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Industrial Arts and the Arts of Manufacture

Published onApr 22, 2021
Industrial Arts and the Arts of Manufacture

We fabricate objects lighter and stronger than those of other nations, but we pay little attention to outsiders and have almost no consideration whatever for the probable prejudices and tastes of the people to whom we hope to sell.

An American visitor to the Paris Exposition, 1900 [162]

Americans at the turn of the century seemed to be preoccupied with the promises of an expanding technology, and in particular with the commercial exploitation of new energy sources. As petroleum and electricity became universally available in cheap and seemingly limitless supply they stimulated a frenzy of inventions based upon gasoline engines, electric motors, and heating coils.

The Pan-American Exposition, staged at Buffalo, New York, in 1901 to promote the social and economic interests of the countries of the western hemisphere, became a paean to electricity, which illuminated its buildings, its theme tower, and its fountains with energy drawn from the world’s largest power plant at nearby Niagara Falls. The exhibits, ranging from manufactured products to Arts and Crafts objects, suggested to some an important change in the lives of middle-class Americans, with machines to make life easy and the application of art to everyday objects to make it more pleasant.

The living quarters of the home—its parlors, dining room, and bedrooms—had long been considered the realm of the industrial arts and dependent upon either the industrial arts or the Arts and Crafts for style. Now the kitchen, the bathroom, and the laundry, where function was held to be more important than fashion, looked to technology and science for assistance. The time-and-motion studies of Taylor and Galbraith, which had already demonstrated that labor in industry could be made more efficient through planning, stimulated women like Christine Frederick and Katharine C. Budd to propose that rational analysis could liberate women from household labor. Mechanical slaves, many of them powered by electricity, it was proposed, could replace servants in the home.

One class of electrified products for the home was based upon the generation of heat (and light) by the resistance of alloy wire to electric current. The most dramatic application of this principle was Edison’s incandescent lamp (1879); other applications included the electric flatiron (Seeley, 1882), the electric stove (Hadaway, 1896), and toaster-stoves, “disc stoves” (hotplates), chafing dishes, coffee urns, and the like. A different class of appliances based upon the electric motor, included the electric fan (Wheeler, 1882), the washing machine (Hurley, 1907), and the vacuum cleaner (Spangler, 1907). By 1910 several thousand electrical power stations were in operation and one in ten American homes, primarily urban, had been wired for electricity.

In the class of communication products, Bell’s telephone (1876), Edison’s cylinder phonograph (1877), Berliner’s disk phonograph (1888), and Jenkin’s motion-picture machine (1894) initiated a revolution that would significantly transform American life. By 1910, there were more than 10,000 nickelodeons in operation in the United States. And when Marconi sent his first radio signals across wireless space (1895) it became evident that electricity could fuse the Americans into a homogeneous society.

In transportation, the horse and carriage and the steam locomotive were being challenged by electric trolleys (Van Depoele, 1884) and by electric (Morrison, 1892) and gasoline-powered automobiles (Duryea, 1892). Even the safety bicycle (Starley, 1884), which had been all the rage in the 1890s, was being displaced by the innovative powered vehicles. After the Wrights’ first flight in 1903 it was predicted that flying would be “the only recognized means [of travel] within twenty-five years.” [166]

Americans were particularly fascinated by the speed that technological transportation made possible. In 1900 an editor of the New York Times wrote that “experience with the bicycle [has] shown very clearly that the average human being is so constituted that he has an insatiable passion for high speed which makes it extremely distasteful to him to go slow when he can possibly go fast.” [161] Another editor wrote that “it is characteristic of the American Nation that they believe in speed, and the faster business or pleasure vehicles are driven the better they like it, and it is this desire to ‘get there’ that causes the trouble.” [164] Those who were more cautious proposed that regulations or regulating devices be created to fix maximum speeds “to prevent the growth of an evil which, when once grown, will defy suppression or regulation.” [161] One critic was so brash as to suggest that every car should be registered, licensed, and fitted with a speed regulator. The Times opined that “The automobile is with us to stay … and since it is the special modern vice to try to get over ground with swiftness for the mere pleasure of the motion, the only thing to do is to make the instrument of our vice as little obnoxious to our fellow-man as possible.” [165] J. B. Walker, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, acknowledged the future of the automobile by noting that Americans were “on the verge of a revolution in our methods of living.” Wrote Walker: “To be able to travel, with a fair regard for safety, along a smooth highway at a pace that rivals the speed of the railway accomodation train, if one is willing to take the risks or the police tolerate him, is now fully within the power of the owner of the newest type of automobile carriages.… a man may live twenty-five miles out of the city, and … reach his office by the most delightful means of locomotion within an hour.” [160]

