Bookworm: America’s crafty history

The extensive history behind ‘Land’

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Craft: An American History”

  • By Glenn Adamson
  • c. 2021, Bloomsbury Publishing
  • $30, $39.99 Canada; 387 pages

You are pretty handy. That thing you made – you did it yourself, with a minimum of help and it looks fabulous. It’s almost a professional piece and you have reason to be proud. Look what you made, just look at it, then read “Craft: An American History” by Glenn Adamson and see if your ancestors would approve.

“Craft: An American History” author Glenn Adamson.

Tens of thousands of years ago, humans began crafting which, by definition, means the act of a skilled individual creating something by hand. For them, though, crafting was less fun, more a means of survival.

It was the same when Europeans came to America: though the Pilgrims were said to be quite taken with baskets made by Native weavers, craftsmen from back home were in demand to make clothing, plow blades, horseshoes, and such that life then required. Today, we tend to romanticize those craftsmen, but the truth is that the work was largely repetitive and there was rarely any room for creativity.

Even so, the ability to utilize a valuable skill was, well, handy. It ensured work immediately and for the next generation, since tools and know-how were often passed down, parent-to-child. For slaves, having a craft might offer an edge on being kept, rather than sold away; freedmen, though sometimes fired because of white protestations of job loss, used their work to purchase freedom for family members. In those cases, knowledge and skills of a craft gave Black craftsmen and women opportunities that they mightn’t have had without one.

“Craft: An American History” by Glenn Adamson.

When items began to be mass-produced, the value of craftwork shifted: suddenly, clothing could be made without a wait, and factory-made kitchenware was less expensive. Elite craftsmen were held in higher esteem, even though much of their product was done by “outworkers” who did the actual work. Women, at the same time, were taught homemaking skills – some of which were, when you look at them now, crafts.

Today, says Adamson, “Relatively few of us actually perform crafts anymore,” although our definition of “crafts” seems to be shifting once again ...

Let’s start here: this is not a craft manual. It has no patterns, no instructions, and no ideas for you to alter creatively. Instead, “Craft: An American History” leans entirely on the last word in its subtitle, blending it with several cultures in time.

The other difference between this and a craft manual is that this book isn’t as relaxing as is, say, sewing or woodworking might be. Author Glenn Adamson leans deeply into the background and meaning of crafts-making, beginning with a time before the Pilgrims and moving forward to “craft breweries and tattoo parlors ... ” The focus is on the kinds of crafts one might practice as a livelihood, while today’s conventional “crafts” as we know them – crochet, knitting, metalwork, needlework, jewelry-making – are covered very little, if at all.

That may make a historian happier with this book than a cross-stitcher might be, but there’s something for both inside “Craft: An American History.” Just keep in mind its depth so find it, but keep a bookmark handy.

“Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World”

  • By Simon Winchester
  • c. 2021, Harper
  • $29.99, higher in Canada; 464 pages

These days, you are very well-grounded.

Yep, two feet firmly planted on terra-firma and it’s all yours. Corner to corner, front to back, you’re a landowner, caretaker of lawn and loam, holder of an estate of some small measure. It’s the American dream, and in “Land” by Simon Winchester, find out why we yearn for a few hundred yards of dirt.

"Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World" by Simon Winchester.

Up until relatively recently in history, humans blithely went where they were going with nary a thought about who might feel possessive of the sod on which they trod. The idea that someone might lay claim to the land was absurd; no, it was a wide-open world, and it belonged to everybody.

Back then, the Earth looked quite different than it did now, says Winchester. Islands came and went. Shores extended out farther. There was more flora and fauna, no concrete or condos, no problems until white European explorers arrived in North America and decided that the people who’d lived here for millennia really needed to go. For their model, the explorers looked back home: Great Britain and Europe had been held in ownership by someone for generations.

But before land could be held completely, everyone needed to know its boundaries and borders, whether local or national, and that meant knowing the size of the planet itself. Land had to be platted and mapped as precisely as possible and governments had to be ready to defend its perimeters; even island residents needed to know where their maritime edges lay. Judging by peculiarities in boundary-making, some of that official measurement, Winchester guesses, was done with the help of an adult beverage.

Land can erode. It can be created by moving other land or even trash. It can be improved and destroyed, seized, sold, shared, stockpiled, struggled on, surrounded by fence, and stolen from people who’ve lived on it for centuries.

And if we leave it be, says Winchester, it might just save itself.

Conventional wisdom says that one should invest in land because it’s the only thing that lasts, the only thing that stays put, but author Simon Winchester shows how that’s not entirely true now, if it ever was. The one thing that can be stated, and proven inside “Land,” is that things are ... well, complicated.

We humans have made it so throughout history, sometimes necessarily and sometimes, as Winchester suggests, not. That’s just one of the surprises inside this book; another is the extensive history behind the acquisition of large tracts of land, the decision-making that went into territories and town limits, and the defending of both. Readers will also delight in, and be astounded by, the Swedish idea of a hike unencumbered by property lines but governed by hemfridzon, and the Finnish attitude toward “No Trespassing” signs.

In the end, as Winchester points out, most of us wind up in a plot of land six feet by three feet, six feet under. Long before you get to that, though, you should read this book because “Land” is rock-solid.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.