skilled workers specifically because they were jobs primarily held by a less powerful group, or at times, by women.   

In other cases, it turns out that crafts we associate with certain groups, such as Cherokee silver jewelry, were crafts that were specifically developed to fit a market. Oddly, knowing that doesn’t put me off the jewelry, it impresses me…because good marketing, in which a need or a desire is identified and fulfilled.

 The Concept of the Home Economist 

Women have always had a role in craft because many crafts were created in the home, for the home, and it wasn’t a stretch for women to make more of their crafts to sell.  Quite often factory work was also given to people, including women, to make at home.   

As a part of the discussion on crafts done at home, and in what I found to be the weakest section of the book, Admonson shows that he doesn’t understand what women do at home.  In citing the famous book on home economics by Catherine Beecher (the sister of Harriet Beecher Stow, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin), he disparages her advice that the flatware have handles heavy enough to keep the blades and tines off the tablecloth as being “all about show”, when anyone who has any common sense (or experience) would get the point that keeping  the tablecloth clean saves having to wash said cloth and reducing the stains, which take work to get out.  In other instances, he misquotes her on the topic of women subordinating to men and on the topic of carpets.

Sewing and Car Maintenance 

He also somewhat denigrates the movement in the 50’s and 60’s, when teenage girls were encouraged to sew their own clothes.  He seems to think girls were being forced into some feminine role, when in fact they probably wanted to have more clothes than their parents thought they needed, and in those days, lots of students, especially girls, learned to sew at school. Making things at home was an economical option they could afford from their side jobs, and if I were a parent, I would be fine with my teen making up the slack that way. 

He seems to understand why boys fixed up cars: making dresses for girls would have been the same thing. 

Sure, it’s not great that girls who wanted to fix up cars and boys who wanted to sew would not have been encouraged to do so, but frankly, I would prefer sewing any day.  And I still regret that I didn’t learn to use a sewing machine as a teen, either at home or at school. 

Final Thoughts: Craft and IKEA

Ironically, I was finishing this book the same weekend I decided to make one of my seasonal sojourns to Ikea.  Bringing home my flat packs and assembling them, after reading this book, make me think of the special kind of craft that goes into the design of both the furniture and how it comes packed so precisely into its box.  Ikea is often considered the opposite of what we think of when we think of handcrafted, but honestly I am more enamored of my light, bentwood Poang chairs that are my favorite for reading than I am of any big, heavy upholstered chair, no matter how well crafted.   

I know that Ikea’s business model, and their low prices, hinge on great style combined with those flat packs to save on shipping…which also allow me to get 2 chairs and 5 stools into my car.   

No one thinks of Ikea when they think of master craftsmanship, but I appreciate the design, the economy, and honestly, the fun of feeling I had a hand in creating my furniture even though all I did was turn an allen wrench and follow the pictograms in the directions.  I love the feeling that I am doing something the same way as people all over the world, and that we are going to enjoy our same chair at the end of a long day of doing whatever it is that we do.

Postscript: Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong

Read it if You Can Find It

It’s not that easy to find in a library, but this classic memoir by Jade Snow Wong, mentioned in Craft, tells of Wong’s life growing up in a Chinese-American family in Hong Kong and her discovery of pottery as her life’s calling.

I read it years ago, in 1998 according to Amazon.com, and it’s highly recommended: enjoyable to read and interesting.

Perfect when you want something that’s meaningful yet engaging and not dark and depressing.