The Electricity Building was one of the major attractions of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Its Spanish architectural styles helped to make representatives from South American countries feel at home and to convince them to purchase electrical products from participating firms from the United States. Electrical World, March 24, 1900.


By 1900 the typeform of the incandescent lamp had been established. Electrical World, December 8, 1900.


The ideal kitchen in 1908, if one could afford it, used electrical cooking appliances that occupied less space than the great coal or gas cooking stove. Most of the broilers, ovens, and saucepans that were available at first were simple geometric forms produced in small quantities by sheet-metal artisans. Architectural Record, June 1908.


After 1910, as electricity became commonly available in cities and towns, electrical devices for practically every domestic need appeared. These vernacular products, for the most part, display the unassuming geometry of limited production. Popular Mechanics, 1908.


The invented form of the electric iron was quickly adopted as a typeform and persisted for nearly 30 years. It combined the cast sadiron plate with a simple sheet-metal shell and a turned wooden handle. Its epitome was this American Beauty, manufactured by the American Electrical Heater Company of Detroit for some 30 years with very little change. National Housewares Manufacturers Association, The Housewares Story.


The Model O vacuum cleaner was the first electrical machine manufactured by the Hoover Company after patent rights were purchased from Spangler. It was essentially a “shop-form” product, constructed primarily by hand methods in a sheet-metal shop, with a brush roll and fan made of die-cast aluminum and an oil-treated sateen bag. Hoover Company.


The first typeform for this 1910 desk telephone appeared before 1900, when a central operator connected all calls. Instructions to central were transmitted electrically by the hook. The manufacturing technology was essentially lathe-based. Reproduced with permission of the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation.


Thomas Edison’s 1907 cylinder phonograph represents the invented form of the product. Despite its original popularity and romantic form, it was replaced by Emile Berliner’s disk phonograph. Smithsonian Institution.


The disk phonograph, even in its invented form, quickly displaced the cylinder machine because disks could be reproduced more economically than cylinders and because it was easier to operate. In 1896, Eldridge Johnson added a spring-wound motor. Smithsonian Institution.


The first patent for the typeform of the phonograph cabinet was issued to John C. English in 1910 for this comfortable blend of French cabriole legs and a quasi-mansard roof. U.S. Patent 41,008, November 29, 1910.


The first major exhibition of the American Automobile Club, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1900, was devoted almost entirely to electric vehicles. It was noted at the time that the newer designs were much more graceful, and that the chopped-off “where is the horse?” look was disappearing. Electrical World, November 10, 1900.


The first successful gasoline-engine vehicle was this single-cylinder horseless carriage designed by Charles E. Duryea and built by his brother J. F. Duryea in 1893. The third version of this design won the first American road contest for automobiles. Library of Congress.


The Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford, Connecticut, displayed this neat little Columbia runabout, capable of running 100 miles without a stop for fuel or water, at the Automobile Club’s 1900 show. Electrical World, November 17, 1900.


The Electrical Vehicle Company of Hartford absorbed the Hartford Cycle Company as well as the New Haven Carriage Company, where a large proportion of its vehicles were manufactured. At this point, the methodology of manufacture was a long way from mass production. Electrical World, May 26, 1900.


The Evinrude company promoted its prototype gasoline-powered outboard motor in 1908 with such studio-posed photographs as this, which seems intended to demonstrate the ease with which women could handle such complicated equipment. Library of Congress.


