Craft production refers to work carried out by a skilled worker. Its aim is to produce not just a commodity but to do something well for its own sake. In craft production, work can be an end in itself, an expression of the individual’s talents. It is not simply a means to an end. Craftsmanship means quality. Craft production is often said to be a less-alienated form of production than the machine-based mass production of the factory or office. The ideal of craft production is used as a standard against which other forms of labor are judged and measured. Critics of modern capitalism, from writers like John Ruskin, William Morris, and John Dewey onward, have looked back to craft production as part of a world that is being lost and looked forward to an age yet to come when its principles could be recovered. The acquisition of the output of craft production could then be, not the privilege of the few, but the basis of the life of the many.

All human labor involves some degree of explicit and tacit skill. Historically this has been so important that people have been named after their “craft”— smith, thatcher, fletcher, mason, potter, carpenter, etc. Early craft production is most associated with the urban labor of artisans in medieval cities where production was organized in small workshops and (though not invariably) guilds. Although goods were produced for sale, craft production, in principle, involved strict codes. Craft workers served apprenticeships in which they were introduced to the “mysteries” of their craft. An apprenticeship (often six to seven years) might involve 5,000–10,000 hours of supervised work before it was considered that the craft worker had been trained. The apprentice would then demonstrate his proficiency as journeyman by producing his “masterpiece.” The journeymen might hope to progress to be a “master craftsman” in their own workshops, joining the craft guild on their basis of their established “mastership.” So powerful was this idea of craft production that what we today consider the artifacts of high culture from this time—art, jewelry, furniture, sculpture—were actually the results of craft workshops under the control of artists, instrument makers, etc. as master craftsmen.

The craft guilds, often supported by legislation and local regulation, negotiated with powerful merchants and helped to set prices to avoid exploitation. They policed the quality of goods, fines for offenses against “honor and solidarity” being a significant element in their disciplinary actions. They oversaw skill development, provided a mechanism for the mobility of labor, and acted as a source of credit. They also formed the social and political basis of the life of the worker in craft production.

But the social function of craft production went beyond the workplace. Craft work was seen as the basis of self-respect for the individual. People spoke of “craft pride” and “artisan independence.” Craft was also an important source of civic pride. It could even be the basis of political rights. Craft work was also seen as a quasi-religious vocation—craft was a gift from God and its support a celebration of God’s gifts. Craft can be analyzed using conventional economics as a form of social capital. But to explain the role of craft production through a narrow economic calculus is to miss the way that craft production developed historically. It cannot explain its wider social resonance nor the way that today the output of earlier generations of craft workers still embodies our ideas of accomplishment and beauty.

In England in the 16th century concern about the impact of economic change, enclosures, vagabondage, and master less men led to the passing in 1563 of the Statute of Artificers. This supported craft work by requiring apprentices to serve for seven years, terminating at 24 (reduced to 21 in 1778). This created a framework that lasted in England, although unevenly enforced, until the early 19th century. Elements of this were also applied piecemeal in the American colonies.

Measuring the scale of earlier craft production is not easy. In pre-industrial society, peasants and farmworkers predominated and there were many unskilled workers. But one minimum estimate suggests that in England, around 1700, some 11,000–12,000 males completed apprenticeships each year, which would total between 290,000 and 460,000 workmen trained as apprentices at that time in a population of some 5 million.

By this time some urban craft production was already feeling the challenge of the rise of proto-industrialization in the more advanced parts of Europe. Proto-industrialization was the spread of unregulated forms of craft production into the countryside to take advantage of labor surpluses. Methods of production might be formally similar but conditions of work deteriorated as networks of merchant capital became ever more sophisticated. Nevertheless, if skill levels were inferior and the market more pressing in protoindustrial craft production, workers still retained a greater degree of control over the labor process than would be possible in the factories that came with the Industrial Revolution.

