“Oscar Onken and The Shop of the Crafters at Cincinnati” (Turn of the Century Editions) by M.J. McCracken and W. Michael McCracken is a delight to both read and examine in detail. The advertisements, the research, the solid footnoting.
All those details appeal to the part of my brain that collects the facts that form my understanding of how Arts & Crafts furniture was marketed and sold. But at the back of the book is the best part. It is for another part of the brain.
The authors included a facsimile of the first issue of The Lantern, a short-lived publication published by The Shop of the Crafters that I had heard of but had never been able to find. It is filled with advertisements (of course), but also a number of delightful essays (some almost polemics) that discuss furniture making and the utopian ideals of the American Arts & Crafts movement.
These essays are different than the writings of the Roycrofters or Gustav Stickley. Even though Cincinnati was surrounded by utopian communities, Oscar Onken was not buying it. Below is one of the essays. If you like this one, the book has many more.
— Christopher Schwarz
Shop Talk With Red Pepper In It
Every morning at ten the whistle blows at the Shop of the Crafters.
We don’t all quit work and listen to the talk of some long haired genius who can make anything but a living.
The way to produce art is to work at it – not talk about it.
But as we said before, every morning at ten the whistle blows
The men don’t quit work, go out and beer up.
Some shops down in the blue law districts blow the whistle and have the morning prayers.
We don’t. We have morning kicks.
When the whistle blows all the department heads of The Shop of the Crafters meet together in a room and kick.
In every large concern there is a lot of politics – not the rednosed, unupholstered stomach and watch chain kind, but politics within the business.
In most large concerns everybody hates everybody else; they divide into factions and each discuss the other behind their backs.
These ten o’clock meetings in our shop gives everybody a chance to kick at everybody else and to their face.
All air their feelings and opinions – it has the effect of figuratively sending their feelings to the carpet beaters every morning at ten. The feelings come out sweet and clean for the remainder of the day.
Good feeling makes good work.
Don’t get it into your head that the Shop of the Crafters is in the business for “the joy of the work.”
Don’t get it into your head that we wear neck ties like a front door badge of sorrow.
We’re just as money mean as some, yet not as mean as others.
We have a time clock in our factory, a cost card system and all the other little devices and conveniences common to dollar chasing manufacturers.
In some respects, though, we get at the result in a little different way, but the original money spirit is there.
We make a grade of furniture who want the real thing at a moderate price.
Not rich people nor poor people, but prosperous people.
We make good furniture, and good dollars are a bi product – on the principle that the reward comes from honestly supplying the wants of the patron – the dollars are incidental, but large and certain just the same.
We have been many years collecting the class of men to make our line of furniture. They work in agreeable surroundings, there is every safeguard to life and limb and we pay good wages – we would pay less if we could, but we must pay well in order to keep some other concern from hiring them away.
We have been for years perfecting the system to make The Crafter line. It’s no problem to make good furniture, but to make good furniture within the financial reach of prosperous people – that’s the question.
If we wanted to make furniture for the masses – make all dollars rather than furniture, we would go down in the country, build several acres of sheds out of hoop poles and sheet iron, buy all the wormy, sap-soaked lumber we could, hire every son of the soil that stuck his head over a clod, arm them with hammer and nails and, and after we’d sawed so many of their fingers off that they couldn’t play a cornet in a country band, why – we’d hire some more.
Money is easily made if you want to make it some ways.
16 thoughts on “Philosophy from ‘The Lantern’”
The essay is certainly different, but the cover looks like it was an issue of The Craftsman, for sure.
Oscar Onken is badass. Love the honesty.
Love that Shop Crafters “advertisement” at the end of the article, that piece about “There are those who only know to make firewood out of a lumber pile etc” is going up on my shop wall.
Hey Chris, could you somehow put that on a T shirt? Or sticker?
I’ll have what he’s having. That’s a damn fine idea.