The safety bicycle, which displaced the high-wheeler, made personal transportation for men, women, and children safe, efficient, and enjoyable. This invented form established a typeform that persists after nearly a century as the simplest mechanical means of personal transportation. New York Public Library.


This romanticized illustration by Will Bradley, from Life magazine in 1896, is a tapestry of ornament in an Americanized interpretation of Art Nouveau. New York Public Library.


Orville Wright piloted the Flyer in its first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Smithsonian Institution.


The first practical airplane to be built, demonstrated, and reproduced by the Wright brothers for a client (the U.S. Signal Corps, in 1909). Smithsonian Institution.


For a while, that the automobile worked at all and could be operated with reasonable reliability was sufficient. However, very soon the public began to insist that the gaunt mechanical contraption should show its speed and power in form as well as action. Some felt that “our automobiles have been truly monsters of ugliness” and suggested that any manufacturer who invested his product with “graceful curves and fine proportions,” turning out “a beautiful as well as a speedy and comfortable machine,” would be well rewarded. [162] One critic wrote that automobile builders had “not attended to the requirements of art, but turned out a monster which adds to its manifold injuries the result of ugliness.” Another complained that the automibile was “still a raw invention … a vehicle which is still unadapted to all the purposes for which it is built.” He felt that “few objects are more hideous than the high four-wheeler, the ‘buggy’ that lacks a horse,” saying that it was “like an old shoe,” could “scarcely lay claims to beauty,” and did not “suggest by its lines the idea of swiftness.” [165] The term streamlining, coined in 1893 in connection with hydrodynamics, was beginning to be applied to automobiles. By 1909 it was being suggested that streamlining would help to conserve fuel as well as to carry off the noxious fumes of the gasoline engine. It was becoming evident that the automobile would have to abandon its dependence upon carriage-building methods and seek a new form and manufacturing methodology that were commensurate with public expectations.

Most manufactured products of the era had yet to seek, let alone find, unique typeforms. Automobiles were horseless carriages, cast-iron parlor and cooking stoves were baroque idols or altars, cash registers were Renaissance jewel safes, lamps were Art Nouveau gardens, and furniture was still lost in Victorian reverie. Many manufacturers were more preoccupied with sales figures than with aesthetic form and borrowed styles freely from any source that promised that the volume of products marketed would be in line with increasing production capacity. It was enough for them that by 1900 the United States had surpassed all other countries in the volume of manufactured products that were finding purchasers at home and abroad, not because they were handsome but because they were often innovative and always cheap. However, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and even embarrassment was emerging about the lack of genuine aesthetic quality in American manufactures. In the Paris Exposition of 1900 the United States exhibited 7,000 items, more than any other country—most of them clever labor-saving devices and inventive mechanisms. “It is only when it came to the matter of adornment, whether for the person or the home,” it was reported, “that there was doubt [of quality].” [163] Some critics suggested that the Europeans were really ahead of the Americans because they were learning to counteract the success of American ingenuity and low cost by improving their own products on the side of art so that the people would be willing to pay more for them. Americans must no longer “trust to the cheapness of machine-made goods,” insisted a 1902 editorial in the New York Times; goods must be made “decidedly more attractive to the eye.” [162] Thus, the concept of infusing manufactured objects with artistic qualities was publically proposed early in the century as a matter of sound business strategy.

A number of organizations, such as the Artist-Artisans Institute, the Decorative Art Society, the Society of Applied Arts, and the National Arts Club, were established to demonstrate that the same virtues that had brought American manufactures to the fore for their utilitarian attributes could be applied to improving their aesthetic qualities. In 1900 the National Board of Education reacted to their position by establishing a committee to develop a proposal for a more comprehensive program of American education in the industrial arts. This effort was motivated not so much by a desire to elevate public taste as by the belief that an increase in the artistic quality of manufactured products would be of economic benefit to their makers as well as to the national economy. Although the committee’s three-volume report recommending that government and industry should support such design education was distributed widely, none of its proposals were put into effect. The general reaction was that, since the best design was thought to be foreign, there was little need for Americans to invest in the development of their own industrial-arts capability. Nevertheless, the growing importance of the designer in America was evident in the announcement by the United States Commissioner of Labor in 1904 that a stove manufacturer was so concerned about the aesthetic qualities of his product that he paid a well-known designer $5,000 to design a kitchen stove that would “not offend the eye of the day laborer.” [211]

