American Manufactory

nancy sharon collins's picture

I finished a fortnight of heavy going on the computer writing an article too thick with foot notes and citations to be fun. So, to get the old juices going again I turned to a job that had been sitting on the shelf waiting to be done, 300 envelopes needed lining with some of my vintage onion skin paper.

The onion skin for this job is what was called "Tuscan" but it is orange.

It was a joy to stand up at our work table, put on some Brahms, cut, paste, fold, count the exact quantity of envelopes.

I started to think, why is this so pleasurable and the tedium of mass production not? I made some notes before I went to bed and this is what I found:

In "The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic" Laura Rigal discusses the difference between artisan and manufactory worker. She makes the distinction between "manufactory" and manufacturing; about the time of the building of our new Republic, goods were in high demand so slick thinkers invented new machines that made making something (like a barrel) faster and cheaper. It was at this time that more complex "machines" began to mediate the art of production.

Prior to this simple machines (tools, such as a hammer or a wedge which is a simple screw) were used by craftsmen and women in the production of goods (books, cabinets, shoes, and etc.) It was a direct process, artisanal, the true crafts. Each product was as good (or bad) as the person involved. There was little standardization, except for guilds and trade unions. A well made shoe would take many hours which is why hand-crafted goods are so dear today (hand made shoes cost many thousands of dollars because they take so many hours to make.)

There are great movies about the dulling work of mass production, "9 Mile Road" comes to mind. And there is a Sally Fields chick flick whose name I can't recall.

So, what's the difference between my labors over 300 envelopes and an assembly line:

1. I control the process and the the profits so there is a sense of ownership in the job.

2. There is a bit of creativity in that each job is relatively small, so, there is a bit of a challenge figuring out the work flow.

3. There is pleasure in accomplishment: starting with an empty "Finished" box and watching the finished envelopes stack up is fun. You can actually see and feel the fruits of your own labor.

4. Working with my hands with real materials is a wonderful contrast to heavy lifting words and phrases for ten days solid on a computer-machine.

I think this is why more and more people of this new, computer generation begin to embrace the old crafts; letterpress, the book arts and now engraving have become interesting to increasing numbers of typography and graphic design students.

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