The Noble Craftsmen We Promote:

The Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Midwest



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The title for this exhibition,"The Noble Craftsman We Promote: The Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Midwest" comes from a Toledo University Manual Training Department course catalog of 1905. The Manual Training Department, which had been a fundamental part of the university's curriculum since 1884, sought to teach vocational skills to Toledo's young people so that they might secure a better future for themselves. Among the areas of instruction offered by the school was Wood Design and Construction, taught by instructor Mary H. Barkdull.

Inthe course catalog, Ms. Barkdull states that while most understood what the Arts and Crafts Movement was in terms of design, they did not understand the philosophy of the movement. "It does not mean a heavy, straight-line chair, an odd piece of metal work, or a unique leather screen. It has a deeper significance. It would take the workman away from the mechanical guiding of a machine, and put him at work to express a developed individuality, in a bit of decoration which will be truly art and not a tawdry substitute. It aims to create a demand for good things on the part of the public. It will accomplish the union of Art and Craftsmanship. A clever cabinet-maker two generations hence will be a clever designer. This will of course be brought about by education."

But despite Ms. Barkdull's contention that her classes had a higher purpose, the Arts and Crafts Movement as taught at Toledo University's Manual Training Department and other places in the Midwest was far removed from the philosophical roots of the movement as it began in Great Britain in the 1860s. Photographs showing the school's mechanized machine shop and wood-working laboratory make this clear. William Morris and John Ruskin, the deacons of the British movement, did not embrace the machine, rather they held it in disdain. This basic division over the role of the machine in the Arts and Crafts Movement is the essence of what separates the British purists from the utilitarian craftsmen of the American Midwest.

This exhibit begins with an examination of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, where it was part design revolution, part social reform. As a design concept, the movement was a reaction to the heavy ornamentation of the high Victorian era. As a social reform movement, it focused on the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution on the artist and craftsman. The head had been separated from the hand-the worker no longer created, he merely produced. Morris and Ruskin advocated for ending factories and replacing then with small guilds where artists could produce handmade objects.

The exhibit focuses on how the Arts and Crafts Movement was molded by the practical nature of the Midwest as it was transplanted to America. While Midwesterners learned to like the simplified design elements, especially as they were popularized in home décor magazines like House Beautiful and Home and Garden, they did not much care for the social reform aspect. The machine was not an object of disdain, but rather a better, cheaper way to produce the clean, simplified Arts and Crafts designs.

This exhibit looks at four particular areas of Arts and Crafts in the Midwest: the book arts, architecture, interior and exterior design, and the decorative arts and attempts to explain how the movement in the heartland differed from its purer British counterpart. It will explain how a movement formed in an effort to celebrate the individual craftsman became a movement of mass appeal and mass marketing.

Most aspects of the movement fell out of favor following World War I. The Arts and Crafts style was replaced in popular design by Art Deco, Colonial Revival, and Moderne styles. But the movement has undergone a revival in the 1990s. The exhibit will conclude with a look at its resurgence, and will attempt to explain why, in the technological age, Americans have once again looked to the clarity of form, honesty of workmanship, and integrity of material that the movement celebrated.

The curators of this exhibit had the assistance of a number of individuals who have helped us both through their knowledge of the Arts and Crafts Movement and their lending of materials to display. Of particular note is our steering committee: Rhoda Berkowitz, Meg Delaney, Guy Szuberla, and Peggy Zdila. Our special thanks goes to Peggy Zdila, who helped us locate items for the decorative arts section of the exhibit, reviewed a draft of the catalog, and contributed the text on art tile. Others who loaned items include: Stephen J. Farber, James and Janeann Hackley, Paul Kemner, Allan Kirsner, Ted Ligibel, Franco Ruffini, Gordon and Lorie Wardlaw, and the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. Also thanks to Julia Costello, Todd Doyle, and Janice Hackbush, graduate assistants in Carlson Library, for their research and editing help.

And a special thanks to the speakers at the opening reception, Jean-Francois Vilain and Dard Hunter III; and the Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries for underwriting the cost of the exhibit and the catalog.

Barbara Floyd
University Archivist

Julia Baldwin
Director, Information and Instruction Services Division

March 1999

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An Exhibit at the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, Carlson Library, The University of Toledo.

March 26th-June 30th, 1999.

Last Updated: 6/27/22