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Arts and Crafts History: America 1875-1895

There are a number of important issues that made the American Arts and Crafts Movement quite distinct from its English counterpart. Foremost among them were America's lack of national identity and artistic tradition, its general acceptance of machines, and its optimism of the future.

In 1876, America hosted the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a gala exhibition commemorating the nation's 100th year of independence. Politically, this was true, but culturally the natn was still very much tied to Europe. Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America had been striving to assert its freedom, all the while working to maintain its European cultural heritage. The arts were either exported directly from, or based on ideas coming out of, England and France. American handicraft was crude by European standards and the only traditional American styles of furniture and architecture -- Colonial and Shaker-- was found to be lacking in skill and quality. Even 100 years later, when Oscar Wilde toured the States in 1882, he saw a country that was fond of art, but took no pride in craftsmanship. "I find what your people need is not so much high, imaginative art, but that which hallows the vessels of everyday use....Your people love art, but do not sufficiently honor the handicraftsmen."

That would begin to change over the next decade as the Arts and Crafts Movement took root in American design. However, whereas each European country had its own long history of national handicraft to draw inspiration from, America had only Shaker style. It therefore freely pulled from ideas and designs coming from France, Germany, Austria and most of all England. It should be noted that the Arts & Crafts Movement was not confined to England. The Movement's concerns and reformist ideals were echoed all across Europe at the same time. What was Arts and Crafts in England was called Art Nouveau in France and Belgium, Jugendstil in Germany and Succession in Austria. The designs followed similar themes, but were distinctly different from each other based on local materials, craftsmen and national tradition. In its own way, this was also true in America. The mixture of European styles, coupled with local material and the Shaker style (and later, Spanish missionary), would eventually lead to innovative designs that were very much American.

Interestingly, while in the mid- to late-1800's Europe was seeking to simplify its society and culture by romantically looking back at its Medieval life, America was full of optimistic hope for the future. The Movement's reformist message, which preached simplicity, utility, and handcrafted furnishings in tune with nature, was important as far as design inspiration, but America was not really pining for its rustic past. For many, Arts and Crafts simply became the newest design trend. Elaborate Victorian design was seen as increasingly heavy and ornate and a return to a humbler, more practical style was in order. However, this simplicity was based on the future, not the past.

For nearly a century American craftsmanship had suffered because of the nation's appetite for European-made and designed products. With the Movement's emphasis on handicraft, however, craftspeople began to explore new frontiers, as well as old ones. Whereas England demonized machines, America embraced them and made good use of them in the production of Arts and Crafts furniture and accessories. This may have seemed the antithesis of what the Movement stood for, but according to Charles Ashbee it wasn't. Ashbee, who founded of the Guild of Handicraft in London in 1888, wrote that the major concern of the Arts and Crafts Movement is "one of production...not so much how things should be made, but what is the meaning behind their making." The use of machines allowed far more "common" people to live the Arts and Crafts lifestyle in America than abroad, and that in turn created more interest, more demand for quality handicraft, and more innovative design.

To be sure, there were plenty of American Arts & Crafters who closely followed the English ideals, and generally, they set the standards others followed, at least in the early years. But the most successful and well-known American designers were the ones who, in the Arts and Crafts spirit, combined old-fashioned handicraft with the latest production techniques and design theories.