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How Do We Talk About Making Things?
In our world, most things we own, we buy. They’re made in a factory, usually somewhere quite far away from us—usually, now, in Southeast Asia or China. They’re “marketed” by people who get paid lots of money to do nothing else than create a demand for whatever it is they’re selling. Advertisements for these products appear in all forms of the media we turn to for information in general. They’re just about inescapable, since, in large part, the income from them is what keeps those media running. They’re transported, long-distance, in bulk, to their destinations.
The “factory system” allows for economy of scale. It allows for the production of large quantities of identical products for a large and ever-growing population at more or less affordable cost. It relies on workers who are trained by the factory supervisors to carry out specific tasks that contribute to the overall production. Those tasks range from semi-skilled to highly-skilled. The pay ranges accordingly.
Even in our world, though, we still buy some things produced in an older system—the wealthier we are, the more likely we are to do that. That older system is what we call artisanal craft or manufacture. Before the early 19th century, it was by far the dominant system for making things in the more populous and technologically-complex societies of the world.
It was also more likely to be formalized than it is now. A person—perhaps a male, perhaps a female, though the work itself was gender-restricted—became an apprentice at a young age—pubescent to early adolescent, usually. The apprentice served a master—someone fully-qualified to practice the craft independently. That master likely belonged to a craft guild—a formal association of masters of that trade, chartered by the state. The shipwrights’ guild in England, for example, was chartered by Henry VIII (the one who liked having his spouses killed and replaced). The master was obligated to feed and house the apprentice, and teach her or him the craft. Sometimes, of course, this worked well, as it did for Scrooge under Mr. Fezziwig; other times, the master abused the privilege, treating the apprentice more like a domestic slave. An abused apprentice might well run away. A well-treated and well-trained apprentice would progress to the status of journeyman, or the equivalent—someone who could practice the craft well, under supervision. The journeyman might be hired out by the master to work for wages on jobs for someone else.
Ultimately, a skilled journeyman was ready to apply for master status. In the formal medieval European guild system, this meant producing a meisterstück—masterpiece—which the guilds’ masters would judge to determine whether to pass the applicant and admit him to the guild as a master.
This system, whether as formal as that, or more loosely-structured, survives in some of the trade unions; we still, for example, talk about journeyman and master electricians.
In the artisanal system, the artisan commanded most if not all of the entire production process. A shipwright could design and build an entire ship’s hull and deck, even if he contracted out the rigging, glazing, masonry, and some of the joiner work to specialists in those trades. The artisan also learned a trade not through formal schooling and reading (most were semi-literate at best), but through hands-on instruction and experience. Artisanal craft is alive and well around the world, even in our own society, though it cannot compete with the industrial system in either quantity of output nor economy of scale. People of modest means might own a few artisanally-produced items, but they tend to be “special” and expensive. The very wealthy are likely to own a greater proportion of artisanally-produced goods; their cars might even be, if they’re rich enough (Paganis, Spkyers).
The third way of making something is by what we call vernacular craft. The term generally refers to something made by someone for their own use—frequently, by someone self-taught, though it is likely that the vernacular craftsperson learned at least some of the skills from a more experienced practitioner. Small boats were, and still are, commonly built as vernacular craft. Textiles, ceramics, birdhouses—these are common household items produced by vernacular craft in our society. In societies less permeated by industrialization, vernacular craft may well provide the means to earn a livelihood. An interesting intersection of the vernacular and the industrial happens every day on the back streets of “less-developed” towns and cities, where inventive “amateur” mechanics continually improvise repairs to old cars and motorcycles to keep them running.*
In fact, perhaps ironically, since we tend to think of artisanal and vernacular craft as “traditional” and industrial production as “modern,” the older forms lend themselves much more easily to adaptation. Artisans and do-it-yourself tinkerers are constantly doing just that—tinkering—with what they produce. They can, for little investment, experiment with small changes, evaluate their effects, and either continue or abandon them. This is vastly more expensive in the industrial system as we practice it.
With the advent of the “right to repair” movement, the increasing practicality of 3D printing, the need to reduce the carbon imprint of shipping, and the reckoning we’re having with the total cost of “cheap stuff,” we’re living in an interesting moment, technologically. I’m keenly interested to see if elements of the artisanal and vernacular traditions end up wresting away some of the dominance of the industrial system we inherited from the textile mills, the match factories, and Henry Ford.
*On this DIY blending of the industrial and the vernacular, see Daniel Miller, ed., Car Cultures (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2001).