I have been leafing through a fine volume, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry by Edwin Tunis (d. 1973). Originally published in 1965, this book was reprinted by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1999. In it, Tunis surveys a plethora of early American crafts. Some of these trades are still familiar to us: the baker, the tailor, and the gunsmith. Others, such as the whitesmith, the limner, and the chandler, are all but forgotten now.
The opening section of the book, “New World, New Ways,” is perhaps the most instructive for the dilettante historian. Tunis describes the early, ultimately futile attempt by England to impose her system of guild licensing and monopolies on the North American colonies, and he explains the ad hoc system that grew up in its place. Colonial Americans used the apprenticeship system, for example, but the terms of each apprenticeship varied more widely than in England. There was some European-style specialization in the larger towns, but most craftsmen did a range of work uncommon in many European shops.
Wood was the most plentiful natural resource of Colonial America. So naturally, much of the book is dedicated to woodwork of various kinds, though Tunis also describes many different types of metalwork, as well as work in leather, horn, paper, and other materials. It is clear that Tunis has looked very carefully at many examples of craftwork; he knows in general how each was made and can say why it was made that way. He has spent a good deal of time with old records as well as other documents, such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and he is adept at providing amusing anecdotes about the early American economy.
Tunis does make a few mistakes along the way–mistakes that wider reading in European texts would have corrected. He says, for example, that the “smoothing plane” is ill-named and was used only for trimming. Moxon, however, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, indicates that the smoothing plane is used for removing tool marks from the fore plane and jointer plane, thus leaving a smooth surface. “Smoothing plane” is exactly the right name for the tool. There are a number of similar errors in the sections concerning woodwork, and I expect there are errors in other sections as well. Tunis has not attempted to practice these crafts himself, so it would not be wise to trust him on every detail. Nevertheless, the book is a delightful journey into the American past.
The best thing about the book is the hand-drawn illustrations, all by Tunis himself. Some of them show artifacts close-up, and at his best he is nearly as good as Aldren Watson at rendering critical details. (Watson’s book Country Furniture is an excellent companion to Tunis’s Colonial Craftsmen.) The best drawings, though, show the craftsmen themselves at work. A few drawings are funny, such as the tanner scraping a hide while warning a stray dog away from his work (at right). Most, though, show a craftsman or two with full attention on the work itself, whether it be rifling the barrel of a musket or spinning blown glass into a large disk.
Tunis may not know enough about every craft he writes about, but he has certainly watched craftsmen of some kind at work. Few other illustrators I know can capture the intent focus of a person engrossed in the job at hand, and his books are worth looking at just for that.
I was several chapters into this book before I realized that I had been enjoying Tunis’s illustrations since I was a boy. In the local public library of the town in which I grew up, there was a battered hardcover edition of another of his books, Weapons, which I must have checked out dozens of times. I had long forgotten the author’s name (if I had ever known it at all), but I eventually recognized the style of the illustrations. So I suppose I have a sentimental attachment to Tunis’s work.
Tunis wrote and illustrated a number of other books, including several more books on American colonial life, which I plan to acquire soon. Now, fifty years after Colonial Craftsmen was published, we know more about many of the crafts he wrote about. The Hand Tool Renaissance of the last twenty years has taught us much about how pre-industrial craftsmen did their work, and it has also helped to bring old, obscure books on handicrafts back into print.
I think that Edwin Tunis would be very pleased to see today’s revival of traditional handicrafts.