Everything I’ve read about historical Arts & Crafts makers, informed by my own experience of earning a living in this field, suggests that a no-nonsense view about the need to make money while producing solid work for those Onken calls “prosperous” people was far more common than many armchair students of the movement imagine. Enterprises dominated by utopian ideals in the absence of such down-to-earth perspective (which is so often a by-product of humility born from hard experience) tend to fizzle fast, unless they’re propped up by wealth from other sources.
As in most fields, there has until recently been more attention to great ideas and ideals than to the realities of how those who make things put those ideals into practice. This is one reason why I find the scribblings of comparative price quotes on historical drawings (such as Gimson’s 1908 hayrake table, or Voysey’s 1898 two heart chair design) some of the most valuable and heartwarming information these documents have to offer.
Totally agree that the factories had their heads on straight when it came to making things and being practical. I do think Onken’s essay stands as a contrast to the writings of Morris, Ruskin and other thought leaders of the movement. Even Gus Stickley, who was a practical businessman, wrote a lot about “the joy of work” in The Craftsman and other “feel good” ideals.
And when you had companies that actually followed those ideals, like Byrdcliffe…. things went off a cliff.
Onken’s essay certainly does stand in contrast to the thought leaders, as well as so many who have written about them but not had to grapple with the realities of making a living from building quality furniture. I simply wanted to point out that many of those who worked in or ran the smaller workshops that *produced* the furnishings designed by the big names would have agreed with much of what Onken says here.
The other dimension of this essay I consider interesting is how it works as a marketing tool in terms of conveying to potential customers not only why the business charged what it did, and the kinds of customers it sought, but also the measures it took to maintain good relations among workers in different departments, something I see as bringing “joy in work” down to a daily, real-world level. With you, I appreciate that Onken took easily-spoken ideals and talked about gritty ways his business worked to put them into action. I’m looking forward to reading other examples when my copy arrives.
Reminds me of the Chris Rock act where he says what they are telling you when they pay you minimum wage is “I would pay you less…but its against the law!”
Red pepper indeed. I’m sure it burns a bit for some. I like the refreshing, extreme openness and honesty.
One other thing: “It’s no problem to make good furniture…”
Yeah, I’m still working on that. Cost is not what’s holding me back.
So many mug/tshirt/sticker worthy pithy quotes in that one little piece. My current fav, “Money is easily made if you want to make it some ways.”
Chris this is fabulous!I reproduced four ‘morris chairs’ of the Shop of the Crafters Design…….interesting that the graphic has the “California Missions” [i think?] in the background….the word ‘mission’….do you know the origin? I asked Randell Makinson and his response was the ‘mission’ of a chair was to be a chair-honest simple-knot decorative or art! knot bad…..but the word “Mission Furniture” was born at the San Juan Capistrano Mission when Bernard Maybeck was researching his design for the Swedenborgian Church! knot to be confused with 1984. He was designing the church and ‘fellowship hall’ and the hall was first the pews had to move out of the way so he went with chairs…the chair that he bounced out of was at the rectory in San Juan brought over by the Padre from presumably Spain. Sooo the Church is done the openig happens and a New York salesman was there and loved the chairs. He found the cabinetmaker bought a few and took them back to New York where he had a ad stating ‘these chairs designed after the ‘California Missions are……..” so it was shortened to Mission furniture.
anthony fortner ________________________________
The “morning kick” Onken talks about reminds me of the daily “stand-up meetings” that are now common practice in many manufacturing facilities. That and the concept of ensuring that pay, comfort, and safety of the job is sufficient to prevent workers from looking elsewhere for employment suggest he was a man whose ideas were ahead of his time. A century later and there are still many manufacturing outfits that don’t see the pragmatism there.
Just a FYI – if you search for “The Craftsman Magazine” on eBay – you’ll come upon a seller by the name of advplans. He/She is selling 31 volumes of this magazine (183 issues) on DVD for about eight dollars. Additional pdf versions of home design and decor are included on the DVD.
The gal/guy also sells many other early 20th century or 19th century magazine and book collections on dvd or optionally USB thumb drive. Advplans isn’t me nor do I know him/her personally.
Capitalism at its finest. Making a good living creating desirable goods (or services) at a competitive price for those who do the same.
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