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The Arts of Survival

Published onApr 22, 2021
The Arts of Survival

… whence came all these people? They are a mixture of EnglishScottishIrish, FrenchDutch, Germans and Swedes. From this promiscuous breedthat race now called Americans have arisen.… There is room for everybody in America.

J. Hector St. Joan de Crevecoeur, 1782 ([25], 37)

The mother countries of the United States never imagined that their colonies would dream of independence and aspire one day to shape their own destiny. Nor was it conceivable to them that the scattered settlements in the wilderness of the New World would be fused into a new nation by the fire of a revolution. England, France, and Spain (the great European powers of the time), as well as Holland, Sweden, Germany, and other countries, looked upon the distant continent as a virgin source of wealth in the form of rare metals and minerals and forest and animal resources, as a place to establish plantations and manufactories to supplement those of the homeland, as a prospective market for the surpluses of their own industrial revolutions, and as a depository for their social and religious dissidents.

It seems inevitable that the tide of hereditary aristocracy and secular and religious autocracy that crested in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should have washed the seeds of independence onto the shores of North America. There were two great waves of colonialism. The wave to the south came first to seek out and bring back the treasures of the new world; the northern one that quickly followed was one of self-exiled egalitarians seeking to plant a purer society to the glory of God. For several decades, emigrants from one country or another competed for their own parts of North America. However, by the mid-1600s the English colonists and the language and manners of their mother country prevailed.

The first London Company was chartered by the Crown in 1607 to explore and exploit the resources of Virginia and to return to its shareholders a fifth of all of the riches found or mined. The colonizing band included adventurers, soldiers of fortune, unprincipled young men, and bankrupts who were expected to trade with the Indians and to establish plantations and manufactures that would profit themselves and their sponsors. The colony that the Company founded at Jamestown was eventually led by Captain John Smith, soldier and adventurer, whose report was to be described later by Alexis de Tocqueville as breathing “that ardour for discovery, that spirit of enterprise which characterized the men of his time, when the manners of chivalry were united to zeal for commerce, and made subservient to the acquisition of wealth.” ([86], II, 408)

The memoirs of Thomas Jefferson shed additional light on the preoccupation with personal gain of the Englishmen who colonized the South: “At the time of the first settlement of the English in Virginia, when land was to be had for little or nothing, some provident persons having obtained large grants of it, and being desirous of maintaining the splendour of their families, entailed their property upon their descendants. The transmission of these estates from generation to generation, to men who bore the same name, had the effect of raising up a distinct class of families, who, possessing by law the privilege of perpetuating their wealth, formed by these means a sort of patrician order, distinguished by the grandeur and luxury of their establishments.” ([86], II, 415)

The second ship dispatched to the Virginia colony in 1608 brought over from London people skilled in manufactures. Some were put to work in the forests to produce clapboards, wainscoting, and other wood derivatives such as tar and pitch that were in short supply at home; others attempted to smelt iron ore; others erected a “glass-house” to make glass from beach sand. Under constant threat from the Indians, such efforts were eventually abandoned. Of all of the ventures undertaken in Virginia, only the plantations that were established in the warm humid climate along the eastern seaboard showed promise of success. The colonists’ attempts to raise textile fibers and establish silk culture as they were pressed to do by their London shareholders were unsuccessful, but they found that tobacco was admirably suited to the climate and commanded an excellent price in European markets.

The success of the patricians was aided in no small measure by the introduction of slavery in 1620, when the first twenty Africans were put ashore on the banks of the James River. (It is an interesting coincidence that in that same year the first Puritans were landing to the north at Plymouth in search of individual freedom.) The combination of available labor and successful crops (first tobacco; later cotton, rice, and indigo) soon created an agrarian aristocracy in the South, with England as its focus. The southern colonists sent to England for clothing and for home furnishings, and shipped their children to England to be educated and indoctrinated with British political and social philosophy. The wealthy southerners came to view themselves as aristocrats whose position obligated them to develop an environment in the New World that was as elegant and fashionable as that of England. From their estates were to come the proud new Americans, jealous of their right to economic rewards, zealous in their freedom, and knowledgeable enough of history and law to realize that a universal tide was running in favor of republican equality. It was Jefferson, a southern patrician, who transposed John Locke’s phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property” into “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which he considered more egalitarian and therefore more acceptable to his northern compatriots. By the end of the colonial era the southerners were to realize that, although they had no tenant class, they were really one people with the freemen of the North.