It was natural, perhaps, to expect that those manufactured products that had distinct social and cultural precedents would rely heavily upon historical styles and would borrow forms and details (such as cabriole legs, swan’s-neck spouts, pineapple finials, and rococo handles) that could be worked into products that carried the exclusive flavor if not the expensive substance of the originals. This practice established a pattern that still prevails. Manufacturers of such products as chinaware, glassware, flatware, holloware, textiles, furniture, and lamps continue to borrow traditional forms or foreign fashions in order to provide an array of seductive styles for the upward-striving consumer. One of the most successful examples in this area is the Gorham Company’s “Chantilly” flatware pattern, introduced in 1896—a skillful blend of rococo and Art Nouveau forms designed by the company’s staff with help from the English émigré William C. Codman. The pattern is still being manufactured and sold by Gorham and, as the most popular pattern of silverware in the United States, is echoed in lines offered by many other manufacturers.

The parlor stoveas exemplified by this patent drawing by George Cope and William Bertram, became the focus of the home. This design was assigned to the Kalamazoo Stove Company U.S. Patent 36, 312, May 5, 1903.


Thomas Kennedy and Edward King of Rochester, New York, were the most sought-after designers of cast-iron products. Their work shows a rhythmic consistency that is suited to the structural requirements of cast-iron stoves. U.S. Patent 35,932, June 3, 1902.


The invented form of the cash register (by E. Ringold) looked like a wooden clock with keys. By 1900, however, it had evolved into this treasure-box typeform, decorated with cast bronze plates. U.S. Patent 36,831, March 1, 1904.


Victorian furniture seemed to be more for show than for use. The pieces were often displayed in drawing rooms or parlors, which were opened only for formal and ceremonial affairs. Harper’s Monthly, July 1876.


The electric grill featured in this 1908 General Electric advertisement had yet to achieve the traditional styling of the electrified kettle, urn, and chafing dish in the background. Library of Congress.


Another category of products being manufactured at the time included technology-based appliances, such as electric fans, irons, toasters, and vacuum cleaners, that had no historical precedents but were becoming essential to daily life. It never occurred to their makers that the unique services these things provided deserved original typeforms. Rather, manufacturers sought to mask their identity by adopting traditional forms and details. Despite their artificial elegance, however, early appliances were clearly “uncomfortable” in their ill-fitting and often inappropriate costumes. Beneath the aristocratic presumption one could sense the basic humility of the new utilitarian forms that would one day achieve their own identity. It would seem that, in the process of being transformed into manufactured products for public consumption, most inventions go through a period of historical pretense before their own character becomes strong enough to slough off their arbitrary camouflage. In time, however, utilitarian products inevitably acquire an aesthetic of their own as familiarity transforms them into unique forms that contain the essence of their function. Some critics of the early twentieth century lent weight to this view by warning that when the machine would take over, those who made artistic products would have to either join industry or look elsewhere, because the drive to capture larger markets would inevitably lead to ill-conceived baroque products as increasing competition would require novelty. In an interesting analogy of the time, machine-made art was compared to a political machine that brings out the vote and expresses the will of the people but in the end tends to kill statesmanship. Once the Arts and Crafts movement failed to reverse the drive toward machine production of the amenities of human comfort and convenience, its influence was dissipated in two directions. On one hand, it broadened its interest in the machine as a convenient means of replicating traditional styles that could provide a sort of synthetic opulence within the economic reach of everyone—the Industrial Arts style. On the other hand, it deepened its search for a new aesthetic that was in harmony with technology—the Machine Art style.

