The man who designs and makes a good chair, or other useful article of any kind—all the more if it be beautiful as well as useful—is second only in the respectability of his occupation to him who brings grain and grass out of otherwise barren ground.
It is a very mistaken notion of the relations of things that sets trading—that is, buying and selling—a very different matter from commerce, which is the bringing of the products of one country into another—above handicraft. But handicraft seems to be falling into neglect.
The number of artisans who thoroughly understand their craft, and take a pride in doing good work, seems to be diminishing at a rate which is perceptible from one five years’ end to another. Indeed, it is notorious among all those who have occasion from time to time to employ skilled labour, that if they need the services of, let us say, a carpenter, a cabinet-maker, a watchmaker, or a painter, they cannot be sure, without some troublesome inquiry, that the work will be done in a workmanlike manner.
This uncertainty has no reference to that skill and taste which are the personal attributes of the individual workman, and give one man a reputation which another can never attain, but to that knowledge and skill, at once elementary and complete, which is possessed by every artisan who has “learned his trade.”
A recent American writer, Mr. R. G. White, says:—I am sure that the experience of most readers will sustain the assertion that, except in shops where the highest standard is maintained, and prices are really exorbitant, there is no certainty that work will not be “botched” and “scamped” and sent home with a surface finish which conceals bad workmanship; that men will come to a house pretending to be skilled workmen in wood or in metal—such, indeed, being their professed vocation—and do their work so ignorantly and unskilfully that they injure and even almost destroy the articles committed to their care.
This lack on the part of artisans of a thorough knowledge of their craft corresponds to that lack of thoroughness in our elementary education which experience and investigation have brought to light. Education, it is trite to say, is not the pumping of a knowledge of facts out of books into memory; it is training discipline, and throughout the whole range of human endeavour nothing good is produceable, or has been produced, without training.
Now, training is impossible without a trainer, and hence the relation of teacher and pupil, master, workman, and apprentice, from which relation has come all that is good in literature, in science, in fine art, and in skilled handicraft, since the world began. The tendency of social and other influences which are now at work, and which have been at work for the last half century, is to break up and destroy this relation. The causes of this are various, but the tendency of all is to do away entirely with that training which has made good workmen and produced good workmanship since the days of Tubal Cain.
The good work and the good workmanship of the past were produced in this way. The skilled master workman worked in his own shop, which was generally in his own house, and under him were one or two or more journeymen, who had served their time and were free of their craft, and as many more lads, who were apprenticed to him for seven years.
These apprentices were members of his family; he was responsible for their good behaviour; he had the right to the product of their labour; and he in turn was responsible to them, or to their parents and guardians, for their proper instruction, and generally for their support. In Germany the apprentice who had served his time was not free of his guild until he had made his wanderjahr; that is, had travelled through the country for a year, working in the shops of various master workmen.
Men who learned their trades in this way, if they were capable of learning at all, learned them thoroughly. And not only were trades thus learned. There came with the craftsmanship, discipline, subordination, respect for something else than mere money and what money will buy, pride in good workmanship, a sense of responsibility for the thoroughness of work undertaken.
This was apprenticeship and its results. It seems to be passing away all over the world. As all things, including household furniture, clothes, shoes, and watches, are, year by year, more and more made by machinery; and instead of the master workman we have the owner of a machine; and instead of a skilled artisan we have a machine-feeder.
As trade unions undertake to dictate how the business of their members shall be carried on, and to forbid them to take more than a certain small number of apprentices; it is inevitable that apprenticeship, so far as it is a thorough training for the practice of any craft, will ere long practically disappear.
The Furniture Gazette – (London) March 19, 1881
– Jeff Burks