The northern wave of English emigrants was made up of those disenfranchised merchants and disenchanted scholars and ecclesiastics who had dared to speak out against the practices and authority of the Anglican church. Those who called themselves Puritans questioned the influence of Roman Catholic ritual and dogma in England and insisted on their right to interpret the word of God for individual guidance. These Separatists, as they were known, were against any political appointments to church office and called for a complete break between church and state. Queen Elizabeth resented any question of her authority over the church and used her influence and that of her court in an attempt to bring the Separatists into line by denying them access to the established and respected professions. As a result, the dissidents were forced to follow the practical theology of Calvin by turning for economic support to the scientific, industrial, and mercantile professions that were beyond conventional political and ecclesiastic control. Nevertheless, the persecution continued. The first band of Pilgrims (as they called themselves) sailed in 1609 from northern England for Holland. They remained in exile in Leyden until 1620, when, expressing a desire to preserve their English heritage, which was in danger of assimilation in Holland, they were granted a charter by the Crown to emigrate to North America. William Brewster, William Bradford, and Edward Winslow led the first band of about 150 Pilgrims on the long voyage to America. Most were less than 40 years old at the time.

The Pilgrims came to the New World sharing a philosophy that was austere and a practical ethic that would not permit indulgence in luxury and the fine arts. Their first building was described as a storehouse with six cannons on the roof and a lower part that was used as a church on Sundays. Although this first band of Pilgrims and others that soon followed had both secular and ecclesiastic differences, they were bound together by a common language and had been subject to the same laws and parallel acts of suppression. They shared a passionate desire for political and religious freedom, and they brought with them a sense of community rule that they had shared under the English parish system, a new morality born out of the Reformation, and a respect for intelligent inquiry for the gathering and refinement of useful knowledge. Individuals generally did not consider themselves superior to others.

By 1635 more than 20,000 émigrés had reached New England. Most were not Separatists, but rather Puritans who sought not so much to leave the Anglican church as to change it from within in keeping with the principles of the Reformation. However, their distance from the mother church eventually led to a complete independence, and by 1650 many of the Anglican churches in America had become Congregational. For the most part, England was not displeased by the departure of her religious dissidents. In fact, she did what she could to encourage many of them to leave by offering them a greater degree of independence than did many other countries that were seeking to establish a foothold in America. This stimulated the development of settlements that were stronger internally and led to governmental innovations. Whereas other countries ruled their colonies with an iron hand through a Crown-appointed governor, the English colonies were established either by land grants (as in the case of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and the Carolinas) that permitted the owner to sell land and govern as he wished under the benign eye of the Crown, or else by permitting the emigrants to form a political society under the protection of the mother country in order to govern themselves in any way that was not in contradiction with her interest.

In effect, the flow of government in the colonies was the inverse of that in England. It ran from the individual to the community, from the community to the colony, and from there to the state. By the mid-1600s every township in New England was autonomous, and though each accepted the supremacy of England the way to democracy was clear. The colonists had produced a new form of government, without precedent.

In addition to their new-found freedom, the English colonists of the North, many of whom were a rising middle class that had been excised from the center of an ancient feudal society, also found virtue in knowledge. They were well educated and had come to the New World determined to establish and nourish an intellectual community They taxed themselves to found schools and colleges to provide educational opportunities for their children that could only have been acquired by inheritance in England. The general expansion of knowledge that followed proved that devotion to the acquisition of knowledge could result in gains that were equal to those available through aristocratic dominance over others. “Diligent Researchers at home,” testified J. E. Edwards in support of the Puritans’ commitment to knowledge, “and Travel into remote Countries have produced New Observations and Remarks, unheard of Discoveries and Inventions.” [30]