If most Americans were too close to their machines and the products of their factories to recognize that there was a unique cultural quality inherent in machine-made forms, a few perceptive architects were not. Frank Lloyd Wright was convinced that the machine was here to stay because it had become indispensible to the economy. The Austrian Adolf Loos (1870–1933), in contradiction to the Viennese fashion for the neo-romantic as a subjective substitute for historicism, spoke out for the basic democracy of manufactured products. Having spent most of the 1890s in the United States and England, Loos returned to Vienna convinced that a new spirit of form had come into being by way of manufacturing processes, avowing that cultural revolution was equivalent to the removal of ornament from articles of daily use. Loos was also one of the first to realize that there was a basic difference between art and design. His experiences in the more industrialized countries removed all his “prejudices against the products of [his] own time” and convinced him that, whereas art was self-serving and therefore likely to be degraded by design, the beauty of designed objects was vested in their appropriateness to manufacture and use. Loos declared that it was a degradation and a prostitution of art to mix it with design, and that it was barbaric to waste art on an article of utility. There was no absolute beauty in a utilitarian object, he believed; its beauty lay solely in its appropriateness.

The “Chantilly” pattern of sterling flatware was initially produced by the Gorham company in 1895. Skillfully combining rococo and Art Nouveau elements, it was conceived as a generic effort by the company’s design staff with the assistance of William Cod man. Courtesy of Gorham/Textron.


The “Chantilly” pattern, produced today by the Gorham Division of the Textron Corporation, is still the best-known and has been the best-selling sterling flatware design in the world. Courtesy of Gorham/Textron.


The Germans, who had followed the Arts and Crafts movement and industrial developments in England and America closely over the years, sensed that a new philosophy of form was developing that promised to bring the qualities of craftsmanship and the potential of manufacturing closer to one another. In 1896, the Prussian Board of Trade dispatched Herman Muthesius (1861–1927) to London to report on the changing design and architecture scene with an eye toward improving the international trading position of Germany. Muthesius returned in 1903 impressed by the movement toward a more direct and honest use of materials and industrial processes and the ingenious naivete by which the English and Americans were forging ahead in the manufacture of vernacular products. Some German designers, like Richard Riemerschmid, considered the machine to be little more than a source for style, but Muthesius pressed his government to take a more objective approach. In 1907 Muthesius and a group of eleven others established the Deutscher Werkbund, which brought together artists, architects, craftsmen, patrons, and others to improve production by fostering cooperation between art, industry, and the crafts.

Muthesius, as head of the Prussian Board of Trade for Schools of Arts and Crafts, was able to make certain that those architects whose works reflected his own design sympathies were appointed to head the most important schools. Bruno Paul (1879–?) was named to head the Industrial Art School in Berlin, and Peter Behrens (1868–1940) the one in Düsseldorf. The year 1907, when Paul was commissioned by the Dresden cabinetmaker Karl Schmidt (?–1948) to design a line of low-cost furniture for machine production and Behrens was hired by the AEG electrical company to direct the quality and character of its buildings, graphics, and products, is taken by some as the beginning of industrial design. Behrens’s office provided practical training for Walter Gropius (1883–1969), for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), and for Le Corbusier (1887–1965), who spent several months with them.

The Deutscher Werkbund provided a valuable arena that sharpened the distinction between the artist and the designer and clarified their roles in industry. The Belgian Henry Van de Velde (1863–1957), then director of the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts, believed that the role of the artist in industry must not inhibit his creative freedom; the position of the designer was championed by Muthesius, who insisted that the demands of machine production establish the rules that direct design.

The activities of the Werkbund were not unknown in the United States. In 1912, as part of its program to improve the taste of the public as well as that of manufacturers, the Werkbund sent an exhibition of the work of its members to the Newark Museum of Art and subsequently to other American institutions. John Cotton Dana, then director of the Newark Museum, who had invited the show because of his strong interest in vernacular design, believed that “beauty has no relation to price, rarity or age”—all values normally associated with aristocratic products. He was aware that the Werkbund’s interest in exhibiting in the United States was centered upon the potential market for German products, but he hoped that the exhibit would also serve to awaken American manufacturers to their own design responsibilities.

