At the heart of the items that we collect and admire are the stories behind their creation, craft, and use. While an object might bear the mark or label of a company or business, the hands that produced the object are typically invisible and unknown, especially when it comes to handmade items such as tools, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and kitchenware. These makers were tradesmen, craftsmen, artisans, and general laborers trained to make utilitarian goods by hand for an intended purpose. Their name was not nearly as important as their finished products to all but a select group of buyers.
Over a century later, these utilitarian items are being purchased as decorative objects valued for their design aesthetic, and for collections to help us better understand the history and progression of the craft in its making. This growing appreciation for the fundamentals of the trade is also driving collectors and scholars to research and identify the maker behind the object to include their story in the narrative, as well.
Through the study of Material Culture, a relatively new field of academic inquiry that explores the history of objects to better understand the world in which they were made, unknown persons with rich contributions to the craft are re-emerging from the depths of obscurity to have their stories told, and their person re-associated with their creations.
Henry Ford was an early pioneer in this effort. “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used …. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition …,” said Ford. The Henry Ford Museum now shares those names and stories as part of its mission to preserve the history of industrialization and innovation. More recently, the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive project is investigating people of color in the early American South involved in a variety of trades. And Glenn Adamson’s celebrated new book Craft; An American History, sheds new light on the role of artisans in shaping American identity. This scholarly work is giving a face to the form of the maker’s movement that re-defines the work done in a pre-20th century industrialized society.
Nowhere is this field of study more actively on display than in the furniture trade, where a lot of forensic research is taking place to tie antique pieces of furniture to their design origin and maker. By exploring the object’s ‘DNA’ in light of such elements as carpentry style, construction, materials used, identifying marks, provenance, purchase receipts, business records, recorded history, and such, connections are made and the shape of a maker emerges.
These makers are now being recognized and celebrated; their work on display in museums, and their backstory folded into dissertations on the history of their craft. My daughter Erica Lome, who received her Ph.D. in Material Culture this past May and is a frequent contributor to this magazine as well as Curatorial Associate at the Concord Museum, shares one such story on Olof Althin, a Swedish born cabinetmaker who worked in Boston, Massachusetts between 1880 and 1920. With a grant from the Decorative Arts Trust, Erica and her co-curator Trevor Brandt will be bringing Althin’s story to life this summer in a special exhibit at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia called American by Craft: The Furniture of Olof Althin. His story will be told through photographs, letters, and business papers donated by his family, select pieces of his furniture, tools, and more. Learn more about this furniture maker and the upcoming exhibit in our April issue.
In this issue we also look at the hand-making of woven fabrics over time, the evolution of handmade pottery, and the history of blacksmithing to learn more about the objects we love to collect and some of the names of makers we may not know.
This renewed look at objects through the lens of its makers has created a Renaissance of sorts as more and more contemporary artists, artisans, and craftsmen of all sorts proudly identify themselves as ‘makers,’ fueling a 21st-century Makers Movement based on creative passion, old-school respect, and access to new and traditional tools and raw materials that make hand production for a new millennium, possible. These makers are creating the collectibles of the future but thanks to social media that connect the maker with their buyer, their names will more directly be connected to the objects they create.