The Puritans’ self-inflicted repressions strengthened them to face the rigors of pioneer life. The Christian Directory of Rich and Baxter, published in London in 1665, describes the practical ethics of the Puritans and insists that their devotion to a strenuous life benefited technological development and production. The directory is replete with homilies on industry, thrift, and spiritual salvation: “The public welfare, or the good of many, is to be valued above our own. Every man is therefore bound to do all the good he can to others, especially for the Church and the Commonwealth: And this is to be done not by Idleness, but by labor! … Labor not to be rich: The meaning is, that you make not Riches your chief end: Riches for our fleshly ends must not ultimately be intended or sought. But in subordination to higher things they may; That is, you may labor in the manner as tendeth most to your success and lawful gain: …. You may labor to be Rich for God, though not for the flesh and sin.” [7] These ideas would be echoed less than a century later by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The Puritans’ social principles helped to shape the northern mind and wound up the dynamic drive that still moves American enterprise. The homes of the northern merchants and businessmen were soon as full of luxuries as those of their agrarian friends in the South. As a result, the two waves of colonialism came into economic as well as political balance. In the end, both were to subscribe to a spirit of equality based on a rationalism in which service to man is taken as the proper path to personal comfort and security.

The new American was a synthesis of all of the struggles for intellectual and spiritual freedom and economic opportunity that had been contained for centuries beneath the hardened and polished surfaces of the established social and economic structures of the Old World. This prototype citizen of the New World was trusting but not gullible, honest but shrewd, friendly yet cautious, and as quick-witted as he was deliberate. He may have been poor, but he was no longer fettered to land and landlord. He was proud of the courage that had set him upon this distant land and jealous of the freedom that he had come to claim. And, even though the glowing embers of familiar habits and ancient customs might be fanned into flame whenever he paused to rest or reflect, the harsh realities of the struggle to survive in an environment that was as hostile as it was abundant taught him to respect and depend upon his own physical and intellectual powers. In contrast to the exorbitant consumption of the energy of those workmen in Europe who labored in penury and peonage in the service of political and religious aristocracies, the colonial freeman had limitless riches laid out before him if he only had the ingenuity and energy to claim them.

The rigors of the frontier did not encourage the dissipation of energy that was not materially rewarding. It is understandable that some people romanticize the early frontier settlers as dependent upon humble handicrafts, suggesting that they were unaware of the technology of the seventeenth century. However, there was no great gap in availability of implements and machines between the rural craftsman and the urban artisan. Both knew and used tools and machines to supplement human and animal muscle with the natural forces of wind and water.

Away from the more sophisticated trades of the colonial towns, the pioneer American learned quickly that survival in the wilderness depended upon knowledge of those trades that were essential to frontier living, such as hunting, fishing, farming, lumbering, animal husbandry, black-smithing, and carpentry. He was obliged to clear and plant his own land, to construct a shelter, to fabricate and repair his own implements, and to make harnesses for his animals and shoes for himself and his family. He sheared wool and grew flax so that the womenfolk could spin and weave linsey-woolsey and other homespun fabrics for clothing and linens. Every farmer was his own mechanic, and every home was a manufactory in which adults and children worked together to serve their own needs. And a family that was more diligent or knowledgeable in one home industry or another could barter or sell its surplus products to others.

Later, Alexander Hamilton described the nation as “a vast scene of household manufactures,” and Tocqueville recognized versatility as a special and even unique quality of the colonials. Although he acknowledged that “this circumstance is prejudicial to the excellence of the work,” Tocqueville said that it “powerfully contributes to awaken the intelligence of the workman” and that “if the American be less perfect in each craft than the European, at least there is scarcely any trade with which he is utterly unacquainted.” ([86], I, 510) Thus, the new American found his security ensured not by a lifetime commitment to a single craft or skill, but by a versatility that reduced the danger of occupational enslavement. His experiences along the frontier stimulated the qualities of self-reliance and faith in independent action.

The frontier settlers realized quickly that courage and an independent spirit would not in themselves ensure success. Although the implements brought from Europe may have been appropriate for the smaller plots of land and the limited woods of England and the Continent, they proved less than adequate in the American wilderness. Driven by the press of survival and the promise of natural riches to be had for the taking, the colonists were obliged to adapt their tools and weapons.

