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.