Social Functionality of 18th c Craft

Sea Captain James MacPherson built Mount Pleasant to ensure his ascention into a social class to which he was not born. The building’s carved interior may be ostentatious to some. It’s grand classical design, and faux mahogany entrance hall was designed to impress. But I don’t want to bore you with this again. Worthy of further thought, however, is the notion that Captain MacPherson’s rising tide may have lifted more than his own jolly boat.

Moxon began “Mechanick Exercises” with an apology for his examination and description of people so low as to offend the sensibilities of his readers:

“I See no more Reason, why the Sordidness of some Workmen, should be the cause of contempt upon Manual Operations,…”

Ouch! Sounds like something from KNOTS. And he’s not through yet with the slams:

“And tho’ the Mechanicks be, by some, accounted Ignoble and Scandalous!…”

So here in Moxon’s preface we see revealed the general, if not contempt, then clear lack of exaltation of English Craftsmen. Who was upheld in that society? Moxon himself reveals it:

“That Geometry, Astronomy, Perspective, Music, Navigation, Architecture &c are all excellent Sciences, all that know but their very Names will confess,…”

Moxon goes on to defend the honor of craftsmen in their practical use of these more noble pursuits. But clearly we see the pecking order.

Here we begin to see a different tack:

“…only I shall say, it is Rational to think, that the Mechanicks [i.e. craft] began with Man, he being the only creature that Nature has imposed most Necessity upon it to use it…”

I take this to mean that Moxon is suggesting, and in a very enlightened way, that God created man and gave him craft. So it’s not so bad to be a craftsman. After all, our trade was made by God and given to us. I wonder how compelling an argument this was.

[we were] endow’d with the greatest Reason to contrive it [craft], and adapted with the properest Members (as instruments) to perform it.”

Okay so here it is. Thanks for sticking with it. So what I’m reading is the attempt to lift the “manual operations”, by suggesting:

1) they are the natural beneficiaries of the more noble pursuits
2) they were given us by nature or God
3) the tools are “Instruments” and not wholly unlike a telescope or microscope, the instruments of loftier pursuits

In our world, the customer is always right, however hideous the entertainment center or ignoble the MDF. But in their world, commissions for exalted work, executed beautifully, may have also exalted the craftsmen and possibly the craft itself. With skills “given by God”, and delicate, often decorated “instruments” for tools, colonial era craftsmen may have had as much “social capital” invested in their work as their customers did. This can be easily dismissed with “pride in their work” sentiments. But I think there was a lot more to it than that. Here in the USA, we in the vast middle class just don’t experience the sorts of social pressures folks did 250 years ago. I think Moxon’s preface clearly indicates as much.

Adam

One thought on “Social Functionality of 18th c Craft

  1. Bruce Jackson

    A book in the social sciences area called the the arts and crafts pursuits of the leisure class. Yet, it’s becoming the general consensus among historians that the "exalted sciences" like geometry were actually derived from layout practices of the Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, and other craftsmen of the Mediterranean Sea. So, Moxson was doing this "politically correct" thing, at least for his times, by saying that God blessed those near the top of the social heap before He blassed those near the bottom. A closer reading of the Gospels and the letters will tell you what the working and craftsmen classes have known all along – the Lord actually blessed those who worked with their hands before He blessed those who made money off the backs of those who worked with their hands – pretty much the story of most of the European societies – yes, even the English aristocracies.

    Small wonder that 18th century society here in the colonies tried, at least with baby steps, to get away from the European order. Although I have two master’s degrees, from my occasional study of American academic history of the 18th and 19th century, I know that this modern academic conceit was lifted lock, stock, and barrel from the German and British academic structures. To be perfectly honest, I was a hell of a lot happier during my summer job as a park ranger than I was with my "scholarly pursuits" during the fall and winter. The last person of whom I’m aware was conferred the title of "Doctor" without formal study was one of my personal heroes, Benjamin Franklin. Even Henry David Thoreau did some real crackerjack field studies leading him to conclude that Darwin’s treatise on the Origin of Species was more correct than Agassiz’s theory of special creation.

    Over the years I have come to appreciate the meaning of your real education coming after you have completed your formal studies or apprenticeship. That is a much more natural – and earned – arstocracy, and which any one of reasonable ability may attain – without benefit of being an heir to your father’s title. You’re touching on the true genius of the American nation.

Comments are closed.