An excerpt from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” by Anon, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz.
England, 1839. Victoria has just become Queen of England (1837) and was about to marry Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The Industrial Revolution had begun changing the lifeblood of England. New ways of manufacturing iron and steel arose, changing everything. Factories and mass production began replacing the small craft shop. The woodworking industries were also beginning to change, and “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” was first published.
In 1839, the craft trades were highly differentiated. Specialization allowed speed – which was critical for commercial success. It’s a mistake to assume that the factories of the early 19th century produced low-cost goods because of mechanization. While that was partially true, the real cost savings came from division of labor and specialization. Most crafts people did highly specialized work. A razor grinder in Sheffield, for example, needed considerable skill to freehand-grind straight razors so that they were thin and flexible, without drawing the steel’s temper (softening the steel through excess heat). But that’s all the razor grinder did. Someone else, equally skilled, would forge the blanks; someone else would make the handles. In these factory-like situations, craftspeople were paid by piecework. In many cases, complicated documents were written that specified exactly what each sub-craft did and how much was paid for the work. In the case of furniture, the chairmaking industry in England was centered in High Wycombe, where they made nothing but chairs in a factory system of highly divided skills and a complicated piecework formula. In 1872, the High Wycombe chairmakers had a printed list of prices detailing charges for more than 250 different processes (of which only one was a process using machines for assistance) divided over about nine or 10 distinct trades. It would have been difficult for a local craftsperson to compete on a lower-priced chair for an occasional customer when a group of specialists did nothing but make cheap chairs by hand, all day, every day.
The job of the joiner varied depending on where he lived. In urban areas, joiners were carpenters who specialized in finish carpentry, built-in furniture, windows, doors and any other trim that was made on-site. Ideally, joiners did their preparation work in a workshop but then moved the parts to the job site for installation and finishing. Even within the basic job description of “joiner,” some would specialize in making windows, some on doors, and others focused on mouldings and trim. Stair making was the most complex area of joinery, and these specialists were used for all except the simplest of staircases.
A cabinet maker was a person who made free-standing furniture, usually of a fancy, custom nature. The cabinet maker would do only the joinery and casework. Turnings, carvings, inlay and other details were done by other specialists. In rural regions, small cities and towns (where it is implied that Thomas, the hero of the book, does his apprenticeship), there wouldn’t have been a work demand to sustain completely separate trades. There, a joiner would be called on to do a range of work, from finish carpentry to rough furniture to fine work – anything that required working in wood. But in large cities such as London, everyone specialized.
In “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” Thomas is called on to make everything from a rough shipping box to a fine dresser. But it should be realized that Thomas really doesn’t learn how to do the finest work, with lots of inlay or carving, because typically there would not have been the demand for that in rural areas. If someone wealthy in the hamlet wanted to commission such a piece, he or she would go to a shop in a major city where they had the specialists. By the same token, an average middle-class person in his area, say a farmer, would have been happy to hire Thomas’s shop to fit out a barn or make a door, but would have purchased mundane items such as chairs by buying them mass-produced and ready-made, in the latest style, shipped via railroad or one of the canals that covered the country, from the great chairmaking city of High Wycombe. There is no mention of a lathe in the shop in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” and in the few places where turned work is mentioned, the text implies that the work would have been either bought finished as a stock item or jobbed out to a local turner.