Capitalism Changes Production

The development of capitalism, and especially industrial capitalism, led to a change in the nature of craft production and a profound long-term challenge to it. One aspect of this was ideological. As the potential of the division of labor and mass production began to develop, some writers began to attack guilds and craft production as economically irrational and a brake on technical progress. Guilds, they suggested, acted as rent-seeking coalitions that thrived on monopoly rents to the disadvantage of unskilled workers and customers. Craft production would and should give way to not only to industrial production but “freer” market relations.

State action also played a role in the weakening of craft production, if only at the level of removing earlier protections. Artisans saw the defense of the regulation of craft production against “illegal men,” whether masters or journeymen, as part of their birthright and a protection of the rights of labor. But in late-18th-century Britain, laissez-faire pressures led to a consolidation of the rights of property while encouraging an ever freer market for hired labor. Not only were workers’ combinations banned but the old legislation protecting craft apprenticeship and conditions came under attack. The Statute of Apprentices was repealed in 1814 despite a significant artisan campaign to defend and even extend it. One craft petition numbered 300,000 signatures.

In this shift, our understanding of the past also changed. “Art” began to be separated from “skill” as a higher-order activity and even divided internally into different levels. The artist became in the popular mind a lonely individual with a unique sensibility and an intuitive talent, producing for rich patrons or themselves. The skills of the craft worker were separated and diminished. Since labor was seen as repugnant, the labor in the production of art, and the tools necessary for it, became marginalized when people spoke of art. Even the term “masterpiece” was appropriated to higher art.

These changes also had an impact on our understanding of science and its development as a separate and specialized function. Much early science was rooted in craft production, which has been described as a repository of scientific production technique. The inquiring mind of the artisan craftsman as watchmaker, instrument maker, millwright, or spinner was behind many decisive steps forward. Craft work could sustain a tradition of self-education that could be undertaken to surprisingly high levels—not merely the literacy but the knowledge of other languages of the printer or the mathematical skills of the mechanic.

The effect could also be seen in education. When formal education systems began to develop, they were defined by a tension between education in its broadest sense and the narrower tasks of fitting people, groups, and classes for particular positions. This produced a divided and segmented system where the pressure lower down was to create an impoverished vocationalism which, if it referred to an early tradition of craftsmanship, did so only in name.

More radical accounts attack this diminution of the idea of craft and craft production and the analysis used it support it. Some historians argue that craft guilds survived much later into the 18th and 19th centuries than was previously suggested. The longevity of guilds suggests a rationality that critics missed.

Productivity in guild-based craft production may, for example, have been higher than in the equivalent no guild production. Nor is it clear that invention and innovation was hindered. Even Adam Smith recognized the possible stultifying impact of the division of labor on human ingenuity.

The pressures that new forms of production put on craft production were not, according to this view, a simple product of technical change. Rather, capitalism needed to find a form of work organization in which the employer could dominate and exploit the work. The factory was therefore a socially determined form of technology designed in part to overcome the fact that craft production left too much power in the hands of the craftsman. The skill of the worker had to be appropriated by the system, divided up, reduced, and embodied in organizations and equipment controlled by the employer or their agent. The extreme of this was represented by Frederick Taylor’s desire for a system of scientific work control, “in the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first …” Sometimes craftwork directly succumbed to this after a struggle. In other cases, craft work degenerated into forms of outwork labor. Both involved a continual process of deskilling.

But formal apprenticeship as the basis of craft production in particular and work more generally had a longer life, albeit to significantly different degrees in different national contexts. In the United States it was difficult to get masters and men to keep to indentures. Here craft work quickly became more open to market influences. There was limited incentive for employers to commit to long-term training of their employees when workers could easily leave and when legal enforcement was costly and difficult. By 1850 there were less than two apprentices per 1,000 employees in the United States. But forms of craft work (in the widest sense) remained widespread; Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of the Occupations” is a lyrical invocation of some of them.