The first implements to show the influence of the new environment were the weapons that were essential for defense and the hunt, the implements that were necessary for clearing the land and working the soil, and the tools needed to build shelters, prepare food, and make clothing. When an implement turned out to be inadequate, was broken in use, or simply wore out, it was replaced with a new one patterned after the original. Every time this was done, the replacement was modified in one way or another in response to experience so that it could serve better with improved comfort, more efficiency and speed, or less of a physical demand. This led to an understanding, based upon personal experience, of the way function can be improved by the refinement of form.

The challenge of survival in the New World, including the clearing of the wilderness and the building of a home, encouraged inventiveness and demanded versatility. Collection of New York Public Library.

Every frontier home was a manufactory. Women spun wool on the great wheel and wound it on the reel, or spun flax to be woven into linen cloth. The wooden mortar was used to pound corn into the meal that took the place of wheat flour. Harper’s Monthly, January 1877.

The stubby tree-felling axe of Europe was one of the first tools to be altered by the American woodsman. He increased the weight of the poll (the blunt end of the head) for better balance so that the axe could be swung more freely and accurately, and in some cases he replaced the poll with a second cutting edge that enabled him to work twice as long in the forest without having to stop to resharpen. He also lengthened and reshaped and curved the handle so that he could handle the increased weight with greater power, comfort, and efficiency. The American axe became renowned for its functional perfection.

The short, stiff scythe of Europe was modified by the American farmer so that he could stand straighter in the field and work longer without tiring. He lengthened and curved the blade so that he could reach and hold more stalks of grain for cutting. The American scythe became a graceful implement that complemented the farmer’s natural sweeping motion and enabled him to cut a cleaner and wider swath. In the eighteenth century a cradle was added so that the cut grain could be laid aside in neat rows to be gathered more easily with less loss.

By the mid-1700s, German gunsmiths in central Pennsylvania had created a rifle with an unusually long barrel that, with a ball wrapped in a greased patch, provided the accuracy that was needed to bring game down at long range in the dense forest. This strange stick of a weapon obsoleted the shorter, smooth-bore muskets of the day that were fired more or less randomly at a target in the hope that they would hit something, or if necessary frighten it away. The new weapon traveled westward with the frontiersmen across the Appalachians to become the famed Kentucky rifle that secured the way for the settlers and contributed substantially to the cause of the colonists in the War of Independence.

The axe, the scythe, and the rifle are only three of the many products that were refined by the colonists. From the very beginning of colonization, the Americans were practicing euthenics, the development of human well-being and efficient functioning through the improvement of the environment. Design—the contemporary embodiment of this principle—is concerned with the humane quality of the man-made environment. It further assumes that there is a direct correlation between that quality and the elegance of the form that it takes. Benjamin Franklin had anticipated the principle of functionalism as the relation of beauty to utility when he wrote to Charles Wilson Peale that “the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael.… nothing is good or beautiful but in the measure that it is useful.…” ([77], 3) With that simple expression Franklin captured the essence of the American design ethic that has persisted now for more than two centuries. Franklin was undoubtedly familiar with the observation of his correspondent William Hogarth in the essay “Analysis of Beauty” (London, 1754) that “in nature’s machines how wonderfully do we see beauty and use go hand in hand.” No principle of design in America is so strong as that an object achieves beauty to the same degree to which it serves its function. By this philosophy it may be assumed that every product is constantly striving to achieve the perfect and therefore beautiful typeform of its species.

The principle of beauty as the natural by-product of functional refinement was given additional meaning by the spartan circumstances of the colonial environment. In the wilderness and the new settlements of America, the colonist was obliged to avoid the devotion to rich detail and elaborate ornament that served in the older aristocracies to exaggerate the value of products through the extravagant consumption of energy. Therefore, whatever esthetic reward the American was to derive from his products had to be found in the economy of means and the purification of form to purpose and from the soundness of proportion and the clarity of symbolic form that inevitably result. The natural texture of his materials and the honest marks of his tools were ornament enough for the settler. The fingerprint in the clay, the scar of the adze on the wooden beam, the facets of the hammer on metal, and the warp and weft of the loom all provided the democratizing link that bound maker and consumer to product. This preference for “natural” textures as the “honest” surfaces of metal, wood, stone, brick, and fabric is still preferred to arbitrary patterning in America. Such other decorative elements as may appear from time to time carried a deeper symbolic meaning beyond the visual entertainment that they may provide today.