It is convenient to assume that modern industrial design began with the recognition by some individual that machines as well as machine-made products could evince a unique machine-art aesthetic. However, it is more reasonable to acknowledge that industries in the United States and in other countries had been producing vernacular products that were devoid of applied style for many years before such utilitarian forms were discovered by artists and architects and elevated to the status of machine art. The unique characteristics of machine art included minimalism as a commitment to economy of means and materials, geometricity as obeisance to technological rationalism, and anonymity as a denial of human expression. Its creed was technical perfection of form and mechanical performance. The essential principle of functionalism (the subservience of the product to need) had been recognized by Tocqueville and confirmed by Greenough in the nineteenth century, but it remained in the background until well into the twentieth century, when the arts of manufacture were accepted as distinct from the industrial arts.

That the 1900 study of the need for industrial-arts education in the United States did not result in a program of action did not mean that the demand was not justified. An overwhelming sentiment continued to be expressed in newspapers, magazines, and journals in support of broadening the original call for industrial-arts education to include what were then called vocational studies. This time, the pressure was intensified by the arrival of a great wave of immigrants (nearly 8 million between 1900 and 1910), most of whom were from countries that did not have established industrial systems. These people could not be put to work in the industrial-arts industries (those that manufactured furnishings and decorative products) unless their education was subsidized by government in some way, with special emphasis upon the particular needs of local industries.

The first real break for vocational education came in 1905 when the governor of Massachusetts established a committee to study the problem. The committee found that there was a lack of skilled artisans in industry and proposed that the state should bear all or part of the cost for such education. It further recommended that public schools should add practical education in industrial, mechanical, agricultural, and domestic arts by modifying their programs to include elements of production in industry and agriculture as well as mathematics, science, and drawing. In short order, other states such as Vermont, Indiana, New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin also joined the movement by supporting legislation in favor of federal and state-supported vocational education.

In 1909 the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education was founded at the Cooper Union in New York, with Henry S. Pritchett, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as its first president. Its greatest successes were in reconciling the differences of opinion between manufacturers and labor leaders on one hand and others promoting education for the agricultural and domestic arts and in laying the groundwork for eventual congressional approval of federal support for vocational education. They were joined by others who had a vested interest in the industrial-arts industries. In 1914, the Grand Rapids furniture industries undertook their own study of what had to be done to develop native industrial artists. Their report, which was distributed to members of Congress and others on behalf of the National Board of Education, compiled statistics on every important industrial-arts area and outlined for the first time the procedures by which industrial artists could be employed by industry to design products that would be pleasing and acceptable to the public. Although the report undoubtedly added to the growing pressure on Congress to support vocational education, somehow its special interest in industrial-arts education was lost in the move toward technical rather than aesthetic training.

After the failure of one attempt, Congress approved a committee to establish a permanent commission on federal aid for vocational education. This time Congress was astute enough to recognize the increased political leverage that the program would have if it were broadened to include the special interests of the agricultural and domestic arts, and therefore included representatives from southern states. With Georgia’s Senators Hoke Smith and D. M. Hughes as leaders, the commission studied conditions and needs in the United States and the existing vocational education programs abroad. Its recommendations were that federal grants should be matched with state grants to train, and to pay part of the salaries for, vocational-education teachers in the areas of agriculture, industry, and home economics. This support was to be directed at students of less than college grade between the ages of 14 and 18 who were enrolled in programs that combined theory and practice on an equal basis. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Hughes Act (as it came to be known) into law in 1917 and established the Federal Board of Vocational Education to administer it.

The Smith-Hughes Act has remained essentially unchanged since then. With the exception of a few isolated cases, it does not offer any useful support to higher education for the education of designers for industry. Its focus remains primarily on the secondary-school level, where it serves trade, agriculture, and domestic science.

To this day young Americans at any academic level receive very little formal education in the aesthetic or humanistic quality of the products of technology. Although they will live out their lives in a technology-based environment, they are essentially ignorant of its cultural and functional values. It is no wonder, then, that as mature citizens, they should continue to be abused by those industrial-art industries and manufactures that are equally insensitive to indigenous expression and, therefore, content to emulate the culture of other times and places.


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