In Britain and Europe apprenticeship as an underpinning for craft work survived on a wider basis and became incorporated into trades like engineering. Sometimes this was based on formal indentures, but in Britain the respect attached to a worker’s “lines” was so significant as to enable much apprenticeship to be based on informal agreements. In Europe, formal agreements were often supported by the state, and in Germany modernized craft-style apprenticeships became and still are part of the training system. At the end of the 1970s, apprenticeship accounted for only 0.3 percent of civilian employment in the United States compared to 2–3 percent in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries and 5–6 percent in West Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Post–Industrial Revolution

Several different trajectories for craft work can be identified since the development of the Industrial Revolution. Some craft production simply succumbed to the challenge of factory-based mass production and was eliminated. In other industries, craft production continued to survive but market pressures caused a deterioration of conditions and intensified and impoverished the division of labor, with craft work perhaps degenerating into forms of sweated workshop labor. In a third and smaller group of industries, craft production survived, often based on the production for high-quality and high-cost markets (although beneath the surface conditions might worsen). A fourth trajectory was where “crafts” were able to turn themselves into “professions” through the development of higher-status images and controls. But there was and is a fifth element. Sometimes technical change can generate areas of craft like “responsible autonomy” where within the most advanced elements of the system, elements of craft-like production can survive. This was apparent in the past, for example, in the engineering industry. Today a popular example is the way in which in the computer industry and the development of information technology, supporters of open source software and “the creative commons” collectively work for the common good, sharing their developments. What drives them is less a concern for financial gain or corporate service than the expression of enthusiasm, joy, and creativity in work.

When this happens there is a struggle for control that to some degree parallels earlier struggles that might otherwise be thought of only out of historical interest. Major companies seek to establish property rights in intellectual creativity and to control and discipline what is seen as an unruly and even potentially subversive movement. In this view such a craft ethic has no place in modern capitalism, even though it is to be found in the most modern sector (or perhaps it should be said to have no place unless the results of it can be privately appropriated).

The fate of craft production is not therefore one of straight-line decline. Strong pressures exist in this direction and the best analysis of them remains that of Harry Braverman (1920–76) in his Labor and Monopoly Capital, where he described the tendency since the Industrial Revolution for work to be divided up in its component jobs, each of which might require less skill and training, and thus be paid less. However, automation and computerization of a plethora of low skill tasks has led others to observe an upgrading of the skill levels of jobs in developed economies.

Craft production was also the basis of the development of the early labor movement in most countries; the skill of the craft workers and the demand for their labor gave them a stronger bargaining position and made them better able to resist employers than early factory workers. Early unions therefore were associated with better-paid craft workers, were largely male, and a product of the labor aristocracy. Mass industrial unionism was often counterpoised to the craft base of traditional unions. But under pressure, craft unions had to look beyond sectionalism. Even Samuel Gompers, the archetypical American craft unionist, warned his members that today’s artisan was the unskilled laborer of tomorrow as pressures toward deskilling developed.

But just as there is the reproduction of some elements of craft production in capitalism as a whole, so too can this provide the basis for ongoing craft-like labor organization. However, most such modern craft unions tend to link their fate much more closely to the labor movement as a whole. In these terms the fate of craft production should not be seen as a battle fought and lost. Rather, change in work relationships under capitalism involves a continuing tension over the nature and purpose of production and a continual struggle over its meaning.

Bibliography:

  1. Bina and B. Finzel, “Skill Formation, Outsourcing and Craft Unionism in Air Transport,” Global Economy Journal (2005);
  2. Braverman, “Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century,” Monthly Review (1974);
  3. Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman (New York University Press, 1950);
  4. Briggs, ed., William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs (Penguin, 1962);
  5. Elbaum, “Why Apprenticeship Persisted in Britain but Not in the United States,” The Journal of Economic History (1989);
  6. Marglin, “What Do Bosses Do?” Review of Radical Political Economics (1974); R. Sennett, The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008);
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  9. Anne P. Underhill, Craft Production and Social Change in Northern China (Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002);
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