Frontiersmen modified the European felling axe for more efficient cutting in the dense forests of North America. Courtesy of Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts.

The short-handled broad axe was shaped with an offset blade and an angled handle to enable the builder to hand-hew logs into square timbers for construction. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.

The European scythe was modified until it was admirably suited to natural body movements. In the next century, a cradle would be added to increase efficiency Catalog of Dinkson-Davidson Hardware Company

The Kentucky rifle owed its origin to the hunting gun brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants. Its long barrel proved more accurate for game hunting in the dense forests of America. T. M. Stine CollectionSmithsonian Institution.

It is understandable that much of the technology of colonial America should have been based on wood. There was a natural relationship between the vastness, variety, and versatility of wood and the amount and quality of energy that the colonist needed to work this abundant material. The soft woods such as pine, fir, and cedar provided builders with a light yet stiff material that was readily shaped into construction materials and assembled into public buildings and private dwellings. The lean-tos of the English Pilgrims, the log cabins of the Swedish immigrants, and most of the later structures of the colonies were built with wood. Wood was often used as a substitute for masonry; for example, the German immigrants transformed the stone barns of their native land into the magnificent wooden barns that still grace the Pennsylvania countryside. Cabinetmakers and joiners built furniture that made excellent use of the strength, color, and grain of hard woods such as maple, cherry, and walnut. Tough and sinewy woods such as ash, hickory, and oak were found to be perfect for lighter furniture, farm implements, and carts. The Conestoga wagons of Pennsylvania, the schooners adapted to American winds and waters, and the “topsail” vessels for ocean travel would never have been built in such quantities in the colonies were it not for the availability of wood.

Still, some Americans were concerned over the tendency to make everything out of wood. Thomas Jefferson deplored the “unhappy prejudice” of the time that stone and masonry homes were unhealthy to live in as a convenient philosophy that reflected the cheapness of wood and the availability of carpenters. Jefferson wrote of wooden homes that “it is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable and, happily, more perishable.” He believed that buildings made of permanent materials added permanent value to the state, whereas those built of perishable wood did not. It is interesting to speculate whether the American concept of obsolescence as evidence of progress may not have been related to the colonists’ dependence upon wood as the primary material for dwellings and objects.

The spare utilitarian objects and the unsophisticated folk arts of the rural colonists were often demeaned by the patricians of America and England as “country made” and therefore devoid of aesthetic value. The fact, however, is that a democratic art form was beginning to emerge in the reserve of colonists’ buildings and furnishings, the simple elegance of their implements, and the direct innocence of their signs and symbols.

The first stream of American design consciousness was rooted in such empirical and unpretentious adaptations to the exigencies of life along the frontiers of the New World. Moreover, as the colonists became disenchanted with the economic and political behavior of the British it became increasingly patriotic for them to depend upon native ideas and expressions of humbler origin. Later the New England Transcendentalists would affirm the principle that the true American expression must come from within rather than be garbed in borrowed raiment.

While Jean Jacques Rousseau (whose philosophy was well known to colonial intellectuals) and other European social philosophers of the time were formulating theories based on the premise that only a return to the natural man and a simpler way of life would rid civilization of its distortions and release anew those primary virtues upon which a good and sound society depends, their concepts were being put to the test instinctively in the distant wilderness and settlements. While the theorists were warning that the arts had become decadent in the service of despotism and pleading that only a return to the simpler forms of nature would rid civilization of its distortions, the foundation for a simpler egalitarian society was being laid in North America. The new Americans had already begun to exhibit their unique ability to react empirically to the exigencies of their environment, and were not unwilling to leave it to others to formulate theories to explain their action.

In functional form, the Conestoga wagon from Pennsylvania was the eighteenth-century equivalent of modern trailer homes. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.

Another social philosopher of the time, Johann Herder, proposed that the fine arts must spring by purification from the popular arts. This belief that man-made forms must be respected according to their devotion to human needs before they may be revered as aesthetic expression is entirely consistent with the attitude of Americans toward the objects that serve them: that the daily arts and folk expression must retain their naiveté, that any attempt to transform them into fine art destroys the eloquent fragility that gave them their value in the first place, and that therefore they can have value only to the degree to which they remain valid in source, pure in design, and unadulterated by mass production.

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